Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Living the Resurrection

I apologize in advance (even though Emily Post said NEVER to begin with an apology.) This post is going to be long. I don’t know how to separate it into smaller doses. This is big stuff for me, and one of the points of this blog is to get discussion of this perspective into play. (That is not to suggest that I have worked out a systematic presentation. I deny that absolutely. It is an impressionistic approach to dealing with the issue of how we live the life of faith.)

I have said numerous times to my fellow Christians at Mount Olive Church in Minneapolis (who allow me to lead adult ed conversations on occasion) that the chief "problem" facing the Church is something no church bureaucrat can identify: It’s not a lack of “growth” and it’s not battles over bishops or sexuality or war. What plagues the Church (and results in those penultimate problems) is an inability of Christians to live the Resurrection. We do not see (mostly because most pastors don’t preach it and most teachers don’t teach and most evangelists don’t announce it) that the point of the Gospel is that salvation is not just a future reality, but a present one as well. The theological, ethical, liturgical aspects of this problem seem so clear.

Sunday, on the Feast of Dormition of the Theotokos (or in Lutheranism: Mary, Mother of our Lord), in his "farewell" sermon, our vicar ("intern pastor" to many, but beloved brother and friend to me) preached on the Magnificat. (Someday, I’ll rage about the difference between preaching “on” something and preaching something. But that’s not today.) He anticipated Advent a little (as was perfectly appropriate given the text) by urging us in the congregation to "read the future into the present."

His point was to take seriously "eschatology" – i.e., to see that what is promised in the Gospel has already come true in the world and in our lives. On that view, we can already begin – and have already begun – to live the reign of God, as envisioned by Mary in her song – where and when the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent empty away; where the proud are scattered in the imagination of their hearts. Daniel noted that the verbs used by the Virgin are in the past tense. (He didn’t say what the tenses of the verbs are in the Greek – surprisingly, since he both values and flaunts his Greek. I took a minor in Greek as an undergraduate, so I am neither offended nor impressed. But, especially if the Greek shows present perfect, there would have been great possibility to underscore his theme.) In English, the verbs are in the present perfect, so his sermon made perfect sense, because present perfect suggests the on-going influence and importance of an action in the past. (It’s not over-and-done; it’s a present reality because it happened in the past – like with “Christ has been raised.”)

God did not call a halt to human history with the death and resurrection of Jesus, but rather he allowed and allows it to continue (with all the grace and wrath that that implies). He did, however, tip his hand to reveal what the outcome of that history will be. With the Resurrection, God essentially guaranteed that what Jesus said would be vindicated at the end of time, and then to add emphasis to guarantee, he brought that end of time back into time by raising Jesus from the dead within time.

(Discursus 1: As I am coming to sense more keenly, the fact that history did not end with Jesus is a real problem for intellect and faith [not to mention preaching]: If Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, then history ought to have come to an end and/or the kingdom of God ought to have been established unquestionably and finally. But the Holocaust, if nothing else, gives credence to the Jewish reason for rejecting Jesus as Messiah: He didn't do what God said He'd do. Thus, either God did not keep his promise or Jesus was not Messiah. Since God doesn't lie, Jesus must not have been Messiah. The Christian answer, of course, relies on eschatology, but it does not yet convince the Jews -- something I think we may bald-facedly say, based on God's promises, will happen eventually, so we don't have to worry about convincing them now.)

The effect of the Resurrection is to make the future reality – new life, the reign of God, the defeat of sin, final reconciliation – a present reality. We are not only waiting to be saved (whatever that means – the topic of a million more blogs), but we are already saved and living in salvation-realty (at least if we have eyes to see and ears to hear).

Christians (both naïve and sophisticated) get pretty well the future stuff, but when it comes to this life, it gets cloudy. Good Lutherans want to avoid any suggestion that they are being “works righteous.” So any call to moral living, any insistence that the Christian lives and should live differently from the average American is greeted with theological dismay and nationalist resentment. When I once suggested that the Ten Commandments were still God’s instruction for how his people – including Christians – ought to structure their personal, congregational, and political lives, I was accused by a Lutheran pastor of sounding “Methodist.” (My response was a glib, “Well, if that’s Methodism, then maybe the Methodists have something to teach Lutherans.”)

If the Gospel is true (as Mary was the first to sing), then the world has changed – and because of the mighty acts of God, we have changed. We must – because we can – give up our idolatries and immoralities. We are empowered (here’s the Holy Spirit piece) to live the new life we have been given in anticipation of the final consummation of God’s plan – anticipation both in the sense that we live eagerly expecting it to happen and in the sense that we live it almost prematurely before it happens. The Gospel – in a kind of Trinitarian way – speaks in three tenses at once: God has acted, He is acting, and He will act – and that is all going on today in your hearing, in your presence, in your life.

