Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
As I mentioned in my previous post when biblical writers want to convey God’s immanence they often employ what theologians call “panentheistic” language for God. A language found in prayer, praise and sometimes even lament that suggest that all things subsist in God. It starts with the personal experience of the divine, an unshakable sense that God is close and it extends outward, to the ends of the earth and beyond. And so the Psalmist writes, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”
The same holds true when we turn from the Hebrew Scriptures to the New Testament as God’s immanence is experienced through the unshakable presence of the Resurrected Christ. For the Apostle Paul it all starts at the end. Well for most of us it usually does. As one of my favorite theologians, Jürgen Moltmann writes, “It is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises; for incomprehensible suffering calls the God of men and women in question.” The death of a loved one is the quintessential and universal instance of incomprehensible suffering. Regardless of one’s culture, status, time and place in human history or religious beliefs: someone you love is gone. Beliefs about gods and afterlife, heaven or hell, reincarnation or rebirth, or perhaps utter skepticism that there is more to this life than meets the eye: These things may shape how we process the grief of death. But they do not take away the ache or pangs caused by the absence. The best our various beliefs can provide, as Paul insists here is hope.
I do not mean to diminish the utter importance or all too often underestimated power of hope for the human spirit, or for any aspect of our daily lives, religious or otherwise. But I do mean to distinguish hope from knowing, at least knowing as we have come to think of it in a post Enlightenment world: Knowing as the processing of data that can be observed by the senses, qualified, quantified and upon enough empirical evidence be considered knowledge. This kind of knowing is important! It can help us determine the earth is billions of years old. It can aid us in developing more efficient and environmentally safe sources of power. Perhaps it can one day assist us in finding cures to Cancer or Aids like it has Smallpox or Polio.
But this kind of knowing is not quite so helpful when it comes to qualifying or quantifying the intangible things. Things love, hope or faith. Sure I can count how many thumbs up a friend gives me on my witty Facebook posts or I can count how many times a day my wife says I love you. But we all know that relationships with living beings are are not like our relationship to inanimate objects. The living are certainly much more unpredictable than stars, rocks or any other elements which we can (fairly)objectively observe and often even control the variables. The melting point of Gold, depending on how pure it is, will probably always be around 1947.52 °F. I believe it has been tested quite a few times.
But observations of these kind can never fully assure us of how another living being will act or react. I have been astounded in moments of utter despair at who showed up to lend a helping hand or a word of encouragement, acquaintances I did not yet know to be friends, family members I thought were past caring. And conversely, I think we’ve all felt the pain and disappointment of being let down or even abandoned by someone we thought would always be there. Marriages we thought would last forever end in divorce. Parents who should be there for their children are not. Heroes we place on pedestals have their weaknesses or perhaps even their hypocrisy exposed. And even if somehow we thought for sure we had found and could measure someone who would never disappoint us. They will die. Or we will.
Our knowledge of the living is always partial. It often takes a lifetime for many of us to come to know ourselves. Perhaps that is why Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13).
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4).
In relationships we look for signs of another’s faithfulness. For Paul that starts here. And it too has to do with death. But death and new life. The Western church (and especially American evangelicalism) likes to talk about death and life and usually draw upon the biblical witness to shape our vernacular when doing so. But that mining of scripture has become so selective and that message quite often becomes so distorted that it has come to look quite different than the experiential, new life of union with Christ found in the New Testament. The popular version of this is: If you say this prayer, do these things or subscribe to this set of beliefs about God, Jesus, the world and yourself than Christ’s sacrificial death can apply to you and you can go to heaven when you die. One youth pastor horrifyingly summed it up this way: “Heaven will be full of people who did very, very bad things and perhaps lived rotten lives but they believed the right thing by trusting God for the forgiveness of their sins. Hell will have its fair share of people who might have been very nice and sincere but who never believed the right thing by trusting God to forgive their sins.”
This is what has been offered as “gospel” or good news for so long and become so synonymous with the Christian message that I have come to deeply sympathize with my friends who leave the the church in search for better news. Many of them end up what I would call secular humanist: people who truly seek to love their neighbor but who simply can’t believe in this arbitrary God. They can’t believe in a God who offers to some people eternal bliss because they happened to be born at the right place, at the right time and managed to say the right words and gives others over to death or even torture because they were not so fortunate. Or worse, the notion that God assigns these eternal lots before the temporal reality we observe ever begins.
Well, I reject that story with them. It is all such a far cry from the newness of life Paul was talking about: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Cor. 5:17). We have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Paul appeals to a slave owner, Philemon to receive his former slave Onesimus as a beloved brother in the flesh and in Lord (Phil. 1:16). And in one of his most radical passages there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all who are in Christ (Gal. 3:28-29). In fact Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” 165 times and the similar phrase “in the Spirit” about 20 times.
