Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How imagery doesn't work

Jesus Christ is the Head of his Body. His Body is the Church.

That pair of images is used to bring out a number of truths in the New Testament.  For example, the truth that Christ directs his church as the head directs the body, and the truth that Christ is intimately connected to his church.  Or within the church itself, the truth that each person is intimately related to each other person as different parts of the same body, and the truth that each has a particular role within the organic whole. The images work because they appeal to something which we understand and of which have experience.  The images speak to us far more deeply and clearly than bare language (in so far as there is such a thing) ever could.

But the danger is that we let the image control the idea. We might conclude, for example, that because a head is as dependent on a body as a body is on a head, that Christ and his church stand in a reciprocal relationship of dependency. That won't do. Or we might construe the link between Christ and the church organically, as somehow natural, because this suits the image. We might then imagine that the church is in some way a continuation of the incarnation - after all, a head is only present with (and perhaps through) a body, so maybe Christ is present only in and through the church.

The image is illuminating in its original connection, in its right place in the argument. It is not therefore legitimate to develop it any which way, or to deploy it in wholly different contexts and arguments. Then it may well be only deceptive.

The image lives from the reality, and not vice versa.

Friday, October 23, 2015

One-way traffic

So, reality is Jesus-shaped.  I want to say that in as unqualified a manner as possible, without any hedging or quibbling.  I take it to be a foundational truth - perhaps the foundational truth - that everything is about, and revolves around, Jesus Christ.

But now let me qualify our experience of that.

My qualification comes in the form of traffic direction.  When we are talking about Jesus and reality, our thinking needs to follow the one-way system.  We move from Jesus of Nazareth - his life, death, resurrection, and ascension - to reality.  Jesus and his story is the first stop, and from that we can make interpretive moves in the direction of the world.  We cannot move the other direction.  We cannot start with reality and make interpretive moves in the direction of Jesus.

The point is interpretive control.  We may, and must, interpret our experience of reality in the light of Christ, and as we do so we will not be surprised to find his story reflected there.  We may not, and must not, interpret Christ in the light of our experience of reality.

The reason is the cross.  The story tells us that Jesus the Christ died in the place of a sinful world; and that in his death, the world itself died.  As a Christian, the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  That means that I can no longer interpret my own experience of the world in a straight-forward way.  The story tells me that I, the interpreter, have died.  It tells me that the world, the interpreted, has died.  Moreover, it tells me that I do not know what the world will finally be, or what I myself will finally be.  All my experience is provisional, even my self-experience.

The story tells me that I don't have access to the world as it ought to be, or as it was made to be.  Nor do I have access to myself as I ought to be and will be.  My whole experience of the world stands under the sign of the cross - my experience, with the world itself, is judged and condemned, in order to be raised at the last day.  Then I will know what it was all about.  Now I can only know Jesus, and the world in him and through his death and resurrection.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Jesus and reality

Reality is Jesus-shaped.

That really struck me a couple of weeks ago as I was preparing to talk about Christian views of sexuality.  (You can find the audio here should you so desire).  Reality is Jesus shaped.  By that I mean that the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth both undergird reality, and that the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth shape reality.  Here is part of Colossians 1:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven,making peace by the blood of his cross.
Note, first of all, the subject of this paragraph.  It is Jesus Christ.  Specifically, it is the man Jesus Christ.  There is no room in this paragraph for a fleshless Logos.  He is the one who shed his blood on the cross, the one who was firstborn from the dead, and - most decisively - the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  We are talking here about Jesus of Nazareth.

But then note that it is through and for him that all things exist.  He is before all things.  He holds everything together.  Paul is not expounding some sort of odd theory about the eternal pre-existence of Jesus' human nature (although some others have done just that).  He is saying that the eternal Son of God created the universe as the one who would enter that universe and as the one for whose incarnation that universe exists.  The universe is about Jesus; it is about the coming into the world of the incarnate Son of God.

Which means that the central story of the universe - the beating heart of reality - is the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection.  That event is what reality is all about.  And that event shapes reality.

The more I think about it, the more I think it's vitally important for our churches to get this right.  If we forget that reality is about Jesus, our religion may become disconnected from life.  We will just be a club, holding our distinctive beliefs - perhaps very sincerely - and carrying out our worship - possibly with great devotion - but without any of it really touching real life.  We will lose contact with the world, and be unable to communicate our message (I say this as if it were hypothetical; of course, sadly it is not).  We will not know how to speak as Christians into the different situations of the world, because we do not understand that those situations are already part of a reality that is driven by the gospel.  Our theology will stop being about articulating the gospel in the language and culture of today, and become merely a repeating of the Bible.  And our lives will become barren because only 'spiritual' things will be valued.

The end result of a massive disconnect like this can only be that we will abandon the faith (because reality is so much more... real - and Jesus doesn't seem to have anything to do with it), or we will abandon the world (because Jesus is so much more important, and he doesn't seem to have anything to do with reality).  We will become atheists or pietists.

And neither will do.  Because it is all about him.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Giving Yourself

The good news is that God gives himself to us.  He gives himself in the sacrifice of his Son; he gives himself in the outpouring of the Spirit.  He gives himself as price, ransoming the lost, and he gives himself as presence, drawing near to the ransomed.  It is God himself who is given, and no lesser gift.  But...  God does not give himself away.  There is no risk of him losing himself in all this giving.  He is not conditioned by his giving; rather, the recipient of the gift is conditioned by his receiving of the gift.  Even as he goes to the cross, God gives himself, does not give himself away.  He remains the giver, not the one from whom anything is taken.

In Trinitarian terms, perhaps we might say that God the Father is supremely the guarantee that God does not lose control over his giving.  He gives himself in his Son and his Spirit, but he, in his own Person, remains always the giver even in his given-ness.

It is different for us.  We can hardly give ourselves without giving ourselves away.  To give ourselves is to lose ourselves; ultimately, the martyr loses himself - gives himself away.  But it is so in every little act of love.  We give ourselves, and in giving we lose ourselves.  We give ourselves away.  We are conditioned by our giving.  We diminish.

That is why the only key to radical self-giving is the remembrance that we are in the hand of the God who holds onto us even as we give ourselves away, and regathers all of the pieces of us that we have - at his command! - freely distributed and scattered throughout our lives in acts of self-giving love (and indeed without his command, in sinful acts of illegitimate attachment).  Without the promise that he, the giver who is not given away, holds onto us, how can we dare to give ourselves away?

Without the resurrection, how could we dare to let go of ourselves?

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Electing love

"As this freely electing love the love of God for us is unconditional, strong and victorious.

It is a burning fire which cannot be quenched.

It is wholly trustworthy.

It is a rock to which we can cling without fear of its crumbling.

It is a refuge to which we can flee without doubting whether it will stand.

It is nourishment which is always prepared for those who hunger and thirst for love, and never withheld from them.

We have only to see that we are not worthy of it, that we have forfeited it, that we cannot secure it of and for ourselves, that we can only receive and accept it.  We can only long and trust that God is the freely electing God for us, and that we ourselves are freely elected by Him.  We then participate already in the unconditional nature and strength and victory of the love of God, in its sovereignty which consists in the fact that God is absolutely free to love man first irrespective of what he deserves or does not deserve.

We then find that we are loved by Him, and therefore genuinely, basically and effectively."

CD IV/2, p 767 (with my formatting)