Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Gospel You’ve Never Heard


 
C

hurch is a bad word in our society today. Or at least a word you don’t use in polite society anymore. Yet that’s what I’m going to talk about. I won’t always use the word but that’s my subject here. I hope at the end that it won’t seem like such a bad word to you.

T

he Bible tells this story as a drama in six acts: creation, catastrophe, covenant with Israel, Christ, covenant with Church, consummation.

Act 1: Creation

H

ere’s the deal. God, another bad word in many circles today, created the world and everything and all of us in it. God created it to be a home he could share with his human creatures forever. And the place where God dwells or intends to dwell is a temple.

T

he creation stories in Genesis picture the creation of the world as the construction of a temple.

-The Garden in Eden reflects the innermost sanctum of Solomon’s temple, the Holy of Holies. This is where God lives.

-Eden itself reflects the Holy Place.

-The world outside Eden, as yet uninhabited, is watered by the four rivers out of Eden, signaling its eventual habitation. This reflects the outer courts of the temple which with habitation will be coextensive with creation itself.

T

his God is also the great king, the ruler of all, and kings live in a palace. So creation as does double duty as a temple and a palace.

A

nd God intends his human creatures to serve him as royal priests in his temple palace. The Bible calls this the “image of God.” As his royal children God wants us to represent him and reflect his will and character as we make our way through the world. As priests in his creation temple he commissioned us to protect his temple and nurture it to its full flourishing. Thus, by caring for the well-being of God’s creation, we carry out our priestly service.

G

od’s made his creation “good,” even “very good.” But this does not mean it was perfect in a static sense, as good as it would ever be. Rather, it was perfectly suited as an initial habitation for God’s royal priestly creatures. It would be their task to nurture and guide the creation to its full flourishing which would also be the maturity of humanity. And for a while, as little as 5½ hours if one rabbi is to be believed, things went well. But only for a while.

Act 2: Catastrophe

H

umanity though, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, and the rest, defaulted on their identity and commission as God’s royal priests. Instead they chose to be their own gods, shaping and guiding life and creation in the way they saw best. This is why the agent of their “fall” was a talking snake. The creation story in Genesis 2-3 was written after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. The temptation represented by the talking snake was one the Israelites knew all too well. They had seen it and heard it talk in Egypt.

T

he snake, you see, was pharaoh’s symbol of power and sovereignty. A snarling cobra was made and placed in the pharaoh’s turban. This walking, talking snake symbolized for Israel the premier temptation and danger to God’s creatures – to be pharaoh themselves. That is, to grab for sovereignty, power, and autonomy in their own right.

A

nd it worked. Eve and Adam bought this pharaonic lie. They went for it and turned everything God intended for his creatures and creation upside down and inside out. God’s good order unraveled. Nothing remained untouched by this perfidy.

-most importantly, humanity is alienated from God, its life-source. Now dead inside, their ways of making their way in the world become death-dealing (literally in the case of Cain).

-their identity now distorted, anxiety engulfs them. Adam and Eve are ashamed of their nakedness and the stain of shame poisons our inner lives.

-but not only our inner lives. Anxiety, guilt, and shame spoil their relationships as well.

-finally, humanity’s relationship with creature becomes troubled. They become enemies of one another neither treating each other very well.

C

reation endures de-creation in the flood (Genesis 6-8). After the flood God starts anew with Noah and his family. But the same tragic patterns recurs. This part of the story ends up at the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Humanity gathers together there as one to build a city and forge a religion that would protect them and enable them to establish their own sense of significance and security. A strong city, their own religion, and a bastion against being scattered abroad, the epitome of humanity’s pharaonic achievement! Yet this too falls apart before God.

H

e muddles the speech of Babel’s inhabitants so they can no longer understand one another. Their building effort comes to a screeching halt. Significance does come that way. Nor does security. God scatters the Babelians all across the lands around them. In the debris of their failed efforts at establishing their own significance and security apart from God, the narrator gives the divine verdict on such efforts by noting at the end of this part of the story that Sarai, a key figure in the ongoing story, is barren (Gen.11:32). A dispiriting thud, to say the least.

