July 29, 2014

The Triduan Shape of History

Entombment of Christ, Raphael (detail)

Entombment of Christ, Raphael (detail)

Today, we follow up yesterday’s post on The Most Vexing Question. To me, the fundamental quandaries raised in the piece were:

Who would have thought that the life of Jesus’ church in “the last days” would span a history as long as Israel’s before Christ? And that our history would be as checkered under the risen and reigning Christ? Is there any indication of this in the New Testament?

Perhaps one way of coming to grips with this conundrum is to reimagine the shape of history and the mission of the church and to distinguish “hope” from “optimism.”

That is what Alan E. Lewis has done in his monumental study, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. In brief, Lewis suggests that our perspective on history and the future should be shaped by the church’s experience of the Great Three Days: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. This is our core narrative and it lays down the pattern by which we live and view life. It is a cruciform perspective in which resurrection follows death and despair and recognizes the place of all three as essential movements in the way God (and therefore, history) works.

However, the church has not always recognized this. Lewis writes, “Much has happened since the first Easter Saturday to dull the keenness of the questions facing Christian faith and life concerning history and its future” (p. 262).

He notes that the early Christians, living as they did in the midst of trials, persecution, and social exile, had a vision of the end and their own resurrection that would be attained only through sharing in Christ’s sufferings (see, for example Philippians 3:10-11). However, Lewis continues, once the Empire was Christianized and the church became more comfortable and optimistic about its own future, apocalypticism with its dark shadows was largely jettisoned, replaced by sunnier, more linear theologies of progressive victory until the glorious end. Lament was transformed into complacency; the cross into a symbol of triumphalism.

Nevertheless, not even the best-informed, most responsible reading of Revelation, or the most Christocentric and trinitarian discussion of the “end days” can evade the haunting implications of the church’s identifying three-day narrative, centered upon Easter Saturday. For that insists — and nothing in our contemporary experience contradicts its awful truthfulness — that the God of Jesus Christ does not intervene to prevent catastrophe and rupture. As grace abounds only beyond sin’s great magnitude and increase, so resurrection and consummation do not cancel or impede but strictly follow after termination and annihilation, for God and humanity alike. The very promise of the eschaton confirms rather than refutes God’s freedom to be death’s victim, the defenseless quarry of predatory evil; and the only hope and power for a divine redeeming of humanity and history rest in a Lamb who has pathetically been slaughtered: the embodiment of hopelessness and helplessness. (p. 282)

In Revelation, remember, the Lamb on the throne is bloody.

In other words, Lewis says, we must conceive God’s creative and re-creative power “from the standpoint of the grave, as dynamic surrender to suffering and restriction” (p. 297). If God exposed himself to destruction by abandoning his beloved Son to death, the One in whom all creation holds together, in order to save that creation, it gives us a much different view of how the people who follow the Son shall attain to perfection. We take up our cross, and follow him.

To see God self-exposed thus to destruction between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, for the sake of history’s deliverance from destruction, is to recognize that the creative and redemptive omnipotence of God, far from invulnerable and impervious to opposition is in fact an exquisitely perilous power which does not protect itself against the catastrophe and boundless sorrow which would be creation’s devastation and time’s annihilation. (p. 298)

In other words, God only exercises his rule in a context where evil triumphs (if only for a season).

Here is an extended quote, summarizing Alan Lewis’s perceptive thoughts.

41DWSpywoPL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Not the least sobering implication of the triduan story we have now both heard and thought is that the Christian gospel requires of those who live by it unflinching discrimination between hope and optimism. For if our narrative encouragingly promises that at work within us and around us are energies greater than the powers of death and evil which menace and destroy life and empty it of meaning, purpose, and justice, still the story gravely identifies those energies with the wispy, intangible defenselessness of love. And love’s power is actually powerless to impede huge triumphs of egregious evil and unrighteousness in the world. Only through vulnerable victimization at the hands of sin and death, and not by blocking, crushing, or annihilating those agents of destruction, does the triune God of righteous love flourish yet more abundantly than the luxurious barrenness of hate and wickedness.