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves (1 Corinthians 11:26-29).
For Paul this is where this radical new communal way of life in Christ is nurtured. This passage, and especially what it means to “discern the body” would be used in much later debates between Roman Catholics and Protestants about how the communion elements become the body and blood of Christ to those at the table. It is still used in debates about denying the elements to those who have not been baptized or who are not “true Christians.” But the immediate context betrays quite a different meaning.
Shortly preceding this word of warning about discerning the body, Paul laments, “I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”
Paul was pissed! It is helpful to know that in the early church, the Eucharist was often done in the context of a full meal that reflected Jesus’ very inclusive table etiquette. How quickly this new community, called to new life in Christ, empowered to be a people where there is now no slave or free, rich or poor became a club of “have and have nots” just another place where some are “in” and some are “out.” But the meal that is efficacious to make people sick if they are willfully living in a manor unworthy of this calling is also powerfully nourishing for those who come to the table hungry for the vision of new humanity that this meal calls us to. In his discussion of the Eucharist, Reformation writer John Calvin offers these wonderful words regarding the new kind of life made possible in Christ,
This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transformed his wealth to us; that taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.17.2)
Living beings, unlike objects that can be studied, are often unpredictable. As Moltmann suggests, “incomprehensible suffering calls the God of men and women in question.” As Paul contemplated a relationship with God through the lens of the crucified Christ, it shattered the karmic notions of God, that course through some portions of the Hebrew Bible, as they do in many of the world’s religions. Paul thought long and hard about death. And he wrote a lot about death. But his thoughts are not exactly what we have often made of them: believe this or that about Jesus’ death and things will be happy for you upon your own death. Rather, as Paul contemplated death, he turned to the death of Jesus. Convinced that God had come intimately close to us in Christ, Jesus’ death gave Paul a hope for a new kind of humanity. A humanity that begins right now! And this new found closeness with God, this newly discovered way of being human and vision of God having drawn so close to humanity, gave Paul and other new testament writers hope that this same God was making all things new. But more on that in the next installment.
In Romans, after assuring the church ”there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and exploring further what that means, Paul writes, “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.” What Paul describes in his writings is a sort of symbiotic or embryonic relationship, in which we find a new sort of spiritual dwelling place, sustenance and take on a new humanity in Christ. Now that is an understanding of “born again” I can stand behind. Of course the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth was a man. But it should come as little surprise that when the medieval Catholic mystic Julian of Norwich contemplated the new life and hope for the world that she saw and experienced in the crucified and risen Christ she wrote, “Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.” Amen!
“The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr. – “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damned them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr. – “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” in A Testament of Hope
“A large segment of Protestant liberalism defined man only in terms of his essential nature, his creative capacity for good. Neo-orthodoxy tended to define man only in terms of his existential nature, his capacity for evil. An adequate understanding of man is found neither in the thesis of liberalism nor in the antithesis of neo-orthodoxy, but in a synthesis which reconciles the truth of both.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr. – “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” in A Testament of Hope
“At that time Duke University was somewhat withdrawn from what went on in the world. But that changed abruptly on 4 April 1968. We were sitting with theologians from all over the country in one of the university halls at a ‘Theology of Hope Conference’. I was just arguing with Van Harvey about the distinction between Geschichte and Historie when Harvey Cox burst into the room crying ‘Martin King has been shot’. We immediately broke off the conference, and participants hurried home, for by the same evening shops and businesses in the American cities were going up in flames. The black population rose with a cry of rage, while whites tried to protect themselves. Then the unbelievable happened: 400 students sat down in the quadrangle of Duke University and mourned for Martin Luther King for six days and six nights, in rain and heat. At the end of the week of shame and mourning, black students from a college nearby came and danced through the rows of white students and we all sang together: ’We shall overcome.’ From that day, the blacks in Durham became more self confident and the conscience of whites woke up.” ~ Jürgen Moltmann – “Black Theology for Whites” in Experiences in Theology
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King – The Trumpet of Conscience
“I don’t believe in karma,
I don’t believe in luck
I’m sad as hell in this place
but don’t believe I’m stuck
I’m running out of energy
but I don’t believe I’m running out of time
I’m running on caffeine and anger
and I don’t believe in holding it inside
There’s a time for everything
and everything will be okay in time”
“I once believed that God became flesh in order to destroy flesh that I might escape flesh on the day God destroys all creation. I now believe God became flesh in order to test flesh by death and make flesh new by resurrection that I too might be resurrected on the day God restores all creation. If it’s not a completely different gospel, it’s certainly better news.”