The effect of this, of course, is to make of Christian faith an existential reality – nothing that remotely hints at pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-by-and-by (except insofar as that points to the ultimate vindication of the Resurrection life lived today). Various theologians make a good case – e.g., Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Reinhard Huetter, Miroslav Wolf, Telford Work, John Chryssavgis – even Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, if you read him closely. In addition, communities, institutes, networks, and think-tanks are springing up to lend volume to the call – e.g., the Center for Social Holiness (of the Church of Nazarene), The Ekklesia Project, The Valparaiso [University] Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith (how’s that for a mouthful?), and in its own way The Bruderhof.

I have seen more of this approach in Orthodox thinking than I have in Western Christianity. In contrast to the East, we in the West seem so bound up with a consciousness of sin (which either roots or results in an unfortunately self-centered ideology – which has been enthusiastically underwritten by the Enlightenment), that we seem never to actually believe that sin has been forgiven. (Note the present perfect, again.) The Orthodox are, by my lights anyway, more in tune with the reality proclaimed by the Gospel as a present realty and focus more on the cosmic implications of the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension. They (or you, if any Orthodox ever see this post) see more clearly that heaven has broken into ordinary time and makes possible living out our salvation with “fear and trembling.” (See, for example, Schmemann’s book For the Life of the World and/or John Chryssavgis’ book Beyond the Shattered Image. I’ll later post a review I wrote of the book. But in fairness, I must confess that I consider Fr. John a friend, and while I tried to be objective in my treatment of the book, because I know him, I may be at either an advantage or a disadvantage in evaluating the book. I still think it’s great.)

Well, to begin to conclude. I think that the life of faith is not a life of “believing” as that word is often interpreted. Faith is not a “head trip” nor is it a “heart trip” unless you use those (dated and not very helpful) terms to indicate that faith claims the totality of one’s life in the here-and-now. Worship is not seeking haven from a heartless world. It is the practice of the future (I love to speak of the life of faith as “practicing the life of the future”), when we shall join that same choir that includes both Isaiah and the John of the Apocalypse. The future has invaded the present. We must begin to integrate that into our lives (lifestyles, decisions, whatever). Until we do, the Church will rightly see its numbers decline (which in and of itself may be a very good thing, anyway) and find itself increasingly torn asunder by frivolous disputes, private/personal tiffs, individualistic assertions – just as we see today.

The urgent need is for pastors who are mature enough in the faith to see this, to have caught the Good News. This is more than comforting people, although can anything be comforting than the promise and guarantee that salvation is already won? This is more than screeching moralism, although there is certainly a moral content to the endeavor. This is not group therapy or political organizing or voter registration or soup kitchens, although all of that may it in. It is fundamentally a matter of reading the Bible and listening with attentiveness (and probably not reading it alone, since the Bible was never meant, I think, as a personal-reflection aid; it was meant to be read in the assembly, among those whose preconceptions were at least addressable by the stories). And it is a matter of reading the entire Old Testament. For it is in the Old Testament that the referents in the Gospel are to be found. “Messiah” is not a cultural term; “freedom,” at least within the Biblical framework, does not mean license to write your own ticket; “salvation” is very different from images of harping souls sitting on clouds. How do we know? By reading the New Testament in terms of the “Old.”

(A theologian-friend of mine criticizes this line of thought as “realized eschatology” because he thinks it reads too much into the New Testament – and specifically into the Virgin’s song. But I think he sees things in too black-and-white a perspective – i.e., he tends to suggest that either the eschaton has happened or it is coming; no mixed bag. Yet he must come to terms with Jesus’ word in the Temple: “Today this word is fulfilled in your hearing.” The word was Isaiah, and unless we completely “spiritualize” the text, we must read the prophecy in Old Testament terms – and that means concrete fulfillment of very economic-political-social-personal realities.)

Brother Vicar Daniel was correct: The kingdom has already been established in our midst and all around us. We need only clear our vision and Q-Tip out our ears to be assured of it. He was also correct that a good place to start would be with the Magnificat and the Ave Maria.



Anonymous said...

Br. Dwight,
Thanks for this post (and, again, for your blogging efforts. Wanted you to know you _are_ being read!). I appreciate and am intrigued by your argument here. Your call for Christians to live the resurrection echoes (for me) Willimon and Hauerwas’ call that we live as “Resident Aliens” (a book I read upon your recommendation and which has greatly influenced me).
In general, I agree wholeheartedly and am working to bring the vision you are promoting into clearer focus for myself. To help me see more clearly, I often need concrete examples. Can you point to where you see the resurrection being lived out or where you see pastors who have caught this Good News (vs. those who don’t preach or teach it)? You wrote, “The theological, ethical, liturgical aspects of this problem seem so clear.” For example?


Dwight P. said...

Rare Br. RAR,

I could sluff off an easy answer and say that there are lots of examples in the follow-up volume to Resident Aliens, WHERE RESIDENT ALIENS LIVE (by Willimon and Hauerwas). But I think you raise a very good point: We need concrete examples -- if nothing else, to prove that the vision that you and I share is true.

I know of one congregation that had formed itself closely enough to propose to an unmarried quite young woman that if she did not abort her unborn, out-of-wedlock, and not particulary wanted child, they would see that she had all the support and resources she needed at least to bring the baby to birth and then give him/her up for adoption. If she decided to raise the child, they would help fill any gaps in her finances to enable her to raise the child to a relatively decent standard of living.

