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.)
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.Peace.