Saturday, February 05, 2011

This is what it looks like

A friend recently passed on to me this excerpt from N.T. Wright's The Challenge of Jesus, which began as a series of talks in 1999 that were then compiled into the book. It is excellent. Those of us wondering where to look for the visible church should probably consider this before looking in all the wrong places:
But if we are to be kingdom-announcers, modeling the new way of being human, we are also to be cross bearers. This is a strange and dark theme which is also our birthright as followers of Jesus. Shaping our world is never, for a Christian, a matter of going out arrogantly thinking we can just get on with the job, can reorganize the world according to some model that we have in mind. It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world, so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world at exactly that point. Because Jesus bore the cross uniquely for us, we do not have to purchase forgiveness again; it's been done. But because, as he himself said, following him involves taking up the cross, we should expect, as the New Testament tells us repeatedly, that to build on his foundation will be to find the cross etched into the pattern of our life and work over and over again.
We would rather this were not so, and we twist and turn to avoid it. We find ourselves in Gethsemane, saying, 'Lord, can this really be the way? If I have been obedient so far, why is all this happening to me? Surely you don't want me to be feeling like this?' Sometimes, indeed, the answer may be, 'No'. It is possible that we have indeed taken a wrong road, and must now turn and go by a different way. But often the answer is simply that we must stay in Gethsemane. The way of Christian witness is neither the way of quietist with­drawal, nor the way of Herodian compromise, nor the way of angry militant zeal. It is the way of being in Christ, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, so that the healing love of God may be brought to bear at that point (my emphasis).
This perspective is deeply rooted in New Testament theology, not least in Romans 8. There, Paul speaks of the whole creation groaning together in travail. Where should the Church be at such a time? Sitting smugly on the sidelines, knowing it's got the answers? No, says Paul: we ourselves groan too, because we too long for renewal, for final liberation. And where is God in all this? Sitting up in heaven wishing we could get our act together? No, says Paul (8.26-7): God is groaning too, present within the Church at the place where the world is in pain. God the Spirit groans within us, calling in prayer to God the Father. The Christian vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain; and as we embrace that vocation we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms outstretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and to the love of God.
Paul, we should note carefully, is quite clear about one thing: as we embrace this vocation, the prayer is likely to be inarticulate. It doesn't have to be a thought-out analysis of the problem and the solution. It is likely to be simply a groan, a groan in which the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ, groans within us, so that the achievement of the cross might be implemented afresh at that place of pain, so that the music of the cross might be softly sung at that place of pain, so that the foundation of the cross might support a new home at that place of exile.
So if you work in government, or foreign policy, or finance, or economics, or business, you will be aware right now that the world is in pain and fear. What's happening in south-east Asia? What should we be doing in the Balkans? Is the world's financial system going to break down altogether? Are we heading for another major recession? And what can we do about the problem of major international debt? As I have argued elsewhere, I believe we are called to support the Jubilee project, which seeks to write off the huge unpayable debts of the world's poorest countries. That, I believe, would be the single best way of celebrating the Millennium, and if you haven't caught up with the Jubilee movement I urge you to do so. But this project can never be a way of Christians imposing a solution on the world from a great height. It will be a matter of Christians who are involved with finance and economics, with banking and business, with foreign policy and government, wrestling with the issues, often in a Gethsemane-like anguish in which the pain of the world and the healing love of God are brought together in inarticulate prayer.
How much easier metaphorically to escape to Qumran and say you're just a private Christian not wanting to get involved with inter­national finance; or to compromise with the present system and hope things will work out somehow; or to embrace a shrill and shallow agenda which hasn't taken seriously the depth of the problem. Some readers of this book will be called to live in that Gethsemane, so that the healing love of God may reshape our world at a crucial and critical time.
Or maybe you're a student in a faculty, or a sub-discipline, which right now is facing a major split, which causes people to stop speaking to each other and to refuse to transfer each other's candi­dates to PhD status, or to fail them when they submit their dissert­ations. I have known economics faculties, and history faculties, and others too, where half the professors are Marxists and half aren't, or where half are committed postmodernists and half aren't. Where should the Christian be in such a case? You may well believe that the gospel commits you to one side in the debate, though these things are rarely that easy. But my suggestion is that you see it as a call to be in prayer where your discipline is in pain.
Read the scriptures on your knees with your discipline and its problems on your heart. Come to the Eucharist and see in the breaking of the bread the broken body of Christ given for the healing of the world. Learn new ways of praying with and from the pain, the brokenness, of that crucial part of the world where God has placed you. And out of that prayer discover the ways of being peacemakers, of taking the risk of hearing both sides, of running the risk of being shot at from both sides. Are you or are you not a follower of the crucified Messiah? And of course this applies in many other areas as well, in families and marriages, in public policy and private dilemmas.
N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 145-148.

At the critical prodding of one of my friends, I want to be clear that I don't think the references to "inarticulate groaning" and prayer here mean that Christianity will utlimately always be formless and void, internalized and cloistered in reformations that never strike out at revolution. I actually think the opposite (and I think NT Wright is alluding to it as well in closing) - that this groaning and prayer, when lifted to God and joined with attentiveness of heart, mind and strength, result in God's commands and articulations coming back on times and places and pointing for particular action and specific involvement in the affairs of interpersonal relationship, community, and world.

The main point I think I'm on about in these last two posts, however, is that this particular manifestation of Christian action is less likely to be measurably successful on the terms of capitalism and consumerism. Church action is not answerable to the immediate realms of efficiency or visible growth, even if it does desire those things the same way it desires God's Kingdom come. Rather, there is a cruciformity to the ministry of reconciliation that finds conviction in the commands of God for our time and goes on with them come what may. We desire palpable communion, undoubtedly, but we are not looking at the stats every minute to see how well that communion seems to be either catching on or offending the masses (whatever our fancy happens to be).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Jon! Thanks for finding me on FB. I heard from Trevor B that you were over in the UK working on a theology degree. I'm sure that as an academic and father you're crazy busy (as am I) but we should try catch up sometime.

Dennis V