I'll reflect more on the illustrations and try to formulate a post that deals with less "dramatic" examples.

Do you have examples of what YOU envision?

Come back on. And if you want to post some thoughts at length, I'll bring you in as a guest poster. (Sister Kate made that offer to me -- and the result was that I shamed into doing my own! I'd like to see you do that.)

Peace, Br.

Anonymous said...

Br. Versus,
Well, I'm still trying to get clear on what I envision. I catch glimpses of it and say, "Yes! There it is!" but when I try to grab the vision and examine it, it seems to go out of focus. Stories help me see more clearly (although like with Jesus' parables, they can also fuzzy things up too), at least the ones that touch and move me. Like this one for example:


Anonymous said...

Br. RAR,
Yes, Brother RLPreacher has a gift for telling a moving story and driving at a simple point. (Although sometimes he can be brilliantly vague, too.) The story you link to is a good one.

I'm still awaiting the arrival of my copy of his book. I haven't forgotten I'll lend you my copy when I've done with it.

Sr. Dash

Anonymous said...

You plant in very long rows.

How can we live the Resurrection?

We often hear the phrase "speaking truth to power." Jesus was a master at it. Only once, if you want to believe the gospel telling of it, did he ever speak in anger. The casting out of the money changers spoke truth to power but I have trouble believing that He would break his stride to get mad.

No, he was always calm, contemplative, and instructing. He answered the questions that weren't asked, but should have been. I see the "intersection" of religion and politics in our country much more as a union than an intersection, if you'll forgive ninth grade set theory for a second.

When we render unto Caesar, and yield to civil governments, we do so for protection from others and from mis-directed/evil governors. Having started down the slippery slope of letting government feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc., we are in danger of forgetting that Jesus' instruction was for us to ensure that those things occurred, NOT to hand them over to an unsupervised civil power to carry out for us. The Nouwen Society has of late been quoting Henri on finding God in poverty, in loneliness, and in isolation. The quote from today is, " ... We prefer not to see people who are destitute, we do not like to look at people who are deformed or disabled, we avoid talking about people's pains and sorrows, we stay away from brokenness, helplessness, and neediness...."

I feel the need to go to confession every time I walk through DC and bypass beggars and homeless elderly. Who the hell am I to think that Jesus isn't looking out through those eyes at me? When He and I get together in person, is he going to put me in with the goats?

The people of the Resurrection might consider taking back the resources and the poorly-executed instruction we gave our governments to find Jesus in the poor. Maybe later we could confine the national defense establishment to defending the nation instead of creating havoc in foreign lands with something under their ground that we want.

Here's our resurrection: dirty bag ladies. Let's clean them up tomorrow and talk about this some more the next day, OK?

In Him,


seaburygospel at

Dwight P. said...

I have been long ruminating on Brother Jim's response. There is more there than I can keep in one train of thought. But here are a couple of replies.

First, You are undoubtedly correct in suggesting that we are not relieved of responsibility for being there -- physically and emotionally to those in need and in dire straits. We are not excused by giving taxes willingly so that the government can do it for us. (You description of a walk through DC points out that the government doesn't do a very good job. The very Christian men and women who vote up or down on social-net supports are blind to the presence of "Crazy Joe" or the crack addict sitting and rambling half a block from the Capitol.) The Good Samaritan's predecessors on the road were likely people who trusted others to take care of it. (Let Mother Teresa do it; she doesn't fear getting TB.) We ought to be like them, as the parable makes crystal clear.

But the answer is not to relieve pressure on the government to do it, too. While the government (and even Church social services) can't and won't do it all -- and so we have our duties to those at hand -- in this society it is precisely the function and purpose of the government to use tax monies to promote the general welfare.

I have recently read extremely articulate (and supposedly Bible-based) claims that Christians should demand that government withdraw government benefits for poor, sick, etc. people because their situation is a sign of God's disfavor. It was a radical, pseudo-Calvinist point of view, and it was one that received a lot of approbation from Christian respondents. Similarly, our well-being is a sign of God's favor, that we are doing things right -- and we should be fearful of screwing up a good thing.

We can't adopt an eithe-or approach. That's why the Church lobbies the Congress and legislatures. That's also why the Church and churches need to institute voter-education programs -- not partisan promotion, which ought to cause the IRS to yank a congregation's tax-exempt status within a day, but serious ethical reflection on the impact of the Gospel's witness and reality on the policies being promoted by varioius candidates. (Let's get the truth from the candidates, too, so that we can gauge their positions. That's a pipe dream, however.)

And perhaps foremost, as my recent reading of the Apocalypse makes clear to me, we must not abandon hope -- even though that is the single greatest temptation that I face in my daily life. The word of the Lord is sure -- and it is a gracious and effective word. We must "fight the good fight" and win or lose we will not be defeated.

Rail, rail against the dying of the light,
but keep in heart that the light will not die --
it has been raised never to die again.

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