The first quote I guess you could say is a note from my 23 year old self. It is from lyrics to a song I wrote back when I was trying to be a rock star. The song was called “Sometime Somewhere.” It seems somewhat applicable today despite me being in a drastically different place in life than I was 12 years ago. The second quote is a note to self from the not too distant past. Back in May, my final question during my denominational exams before the Classis of Holland in the Reformed Church of America was this: “Describe one way you have changed or matured in your faith journey during seminary?” The above quotation about flesh and resurrection was my answer.
I don’t like to quote myself often. But I these two seemingly disconnected fragments were running through my head this morning in conjunction with each other and with the 1965 protest song “Eve of Destruction.” For me I suppose this is all serving as a reminder that my current lot in life is but one small speck in a vast cosmos, in a human drama that predates me and will likely continue after me (unless you know something I don’t know). In this I am neither insignificant nor omni-important. I am trying to do my part to make the world a better place. But no matter how fantastic or shitty life seems at the moment, all things are in God’s hands.
I know this seems a counter-intuitive claim when times are tough for us personally. Times have indeed been tough for me lately. I graduated from seminary in May. I have been looking for a church for the past six months. Despite several interviews all I have to show so far is tried and tested patience and tenacity and a stack of rejection letters. I have also been looking for any part time job in the meantime to supplement my wife’s income. But despite 20 or so job applications or resumes sent out, 11 years experience in retail, and a couple of degrees under my belt I still have not found work. Like many others – especially in Michigan – my family is feeling the sting of these tough economic times.
Recently my daughter has been experiencing hindering muscle contortions in her arms and legs. Yesterday we received a tentative, preliminary diagnosis of Torsion Dystonia. I have a form of this called Cervical Dystonia which manifests itself with odd postures, some discomfort and contortions mostly in my neck (which makes job interviews all the more interesting). With my diagnoses and a history of tremors and spasms on my father’s side of the family, her condition is quite possibly genetic in origin. We are still in the midst of much testing and waiting to find out if this is indeed what has been bothering her. While now I am hoping and praying she does not have to be treated with deep muscle botox injections someday (as I know how painful it is to receive them), I am nonetheless very happy and relieved to be moving towards some clarity and potential treatment for our baby girl. But it does not always feel like this too is in God’s hands.
My faith informs me that God has a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. But in the face of true tragic and evil occurrences in the world this claim often seems absurd. Take recent headlines in Uganda for instance. So many men, women and especially children are suffering there. For some time the “Lord’s Resistance Army” has been abducting children, killing or forcing the children to kill their own families and then training the boys to fight wars and forcing girls into horrible forms of slavery (an estimated 66,000 children have been abducted). For several years there has been an ongoing outcry in Uganda and around the world against a still pending proposed anti-homosexual bill supported by some prominent American “evangelicals.” If passed it would demand the death penalty for homosexuals and jail time for people “protecting homosexuals.” And most recently reports are surfacing that child sacrifices have resurfaced in Uganda over the past several years to appeal to deities for wealth. God is in control? God is making all things new?
While many people in Uganda and around the world cry out with the Psalmist, ‘How long O’ Lord,’ I too often repeat another cry of the Psalmist – the one repeated by Jesus on the cross – ‘My God! Have you forsaken us?’ And it seems like all of creation groans with us like a woman crying out from labor pangs. In the midst of personal crisis or natural disasters we may question the strength of our faith or God’s Character. But in the face of war, atrocity, injustice and violence – especially when acted out in the name of God – many question the validity of faith in general or the existence of God altogether. I am one of those who question. My personal conviction is that Christians ought to take more seriously than anybody else the Marxist critique that religion is a tool of the upper-class to prevent people from protesting their present sufferings. In the face of so much abuse of religion I would probably have agree if it were not for a couple of often forgotten, perhaps absurd, yet indispensable tenets of the Christian faith:
1) Contrary to much popular belief my faith does not inform me to roll over and play dead. Yes all things are in God’s hands and at the end of the day it is God who makes all things new. But the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are full of prophetic laments and protests against the systems of injustice in this world. They are full of instructions to take care of the orphan and the widow. They also contain the assertion that in Christ all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. And while the powers that be at present may kick and scream and rage against it, God is reconciling himself all things in Christ. We are invited to be part of a counter protest movement, daily declaring to these powerful systems that their days of corruption and abuse of power are numbered.
