Thursday, June 01, 2006

J&C 5: You Really Think That?

Lohfink’s discussion of the patristic-era churches touches on their self-understanding, communicated both through New Testament citations and contrast statements to the pagan societies of their day. Their writings do function as propaganda pieces, and their indicative statements “have hortatory character,” in the sense that “we are like this,’ always means ‘this is the way we should be, the way we would like to be’ (162).” Lofty statements which may not be in perfect alignment with the visible reality of the church, but I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that.

Simply put, I’d prefer to be in a community with sky-high ideals that we aspire to and measure ourselves by, even if we don’t always ‘get’ them, than one that has resigned itself to a ‘Christian inferiority complex (160),’ or which has toned down the invigorating words of our grounding texts because we think them unlikely or incapable of being taken seriously. Rather than cowering and saying ‘don’t look at us,’ why not say ‘look at who we want to be, which is, in a very real sense, who we are, and who we are becoming?’

J&C 4: It Starts with the House of God

Missionary activity often takes its impetus from the Gentile mission detailed in Acts, a much easier starting point for explanation than Jesus’ own conduct with the Gentiles. He didn’t deliberately seek them out, and instructed his disciples to confine themselves to the lost sheep of Israel (17). The post-resurrection commissioning of Matthew 28:18-20 sanctions a universal impulse, and I can envision the resurrection as the verification and accomplishment of Jesus’ programme of gathering God’s people, to be propelled outwards as a salvific community. Jesus’ focus on Israel didn’t indicate a retreat, nor a lack of universal spectrum, but was the presupposition for the universalized mission which would come after him (137).

I’m also inclined to think that there’s also a valuable precedent here for our own communities, particularly churches in transition. Renewal begins within the people of God, and it’s crucial that we rediscover our identity before moving outwards, particularly when we’re in flux. I tend to be a go-getter, always looking for the church on the move, and pushing continuously in that direction, so I don’t instantly think in this fashion, yet the value of concentration for a season on a community’s quality of life (with the intent of synchronizing our proclamation, activity, and relational rhythms) makes a lot of sense to me.

Love Lohfink’s words on 138:

Christian efforts to transform the world…[do] not correspond to the New Testament unless [they] have [their] basis in the people of God. The world can be changed only when the people of God itself changes. It is not possible to liberate others unless freedom radiates within one’s own group. It is not possible to preach social repentance to others unless one lives in a community which takes seriously the new society of the reign of God.

J&C 3: The Gift of the Spirit

Charismatic Christianity in its twentieth-century incarnations has re-focused attention on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and their operability within the present-day church. I’m grateful for this very real contribution to our corporate life, if slightly frustrated by the way in which the manifestations of the spirit are commoditized within our consumer culture.

Lohfink makes the logical connection between the early church’s experience of the spirit and the eschatological community’s identity, citing Luke 2 and the Pentecost citation of Joel (82), connecting experience with expectation. Miracles, while they legitimate the preaching of the gospel, are also signs of the Spirit’s presence within the community (85), and are connected to the ministry of Jesus, and the inauguration of the reign of God. Pretty straightforward, yet I, among others, consistently gloss over it. Were we to get this, that would put our activity (and proclivities towards idolatry) within its proper context, that of God’s redemptive activity. My hunch is that we’d see a decline in striving after particular gifts and manifestations of the spirit, and a downswing in related pastoral counseling. That’s a good thing.

J&C 2: Impossible Ideal or a Live-Able Ethic?

As a history of protestant theology would reveal, we tend to be really inventive and enterprising when it comes to escaping the teachings of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. One common approach is to read the Sermon against Paul’s statements on the role of the Mosaic Law, and to see it as designed to reveal our weaknesses and guilt, bringing us to a place of contrition over our inability to live God’s standards. I learned to read it this way early in my Christian experiences, and remember an instance where it meant that I completely missed the point of a bible study group. The whole focus of our time together was to read the Sermon on the Mount as a viable way of life, yet after a few weeks, I reverted to this interpretive matrix, which, when we think outside of our learned frameworks, requires some serious mental gymnastics.

Lofhink states that “Jesus’ ethical instruction must be interpreted against the horizon of his preaching of the reign of God. Only in this way can the problem of the possibility of fulfilling the Sermon on the Mount be answered appropriately (59).” In light of the inauguration of the eschatological kingdom of God, proclaimed by Jesus, it becomes possible to live in this way. Embracing this would mark a huge shift in the way Christian communities operate, one worth making, but which requires significant revision in our ingrained patterns of thinking and reading scripture. Anyone up to the task?

J&C 1: Jesus’ Intentions for Community

Having read Kingdom Ethics for a previous course, I’m substituting Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus and Community from our recommended reading list.

Lohfink begins his book, much to my liking, by changing the questions about Jesus and the church. Both within critical scholarship and the protestant tradition, the links between Jesus and community are often severed, and I know many folks who insist that their salvation does not rest upon whether or not they are part of a church. When I hear this, my unspoken response is “well, yeah, but…you’re missing a huge dimension of God’s life when you follow that logic, and do you really want to call that salvation?’ IMO, our individualistic understanding of salvation needs some serious revision, particularly when it comes to being tangible and visible. Lohfink moves in that direction, pointing to the pre-reformation understanding of church as a ‘concrete, identifiable, salvific community,’ and making the links between what followed Jesus and what preceded him, that being the scattered, yet visible, people of God.