Monthly Archives: January 2012

Robert Jenson writes in Visible Words,

“All aspects of Jesus’ presence to us are the same as of any other person; but they work together very differently. When I hear the gospel, I am addressed with the implicit or explicit claim that it is Jesus with whom I have to do. When I say I do not see him, that our communion lacks an object on one side, I am referred to the objectivity of the speaking and hearing community. If I then suppose that “Jesus” is here just a label for the community he founded, I am corrected and referred to the historical personage. And when I then ask how these two—the objectivity of the community and the historically objective Jesus—can be the same, the answer is that the gospel address, in which all these realities appear, is an eschatological promise and therefore beyond the divisions and incompletions of time,” (48).

In other words, Jesus really is present with the community gathered round him (and inseparably so). He is present with us as we are present with one another and yet as one who is distinct from our “one another”. And because the gospel is an eschatological (a present reality with a future fulfillment) proclamation and promise these two realities (Jesus’ presence in the objective community and his own historically objective body) must be held in tension.

This is helpful for me at least because I am often left feeling as if Jesus doesn’t really bother with us. The historical disconnect between Jesus’ life 2000 years ago and our life today is a real disconnect and yet there is something truer still, so that we can proclaim Christ’s presence with us. Christ is truly present with us as we bother with one another and allow others to bother with us. Christ is truly present with us as we eat the bread and drink the wine and as we are washed in the waters of baptism.

It is well known that the ancient Greek society was rigidly structured. Individuals within that society each had roles that they were born into (i.e. master, slave, male, female , rich, poor etc). Aristotle has much to say regarding this. For Aristotle, in order for a society to be good and just each member of the society had to accept his/her role and play it and this began in the family. So then, for Aristotle, there could be no ordered society if there were no ordered family.

This is similar talk that you might here nowadays from particular (conservative?) Christian circles. Exceedingly, the emphasis is placed on the family unit (for example). What is needed is a focus on the family. A properly ordered family will lead to a properly ordered society (for example). The purpose of life, “is lived out first within our own families then extended, in love, to an increasingly broken world that desperately needs Him.”

To be sure I have a family. I love my family. I think family is important. My goal here is not to detract from the family. No, I think that Jesus and other New Testament figures do a better job of that than I. Consider some of the following sayings of Jesus:

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it,” (Mt. 10:34-39).

“While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. Someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.” But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother,” (Mt. 12:46-50).

Who does Jesus consider his “mother and brothers”? “Whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” In contrast to this, John tells us that, “not even His brothers were believing in Him,” (7:5). Family within the kingdom is not necessarily the same as family in light of the world.

See also Paul’s letter to Philemon. Speculation about the relation between Philemon and Onesimus aside, Paul writes to Philemon, “for perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother,” (v.15-16).

Remember Aristotle and the structured Greek society? Each member had a role that they simply had to play. Well, Paul speaking to this very world, proclaims that, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ,” (Gal. 3:28). In the kingdoms of Greece and Rome there may very well have been structured roles to play. However, in this new kingdom, in God’s kingdom, all of the roles that would generally serve to separate folks are done away with, “for you are all one in Christ.”

Further, each role in society came with certain expectations. In Romans 13 Paul seemingly plays into this: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities,” (13:1). Wayne Meeks argues in The Moral World of the First Christians that the ruling class in these days literally made up 1% of the population (we are the 99%, anyone?!). Paul continues on and it seems that he is arguing for this sort of structure in society: “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour,” (13:7, emphasis mine). But then he goes on: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another,” (13:8, emphasis mine).

So wait, what do we owe people? Tax? Custom? Fear? Honour? Nothing? Love? For Paul (in his own subversive way), as for Jesus, it would seem that this new society is founded on something other than societal and familial roles. “For you are all one in Christ.” This is a society in which the nature of Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus is forever altered—no longer slave, but dear brother. This is a society in which we are to, “owe nothing to anyone except to love one another.” This is a society based on what we might call friendship. And it is thus, as Wayne Meeks argues, that the earliest Christians were ridiculed as not only pagans but as those who were out to destroy the family.

For Christmas my father gave me Hannah’s Child, the memoir of Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian who has been influential in my own thinking about and (I hope) practice of the Christian faith. A while back Dan posted an interesting liturgy he wrote during Christmas on the theme of godforsakenness. While I disagree with Dan that we are indeed godforsaken I understand that, subjectively, it is not difficult to see how one could feel godforsaken. Indeed, I rarely (if ever) “feel” that God is present. As Hauerwas would say, God is just not “there” for me. Hauerwas opens the memoir with the following confession which I resonate deeply with myself.

I believe what I write, or rather, by writing I learn to believe. But then I do not put much stock in “believing in God.” The grammar of “belief” invites a far too rationalistic account of what it means to be a Christian. “Belief” implies propositions about which you get to make up your mind before you know the work they are meant to do. Does that mean I do not believe in God? Of course not, but I am far more interested in what a declaration of belief entails for how I live my life.

It may be that I am not that interested in “belief” because God is just not “there” for me. God is “there” for some. God is there for Paula, my wife; for Timothy Kimbrough, the rector of Holy Family Episcopal Church; for Sam Wells, my friend. But God is not there for me in the same way. Prayer never comes easy for me. I am not complaining. I assume this to be God’s gift to help me think hard about what it means to worship God in a world where God is no longer simply “there.”

Charles Taylor has characterized “our age” as one of “exclusive humanism.” God is a “hypothesis” most people no longer need – and “most people” includes those who say they believe in God. Indeed, when most people think it “important” that they believe in God, you have an indication that the God they believe in cannot be the God who raised Jesus from the dead or Israel from Egypt.

I do think that the first task of the church is to make the world the world. That means, of course, that I need all the help I can get to recognize that I am “world.” But I sometimes worry that my stress on the “Christian difference” may be my attempt to overcompensate for my lack of “faith.” That still does not seem to get the matter right. It is not that I lack faith, but that I always have the sense that I am such a beginner when it comes to knowing how to be a Christian.

“How” is the heart of the matter for me. When I first read Kierkegaard, I was quite taken with his suggestion that the “what” of Christianity is not the problem. It is the “how.” I have spent many years trying to say that we cannot understand the “what” of Christianity without knowing “how” to be Christian. Yet then I worry about the how of my own life.