To hope, therefore, in love as tomorrow’s guarantor, as even more creative and enduring than the great destructiveness of lovelessness, is itself to banish shallow optimism for the future of the world. Hope itself embraces the proposition that evil may increase, death have its day of triumph, and history be terminated. Certainly any sunny supposition that the world cannot be lost, nor death be finally victorious, that evil at worst is inept and its success provisional and passing, is cancelled by a darker hope, grounded in Easter Saturday, which confesses that the only victory in life is won by going beyond, not by thwarting or reducing, the expansive magnitude of death and the surd reality of its ascendancy. Faith’s assurance of the final consummation of the cosmos does not preclude but makes space of fearsome amplitude for the future loss of history, just as the Son of God’s third-day resurrection did not forestall ahead of time, nor cancel retroactively, the end of himself and of the world on the second day.

Between Cross and Resurrection, p. 261f

In other words, God did not and does not win by winning. Neither will the church. We attain to Easter only through Good Friday and Holy Saturday. There will be no resurrection, no consummation, without intervening death and despair. “. . . if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).

The cry “How long?” will continue to the very last day.

The Most Vexing Question

Sea of Faces, Evelyn Williams (info below)

Sea of Faces, Evelyn Williams (info below)

We do not see our signs;
There is no longer any prophet,
Nor is there any among us who knows how long.
How long, O God . . .

• Psalm 74:9-10

• • •

What is (or should be) the most troublesome matter in theology for Christian people?

It is the fact that we are still here as we’ve always been, and that the world has not been transformed under the rule of Christ.

We read words in the New Testament like this:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

• Romans 8:18-25

Yes, the text speaks of “waiting with patience” for the hope promised to Jesus’ followers. However, remember, those words were written to believers nearly 2,000 years ago! At that time, the apostle says, creation was waiting “with eager longing” for its final redemption. Haven’t creation’s “labor pains” continued past the point that anyone would expect? Didn’t Paul go on to say, “the night is far gone, the day is near”? (13:12).

“Quite clearly, whatever Paul expected, he expected it to happen soon, and no doubt within his own lifetime” (Stephen S. Smalley).

Doesn’t the New Testament lead us to believe that Jesus ushered in “the last days,” the days when God’s kingdom would come, and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven?

The book of Hebrews says:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. (1:1-2)

It also gives perspective on the relationship of Jesus’ followers to the saints that came before:

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect. (11:39-40)

The author’s point is that, before Jesus came, people were waiting, looking, longing for the fulfillment of God’s promises. They were people of faith and hope, trusting in God’s word that one day he would act, that the “city” he was “preparing” would become their home. Throughout their lives and throughout the long history of Israel, they wandered and struggled and hoped toward that future pledge.

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (11:13-16)

But now, the author of Hebrews proclaims, we have received it!

Of course, that didn’t imply an immediate consummation, for the author then goes on to talk about a race that his readers must run with perseverance (12:1-13). But a 2,000 year race is one whale of a marathon, and there appears to be no finish line in sight.

Who would have thought that the life of Jesus’ church in “the last days” would span a history as long as Israel’s before Christ? And that our history would be as checkered under the risen and reigning Christ? Is there any indication of this in the New Testament?

It was common in 20th century N.T. studies to talk about how the “delay of the parousia” became a problem in the early church and is reflected in the development of teaching in the N.T. itself. Some scholars tried to show how the authors transitioned to a “realized eschatology,” redefining what it means to say that “Jesus will return.” Others tried to more carefully define the tension between “already” and “not yet” in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Still others deny a “development” in the N.T. texts, but rather see different emphases based on the needs of the communities which were being addressed.

