Monday, August 13, 2007

The Cross and the Kingdom

Salvation is a favourite topic of Evangelicals. The Gospel in a word. The point of the cross. We are pretty clear on what we are saved from - our personal sins that separate us from God. Thanks to the cross, we are able to have a relationship with God. Ideally, we are sanctified a bit along the way. Then we die and go to Heaven.

This is the way I learned the gospel. This is the way I have explained the Gospel to others. I don’t believe this any more.

Through the journey of the last ten years, it seems to me that this Gospel summary is hardly Gospel at all; rather it is a myopic picture of the smallest aspect of Christ’s work on the cross and God’s purposes for the cosmos. Salvation, personal and corporate, in the narratives of Israel and the teachings of Jesus is a far more complicated and all-encompassing idea than just providing atonement, propitiation, satisfaction, and any other polysyllabic theological word on behalf of my personal sins.

The brokenness of this world is hard to miss. We know that all creation groans, longing to be freed from the mess, repaired, recreated. It is into this larger context of brokenness that our personal sins fit. No one sins in a vacuum - in all our actions we are simultaneously responsible agents and victims of other people’s sins, structural sin, cosmic brokenness. Being victims does not absolve our personal responsibility but neither does freedom-of-choice negate the real sin and evil of the world around us. It is into this complicated and messed-up world that we hear the message of the prophets and Jesus himself - the in-breaking Kingdom of God.

From Jesus’ parables, we know that the Kingdom is a kingdom of grace, of turning the current order upside-down and setting things right that have gone very, very wrong. With the exception of one notable group, Jesus’ gaze toward others is one of grace and mercy. We see this in the woman who weeps over his feet in the house of Simon. We see it in his many healings of lepers. We see it in his casting out of demons (which interestingly also often lack a mention of the individuals sin). We see it in his calling of Levi and those he eats with that evening. We see it in Zacchaeus. We see it in the woman caught in adultery. Why does Jesus see these people with compassion? Not all of these individuals came to Jesus broken and repentant - some did like the prostitute, some became repentant like Zacchaeus, others were brought against their will and show no sign of anguish over their sin like the woman caught in adultery. And yet, in Jesus all found compassion, healing, and freedom.

When we look at each of these examples and consider the setting, the social circumstances, and the societal structures, we see that no one existed in isolation, committing their personal sins apart from the larger system of brokenness. Matthew and Zacchaeus both were making a living working for the empire, making money in the way that tax-collectors did. Yes, it is wrong to defraud people, but the entire system of empire and oppressive taxation is also wrong. The prostitute and the woman caught in adultery were both wrong in their sexual decisions but so were the men who employed, objectified, and abandoned them, as was the social system that offered no opportunity for women without family. Only the Pharisees and religious authorities seem to provoke Jesus’ anger - interestingly enough, they are the ones who are concerned with personal purity and piety and who are responsible for at least some of the societal systems that condemn, oppress, and alienate.

Let’s consider a modern example. A 14-year-old Christian girl has a distant and verbally abusive single mother and doesn’t know her father. In her search for love, she sleeps with her year-10 boyfriend and becomes pregnant. Afraid to tell anyone, she has an abortion. When that relationship comes to an end, she continues to have sexual relationships with other men, and eventually, due to disappointment and frustration, women. Is she sinning in having sex with all these people? Did she sin in having an abortion? What if she was raped by her uncle rather than sleeping with her boyfriend; does that change our attitude toward her? Does it change the nature of her sin? These are the real complexities among which all our actions take place and among which our sins are committed. It begs the question, is her personal sin really the biggest problem here or is it the dysfunctional family and society in which she lives that fosters alienation and abuse?

The cross is truly the way of forgiveness and freedom, but it is much bigger than my personal sin. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus makes it clear that his work is for the world, the cosmos. Jesus’ death is to fix for the brokenness of the whole mess and to provide the means of freedom, restoration and wholeness for the whole world. We often forget that forgiveness happened in the Old Testament - there is no evidence in Law or the prophets, and certainly not in the poetry, that the forgiveness that YHWH gave his people throughout the history of Israel wasn’t real forgiveness. But this forgiveness didn’t change their very nature as human beings. What Jesus’ death offers is freedom from sin, which makes us a totally different order of human – we are recreated humans, and that is evidenced as we are filled with and empowered by the very spirit of YHWH himself.