G

Act 3: Covenant with Israel

od never acquiesced in humanity’s revolt. Instead, he launched a subversive counter-revolutionary movement. He called Abram (we know him better as Abraham) and Sarai (better known as Sarah) to be the parents of this subversive counter-revolutionary movement (SCRM). And he made a covenant with them to be their God and for them to be his people. Period. An unconditional and unilateral commitment of the Creator to be the Redeemer of his creation gone awry for this new people he calls into existence and through them everyone else (Genesis 12:1-3)!

T

his means that God wants to have one place and one people on earth who will live like he wants. This people will be his prototype, a micromodel of what he wants for his world. They will re-ravel the frayed threads of the broken creational mosaic back into a discernible approximation of God’s intentions for his creatures. This is subversive because it allows every person the freedom to respond to this action of God. God’s SCRM is not a top-down imposition of some “theocratic religion” on unwilling or uncommitted human beings. Rather in the relationships formed by this new community and its example to the world God will woo and win his wayward creatures back.

A

s God’s SCRM this new covenant community, this new family, will also seek to demonstrate the kind of social order God desires. It will shape its life together to counter the attitudes, actions, patterns, and systems put in place by the human revolution of sin and provide alternatives faithful to God’s intentions. Sometimes they will be accepted by some in the larger world and sometimes not. But whether acceptable to the world or not, this is to be the way of life for God’s people.

T

he way God’s SCRM will live is specified in the Mosaic covenant. The Ten Commandments and the myriads of other laws we find in the five books attributed to Moses are how those ancient Israelites were to play their role in their time and place. As their circumstances changed and the form of their peoplehood changed, these laws were adapted at points to reflect these changes. We can see this clearly in the book Deuteronomy where the people are on the threshold of leaving off their nomadic wandering in the desert and enter into life as a settled people with a land of their own.

G

od’s covenant with Abraham is like the operating system of a computer. His covenant with Moses is like a software program. Sinai 1.0 were the original set of commands and instructions. Just across the Jordan River from the promised land, an update, Sinai 2.0, is issued. And every time Israel’s situation in the world changed (united and divided monarchy, exile in Babylon, return from exile but still under foreign domination) further upgrades reflecting how in this circumstance to live as God’s SCRM was issued.

W

ith David God makes a covenant that reaffirms the one with Abraham and shows how God takes an act of faithlessness and incorporates it into his purposes. The people’s desire for a king so they can be like all the other nations around them God declares a rejection of him as their king (as he had been since the Exodus). Nevertheless, God accepts this desire of the people and allows them a human king. Saul turns out to a big flop as the first king. But with David God gets one, who despite his all too evident flaws and failures, has a heart for the SCRM God is trying to build around him. God makes a covenant with him such that his heirs will always sit on Israel’s throne (2 Samuel 7). Thus when Jesus comes as the messiah, he is an heir of David. And the life he lives defines the kind of kingship God allowed for Israel (Deuteronomy 17; Psalm 72) but which all from the kings from David on had violated. So God redeems even this deviation from his intention and makes it key component of his people.

J

eremiah 31 sets forth a prophecy of a “new” covenant. God promises a time when all that failed under the previous covenants will be realized and internalized by God himself. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34). God foretells a time when a breathtaking knowledge and intimacy will prevail among God and his people. With this new covenant dawns an age into which we are still living and will in the end experience finally and fully forever!

Act 4: Christ

N

ow we reach the climax or pinnacle of the biblical drama. Jesus Christ is God’s best and final act in this drama.

-He fulfills God’s covenant with Abraham – he is God’s love for Israel and through them the rest of humanity.

-He fulfills God’s covenant with Moses – he offers God a life lived in total and indefectible loyalty and love.

-He fulfills God’s covenant with David – he is the Messiah and great Davidic King who will rule the world forever.

-He fulfills the new covenant promised through Jeremiah – all he is and does draws us deeper and deeper into the life of God – the eternal community of sharing and returning for one another of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the kind of knowledge and intimacy God made us for.

T

He thing about this fulfillment Christ enacted of all these promises and covenants is that his fulfillment of them looked nothing like what a good Jew of the time would recognize. No one ever thought it would look like this:

-instead of a military hero running the hated Romans out of town with his sword at their backs,

-instead of returning Israel to a place of primacy among the nations,

-instead of rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple as the “place” where the world would henceforth meet God,

-instead of enforcing Torah/Law on the Gentiles or introducing a “Jesus”- religion,

Christ

-came bringing a peace not of the sword but of sacrificial servanthood, even dying for us rather than killing his enemies,

-restored Israel to its proper vocation of serving the world and sharing God’s blessing with it,

-became himself, through God’s raising him from the dead, the new Temple and “place” where God and humankind would meet,

-called for a radical way of life enabled by and modelled on his Spirit-filled existence marked by sacrificial service and servanthood of others.