The focus of all these studies had to do with the nature of future hope in the early days of the Jesus movement and how that is reflected in the writings of that period. But I don’t think “the delay of the parousia” posed as much of a problem for the believers in N.T. times as it does for us at this stage in church history.

I’ve been reading more of Andrew Perriman’s “narrative-historical” views on his blog P.OST and in his book, The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.

Perriman interprets the vast majority of New Testament teachings about “the end” to refer to historical judgments that were in close proximity to the days of Jesus and the apostles and intimately related to the world in which they lived. In the Gospels, Jesus’ teachings about “the end” pointed to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and apostolic warnings about “the wrath to come” and “Jesus’ return” pointed to the triumph of Christ over the pagan Greco-Roman empire, which eventually came to pass through the establishment of Christendom. Perriman also holds that there is a “final” eschatology that looks beyond these to the new creation.

But that still leaves a large, unexplained (unforeseen?) gap in history. Various eschatological systems have tried to explain how the “end times” will work and what will happen when Jesus returns. But to my knowledge, this problem of an extended interval that lasts thousands of years has been and remains largely ignored, even though I think it raises profound and perplexing questions for our faith.

The cry, “How long?” is starting to wear thin.

• • •

Header Art: Sea of Faces by Evelyn Williams.

A Jesus-Shaped Response to Israel and Gaza

politics-3

I’m sure many of us as individuals and churches will be praying for the situation in Israel and Gaza this weekend.

It is one thing to express my opinions, “Christian” or otherwise, as I sit in my living room safely, thousands of miles away from a crisis situation in another part of the world. I don’t deny that people in my circumstances might have something worthwhile to say, but my ability to contribute to the conversation with the kind of insight that comes from being intimately involved in the situation will be limited.

On the other hand, the following statement from Bethlehem Bible College in Israel contains an clear sense of credibility. You may or may not agree with its precise wording, but it would be hard to argue that you or I have a better view of the circumstances upon which the statement comments.

First, a little information about Bethlehem Bible College. This is from their website:

Bethlehem Bible College is a Christian college located in Bethlehem, the very site where Jesus was born. Located within the territory of the West Bank, the local community is highly impacted by today’s political unrest and conflict.

It is from the very epicenter of Christianity, that the Christian community is slowly decreasing. Before 1948 the Christian community was roughly 8% of the community in the Holy Land.  Today, the Christian population is a less than 1.5% of the Palestinian community, as many Christians are emigrating from the difficult political situation to better opportunities for education, work, and their families abroad.

Bethlehem Bible College was founded in 1979 by local Arabs, to offer high-quality theological education and train Christian leaders for service in the local church and the local community.  It aims to strengthen and revive the Christian church and support the local Christians in the Holy land, in order to combat this growing Christian exodus.

And now here is their perspective on the current situation in Israel and Gaza, entitled, “A statement by Bethlehem Bible College regarding the current crisis in Gaza,” issued July 25, 2014.

gaza-articleLarge-v2Today God weeps over the situation in Palestine and Israel. Today God weeps over Gaza.  With God, our hearts are broken when we see the carnage in Gaza and in Israel.

We at Bethlehem Bible College consistently called for a just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. We always sought a nonviolent resolution to the conflict. “All forms of violence must be refuted unequivocally”, stated the Christ at the Checkpoint manifesto. We also believe that as long as the occupation of Palestinian territory and the siege of Gaza remain, the conflict will continue to escalate. To quote the manifesto again, “for Palestinian Christians, the occupation is the core issue of the conflict”.

As Christians committed to nonviolence, we do not and cannot endorse Hamas’ ideology. However, we believe that the people of Gaza have the right to live in freedom and dignity. This means that the siege over Gaza should be lifted and the borders should be open. The people of Gaza need a chance to live.

We oppose Hamas launching rockets at Israeli town and cities. At the same time, we are shocked by the unproportional and inhuman response by the Israeli military and the disregard of civilian life and specially innocent women and children.