Over the past ten years, I’m beginning to see that the cross is about the complete undermining of the current world order, it is the sacrifice to redeem it all, to restore completely our systems, our societies, our relationships, ourselves. It is this revolutionary and comprehensive grace, freedom, and restoration that is the heart and character of the Kingdom of God. In the same way that we cringe at the “Christian” who uses grace as a means for “sin to abound” so we ought to cringe at the “Christian” who uses grace as a means of personal salvation, failing to engage in the radical restoration for the cosmos as a whole. As we, filled with the Holy Spirit, become formed into the image of Jesus, we get to partner with God in bringing his freedom and his restoring, recreating Holy Spirit to all the broken systems, oppressive structures, and exploitative practices that keep all of creation, even those created in the very image of God, in slavery.

Our job, friends, is not to continue affirming the fallen-ness of things but to usher in the Kingdom of God, the restored, recreated, upside-down new heaven and new earth for which Jesus gave his life and which he guarantees in his resurrection.

10 comments:

Justin said...

Hear Hear. A big vision. And it's going to be even bigger than what you have written, if I know my Lord Jesus. We are just touching the tip of the ice-berg.

A couple of things:

-- This is the way I learned the gospel. This is the way I have explained the Gospel to others. I don’t believe this any more. Through the journey of the last ten years, it seems to me that this Gospel summary is hardly Gospel at all;

Pleased to see that this coincided with the year we met, Hughesi, which I believe was 10 years ago. Glad to be a part of your vision increasing. :)

-- I certainly believe that Jesus' Resurrection is the ushering in of the Kingdom and the new age where, in the end, righteousness and justice are the norm on very level of society -- personal and public; global and even universal. Jesus' challenge to injustice, of course, (on every level) is ironically the Cross and Resurrection.

Two questions then: Jesus verbally challenged the status quo of Israel and how they treated people. He challenged them by his behavior (as you point out). But why didn't he go for Rome? Why do you think that the (global) Lord didn't go for that which caused the most oppression? And why didn't he seek to change the structures of even Israel (He just spoke against them and overthrew a few tables maybe twice.)

And another question: Why don't you join something like the tent revival meetings and go for healing after healing. Your arguments here are the arguments that they used and still use.

Serious question.

Justin said...

I lost sleep thinking about this last night...

I think I could give it a shot at answering my own question about Rome, and systemic injustice...

But I jump ahead too quickly.

Andrew & Jessica said...

Hi Justin,

Thanks for your comments! Firstly, do you think that Andrew would use words like polysyllabic?! This is one of Jessica’s blogs . . .

Briefly, in response to your questions, I do think that Jesus challenged both Rome and Israel – and ultimately overturned them! One of the primary factors in the fall of the Roman Empire was the church. But this emphasises an important point that I didn’t go into my post. Rome wasn’t overturned by direct or violent confrontation; rather it was overturned by the counter-community of Jesus that lived in a different reality. This different reality included rescuing children from exposure, taking in widows and orphans, alleviating poverty among their members and also the wider community, instilling the individual, regardless of rank or gender, with value before God, and fighting against systems of slavery by granting slaves marriage and family rights, not distinguishing them as “slaves” in death, and some Christians even released their slaves during their lifetimes! All of these are clearly going against the structures of Rome, but not in a head-on, let’s change the laws kind of way. But, it was this undermining that led to Constantine’s conversion and the fall of the “beast.” (For a great look at this topic, check out Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, (Princeton: Princeton University, 1996). Now, I’m not quite sure I understand your second question, but I’ve seen God miraculously heal people and I’ve certainly heard many an account of such work from people I respect – so maybe we need more faith or better eyes to see the liberating work of Jesus all around us. See Andrew's post:
www.eocyugo.blogspot.com/2007/06/who-says-jesus-doesnt-heal-sick-anymore.html

jessica

Andrew & Jessica said...

That link should be:
http://www.eocyugo.blogspot.com/2007/06
/who-says-jesus-doesnt-heal-sick-anymore.html

Justin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin said...