Of course, these systems sometimes raise their ugly head even within the scriptures themselves in the form of patriarchy, slavery or other institutionalized transgressions against humanity. Unfortunately this is the kind of thing that does often become a tool in the hand of the powerful, claiming the Bible and religion in general to be in on the sanctioning of oppression. And this all becomes fuel for the fire of righteous indignation –in the believer as well as in the nonbeliever – against the misuse and abuse of religion. One of my theological heroes Jürgen Moltmann has addressed this quite eloquently:
Observations about cultural history of this kind have little to say about the content of the narratives and testimonies about God in the Old and New Testaments… The fact that the Bible grew up in the world of patriarchy and slavery still does not tell us anything about the presence of eternity at that time or about the future in its past… No one reads the Bible in order to take over a world picture that is past and gone. No one has to adopt the social concepts and the patriarchal sexual hierarchies of the Bible. If that were so, for biblical reasons we should have to reintroduce slavery into Christianity, revert to absolute monarchy instead of democracy and so forth.
I am reminded of these words often as I attempt add my small voice to the chorus that cries out against patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, racism, classism and other forms of injustice. And as I confess and try to expunge such sickness of heart when it crops up in me.
2) Also contrary to popular belief, the rules or Karma and perhaps Deuteronomy, my faith does not inform me that everyone gets just exactly what they deserve. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God by loving God, walking in God’s ways, and observing the commandments of God, then you shall live and become numerous, and God will bless you in the land says the deuteronomic historian. But God calls Abram and blesses him based on nothing he has done. And God declares Abram righteous not because of the good things he has done, certainly not for the lack of trust and respect Abram sometimes showed in God’s presence. Rather God blessed Abraham because of God’s claim on Abrahams life: God declared “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” And in this Abraham places his faith. This blessing of the whole earth has and always will be the reason God calls a worshiping community into existence. Jesus told Nicodemus that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
The church too exists for the sake of the world and not for its condemnation. In the meantime as Jesus reminds in the sermon on the mount we should pray for those we perceive as our enemies and remember that God for whatever reason causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
When a deuteronomic or karmic faith is our lens for viewing the Christ event it can indeed quickly become aid to the powerful systems of injustice currently in place in our world. I think there is an ever present temptation for Christians especially to develop an attitude of ‘let’s just grin and bear our present suffering. Someday it will be over and the good people like us will bask in glory and the bad people will burn.’ But when we view God as entering into our suffering with us – for our sake and the sake of making the whole world new it radically changes everything!
I again turn to the German theologian Moltmann who in World War II became a prisoner of war to the British, during which time he was given his first Bible, and in his language he was ‘sought and found by Jesus.’ After surviving a few years of war and witnessing several deaths, including a friend who died in his arms, Moltmann became a POW on February 15, 1945. It was in the camp Moltmann was confronted with “a feeling of profound shame at having to share in shouldering the disgrace of one’s own people.” This made him all the more surprised and forever changed by the kind and loving ways of the Scottish men who worked at the camps and their families. They treated him and the other prisoners with dignity and respect. This, together with a Bible given to him by a Chaplain at the camp turned Moltmann’s despair into a new hope for life. He writes about his discovery of Jesus in the gospel of Mark,
Then I read Mark’s gospel as a whole and came to the story of the passion; when I heard Jesus’ death cry, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ I felt growing within me the conviction: this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and who has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now. I began to understand the assailed, forsaken Christ because I knew that he understood me. The divine brother in need, the companion on the way, who goes with you through this ‘valley of the shadow of death,’ the fellow-sufferer who carries you, with your suffering. I summoned up the courage to live again, and I was slowly but surely seized by the great hope of the resurrection into God’s wide ‘wide space where there is no more cramping’
The rest of Moltmann’s life could be aptly characterized by the title of his first book, “a theology of hope.” This hope led him to seriously consider and participate in various liberation theologies, to speak up for women, to lend his white European voice to the endorsement of American Black theology in the 60’s and to be an early voice in articulating an environmental theology of creation care and not dominion. Despite personal sufferings greater than I have known and an up close view of some of the greatest atrocities humanity has known, Motlmann refused to believe we were on the eve of destruction. He refused to believe this because of his profound sense that God is with us in our suffering and gives us voice to cry out against suffering! We cry out against the oppressor. And we cry out with Jesus to God, ‘Have you forsaken us?’ God is big enough to handle or complaints. Our complaints are a sign of faith not doubt, even though they might express confusion as to God’s timing and even seeming lack of presence at times.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This is the gospel or in Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion). It is indeed good news! This good news gives me comfort in times of personal crisis. It also gives me a prophetic voice to speak out against injustice in the world and to admit and submit before God the evil that crops up in me. And it gives me a vision of hope to offer a hurting world. I have gone through some pretty difficult times lately. I too am saddened and outraged at the evil in the world. And in myself. Life can be fantastic and life can be quite shitty at times. The world is full of captivating beauty and at times overwhelming ugliness. When life is great I am learning to accept this as a gift from God and refuse to believe I have done anything or believed anything or said anything “right” in order to deserve it. And when life is painful and headlines are tragic, I too refuse to believe that we are on the eve of destruction.