We are grieved by the mounting hate, bigotry and racism in our communities today, and the consequent violence. We are specially grieved when Christians are contributing to the culture of hatred and division, rather than allowing Christ to use them as instruments of peace and reconciliation.

In the face of this, we affirm – using the words of our own Dr. Yohanna Katanacho:

We are against killing children and innocent people. We support love not hatred, justice not oppression, equality not bigotry, peaceful solutions not military solutions. Violence will only beget wars, it will bring more pain and destruction for all the nations of the region. Peacemaking rooted in justice is the best path forward. Therefore, we commit ourselves to spread a culture of love, peace, and justice in the face of violence, hatred, and oppression.

We call on all the friends of Bethlehem Bible College to pray for an immediate ceasefire, followed by serious efforts to address the root of the problem not the symptoms. We pray comfort for the bereaved families. We specially pray for the Christians of Gaza, who although are currently under bombardment, yet they are offering shelter and support for the displaced and wounded. We finally call for you to pray for all those – Palestinians, Israelis and internationals – who are committed to spreading a culture of love, peace, and justice in the face of violence, hatred, and oppression.

• • •

Note: Pray for the Shepherd Society – a ministry of Bethlehem Bible College – as we contemplate practical ways to minister and walk along the destitute and displaced in Gaza. We will soon share with you how you can help us respond to the huge needs.

A statement by Bethlehem Bible College’s board of directors, president, deans, faculty, staff and students – and the local committee of Christ at the Checkpoint.

The statement is co-authored by members of a local committee in partnership with BBC, called Christ at the Checkpoint. This is a biennial conference held in the Holy Land that brings together Christians from around the world “to pray, worship, learn and discuss together the responsibility and role of the church in helping resolve the conflict and bringing peace, justice and equality to the Holy Land through following the teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God.” The most recent conference was held in March.

gaza-israel_2406235bHere is their ten-point Manifesto:

  1. The Kingdom of God has come. Evangelicals must reclaim the prophetic role in bringing peace, justice and reconciliation in Palestine and Israel.
  2. Reconciliation recognizes God’s image in one another.
  3. Racial ethnicity alone does not guarantee the benefits of the Abrahamic Covenant.
  4. The Church in the land of the Holy One, has born witness to Christ since the days of Pentecost. It must be empowered to continue to be light and salt in the region, if there is to be hope in the midst of conflict.
  5. Any exclusive claim to land of the Bible in the name of God is not in line with the teaching of Scripture.
  6. All forms of violence must be refuted unequivocally.
  7. Palestinian Christians must not lose the capacity to self-criticism if they wish to remain prophetic.
  8. There are real injustices taking place in the Palestinian territories and the suffering of the Palestinian people can no longer be ignored. Any solution must respect the equity and rights of Israel and Palestinian communities.
  9. For Palestinian Christians, the occupation is the core issue of the conflict.
  10. Any challenge of the injustices taking place in the Holy Land must be done in Christian love. Criticism of Israel and the occupation cannot be confused with anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of the State of Israel.
  11. Respectful dialogue between Palestinian and Messianic believers must continue. Though we may disagree on secondary matters of theology, the Gospel of Jesus and his ethical teaching take precedence.
  12. Christians must understand the global context for the rise of extremist Islam. We challenge stereotyping of all faith forms that betray God’s commandment to love our neighbors and enemies.

This is obviously a complex and controversial situation. In my own personal political views, I stand with Israel in this battle and think Hamas has acted provocatively and shamefully, as the terrorist organization it is. Both the people of Gaza and Israel have suffered greatly as a result. However, I detest violence and take my stand ultimately as a follower of Jesus in refuting violent means as a long term solution. I find the statement and manifesto above to be clear in stating a Jesus-shaped way. If they could be combined with sustained, creative, and imaginative leadership and action in working for peace and justice, perhaps we could find hope.

As I write this, I read that Israel agreed to extend the truce another 24 hours, but Hamas is not agreeing. Kyrie eleison.

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