T

hrough Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension God’s great work of reclaiming his rebellious creatures and restoring them to his plan and purposes was completed. The victory has been won and cannot be undone. It can only now spread and take root in those who follow Jesus everywhere they go. And that brings us to the next act in the drama.

Act 5: Covenant with the Church

A

gain, as with Christ, the spread and implementation of Jesus’ victory is not a typical triumphal procession of a victorious military champion (though we seem too often to forget this and act as though it was). Jesus’ followers enact his victory in their lives and in their world by the same sacrificial servanthood that marked his life.

C

hrist lives in and among his church, its Lord and Leader. Through us he will pour out the love of God’s broken heart for his people and his dreams for their destiny. He inducts us into the ranks of his SCRM through baptism, in which his life becomes ours, and sustains us in our service by the Eucharist, in which our lives become his. Thus living between the Font and the Table is the way we live as God’s SCRM.

T

he Holy Spirit, given us by Christ at Pentecost is the way Christ lives in and among us. Even in our continuing brokenness we know his power when we find ourselves living ever more deeply into God’s triune life and are agents establishing outposts of new life wherever we go. Through this Spirit we are equipped to be a people through whom God may spread his blessings everywhere and to everyone.

L

ike the Allied forces in World War II in the European theater after the decisive battles at Normandy, the church lives from the victory of Christ. Yet, also like those forces, we remain enmeshed in the struggle with the enemy who had been dealt a mortal blow, cannot win, yet fights on to the very end all the same. It was nearly a year after D-Day before the hostilities finally ceased in Europe and V-Day was proclaimed. Living between Christ’s D-Day, his death and resurrection, and his V-Day, his return to finally and fully establish God’s reign, God’s SCRM lives in the same conflictual situation. We have to keep on full alert, trained and ready to keep on practicing the “violence of love” (Oscar Romero) Jesus teaches us.

Act Six: Consummation

R

evelation 21-22 gives us our fullest picture of what God’s plan all worked out and fulfilled looks like. In John the Seer’s last vision we find that what God started in the creation, the construction of a Temple in which he intends to dwell with his creatures on his creation. The New Jerusalem, which importantly comes down from heaven to the new heavens and earth, is the people of God in and with whom God makes his home (Revelation 21:3). Furthermore, the city is constructed as a cube. The only other cubic structure in the Bible is the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple. Finally, the New Jerusalem is coextensive with the new creation. Thus, we have the micro-cosmic Holy of Holies in the garden of Eden has grown into the worldwide Holy of Holies that God always wanted!

M

oreover, the garden has a glorious city around it now. The end is not a return to the beginning but the beginning fully matured. The fruits of human industry and creativity, purified by God, are taken up and incorporated by him into our eternal dwelling. Everything we do, or have the chance to do, here and now bears eternal significance then and there. Nothing real, good, or beautiful will be lost to God’s new creation. The glory of human work and glory to God for his works is not a zero-sum game. Instead, each enhances the other. Like Irenaeus of Lyon, the 2nd century theologian said, “The glory of God is humanity fully alive, and life is beholding God”!

T

his vision in Revelation is a picture of “God’s Love Wins!” That is finally what it means. An innumerable multicultural host throngs together around God and the Lamb in fellowship, praise, and worship. But lest you think life then and there is simply playing harps and singing praise to God, John ends this vision with the note that God’s people will “reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). This takes us back to the beginning to humanity’s commission as God’s image-bearers to serve as royal priests in his creation Temple. At last they will experience life in all the fullness and flourishing God intends for them.

T

he circle is complete. Or better, the journey has reached its goal. God has stuck with his creation dream through all manner of hardship, struggle, and provisional defeat at unfathomable cost to himself to see it to his goal for it. He now has the creation in full flourishing, humanity matured, and a life of communication, communion, and community with humanity ready to live!  

A

Nd this, I submit, is the gospel you’ve never heard!

No comments:

Post a Comment