Firstly, do you think that Andrew would use words like polysyllabic?! This is one of Jessica’s blogs . . .

You are right. As much as we love Andrew, you can't see him using a pentasyllabic word like polysyllabic, can you now?

Rome wasn’t overturned by direct or violent confrontation; rather it was overturned by the counter-community of Jesus that lived in a different reality.

Absolutely. A point I've been making in a recent series at Church from Colossians. And this was the stuff I was thinking about last night trying to get to sleep.

But, how do you account for the fact that the Scriptures aren't as forthcoming on this kind of agenda? (Save Jesus commendation of the Pharisees.)

I hear today how Christians need to challenge 'systemic injustice' and lobby governments on behalf of poor neighborhoods, and challenge unfair tax laws that rob public schools of the resources to teach underprivileged kids, etc. All of which is exactly right. But I hear the word 'systemic injustice' right next to 'Kingdom of God' an enormous amount today.

Hear is what I am asking: The agenda in Scripture seems to be this: 'Get your community back in shape before Jesus your Lord'; and 'you've been united with Christ in his death, now life the new life in his resurrection'. Its a personal and communal challenge, with an eye on the global and universal. And somehow in the economy of God, Rome fell. God brought down the Beast, as Christians just went about doing good.

Thats my question about Solidarity, resistance and literation, too.

Jesus seems to desire in us to simply live lives worthy of his gospel (which, of course, has enormous implications for our world), and let him deal with Rome.

Is that true? Am I missing something obvious?

Again, trying to respond, while at the same time jealous that I was not on your course.

Justin said...

Now, I’m not quite sure I understand your second question, but I’ve seen God miraculously heal people ...

OK. Sorry. I just mean that some of the evangelicalism that has been troubling in the US and other parts of the world has gone down the same essential path:

"Jesus is bigger than your personal salvation, come down the front and be delivered, and have your communities delivered too."

I believe wholeheartedly in miracles. But I would be wary of having a ministry of miracles, because I was wanting people to have a bigger Jesus.

There is a lot in common between left wing liberation movements and right wing deliverance movements.

No?

Andrew & Jessica said...

But, how do you account for the fact that the Scriptures aren't as forthcoming on this kind of agenda? (Save Jesus commendation of the Pharisees.)I hear today how Christians need to challenge 'systemic' injustice and lobby governments on behalf of poor neighborhoods, and challenge unfair tax laws that rob public schools of the resources to teach underprivileged kids, etc.

If I’m reading you right, you are equating challenging systematic injustice to government action. I don’t think that the only way to fight systematic injustice – I think Jesus calls us to lives of specific, radical action that undercuts what is normally acceptable. For example, rather than worry about poor, urban space in general, a way of changing systems is for a group of Christians to live in intentional community in a specific poor neighbourhood, get jobs at the local school, open their (community) homes to the kids in the neighbourhood after school, have their parents/care-givers around for meals, and actually transform the real lives of people in the neighbourhood. But this call is more than something a single person or couple can do, it requires Christians to be living and working in intentional community, it requires Christians to be willing to live in poor neighbourhoods with their kids, it requires Christians to be willing to take poor-paying jobs or even forego their professional career to live in a specific place, working for specific change. If enough Christians live this way, then “systems of oppression” also start to change from the inside.

I would say the gospel is more than getting our own community back in shape before the Lord, but rather it is realising that our communities exist not for themselves, but for the sake of the world, for the sake of taking God’s blessing to the world.

Andrew & Jessica said...

We can always find manifestations of good theological thinking in the popular realm that somehow takes buzz-words or popular concepts and changes them into overwrought emotionalism. I’m not sure that ministries with an overemphasis on miracles are a fair representation of all theology working toward bigger-picture transformation. What the left and the right wings that you have identified do have in common is that they both insist that God’s salvation is bigger than an issue of personal piety and is intended to result in the complete renewal of creation – in steps now and in full realisation when Jesus returns.

Justin said...

These are all great answers, Jess. I'll enjoy keeping on thinking about this, and hopefully it will lead to a changed life!

We had some of these conversations (or one's like it) back in 3A Cowan Rd days. Ah Glory Days...