Archive for August, 2011

Life

Posted in Uncategorized on August 29, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
—John 10:10b

For many, the life of faith is a life dedicated to the achievement or assurance of a future existence in a heavenly realm, eternally communing with God and others. While certainly a consistent tenet of many faith communities, this idea of “eternal life” runs counter to the expectations expressed by the gospel writer of John. However, before we turn to consider John’s possibly surprising understandings of “eternal life,” we must understand the uniqueness that is John’s text and theology.

As a review, there are four gospels in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first three are often studied together because of their similar structure, theology, chronology, and emphases. For this reason, they are called the “synoptic” or “looked at together” gospels. John’s text is different, significantly different, and is frequently considered on its own.

For instance, John’s gospel takes place over three years, while the other three gospels have Jesus’ ministry taking only one year. John has Jesus returning to Jerusalem three times during his ministry. The only three have Jesus there just once. John lacks a birth narrative, the last supper, and the Friday crucifixion (and, the earliest manuscripts even lack the resurrection). In some combination, all of these elements are present in the other three. Also, most scholars feel that Mark was used as a common source for both Matthew and Luke, while John seems to come mostly from another independent source all together. Some of these textual differences are highlighted all the more vividly by a discrepancy in imagery deployed by the two gospel traditions.

In the synoptic gospels, a clear emphasis on the in-breaking of the kingdom of God/Heaven repeats itself over and over, again. The nature of this kingdom, its characteristics, its arrival, its fulfillment saturate the language and expectations of the writers. However, conspicuously absent for John, kingdom language and imagery is set aside for an emphasis less on God’s reign than on God’s arrival. For John’s gospel, the in-breaking of a new kingdom is replaced with the experience of a new encounter with God experienced as the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity.

While complimentary and connected, it would be difficult to overstate the significance these distinctive emphases have on the divergent theology and “good news” expressed in John’s gospel and the synoptic gospels. Moreover, it is this notion of the incarnation and its subsequent import for John’s notion of eternal life that is most interesting for our consideration, today.

In John’s gospel, the notion of the incarnation brings the reality of God and God’s existence into our reality and our existence. This incarnational advent does not allow for some future—either this or some other heavenly realm—fulfillment of life with God. On the contrary, a present alteration of this life and our ways of living is assumed. This alteration of the present is seen most vividly in John’s portrayal of eternal life. For instance, consider the intentional verb tense found in John 6:47. There, the gospel writer has Jesus say that whoever believes will not “have” eternal life but “has” it already! Eternality—a characteristic of the Divine—has been injected into our reality as a natural consequence to God’s material arrival in our time. In other words, the incarnation means, for John, that not just some of God’s attributes but all of what we associate with the Divine has been introduced into our existence via the Word/Logos becoming flesh. This concomitant effect means that one of the primary attributes associated with a life of faith, i.e., the achievement of eternal life, is already imparted through the incarnated presence of God in the person of Jesus.

Eternal life is not—in John’s reckoning—a future reward but a present fact. As such, John’s gospel reflects the common Jewish notion that the soul is not some immaterial element of our being that has the capacity to both live without our bodies and to achieve immortality. Rather, our soul is the very material merger of the stuff of creation with the presence of God. Eternal life for John is—as our above text implies—about a superior quality of life experienced now—i.e., abundance—and not a future quantity of life enjoy later. (John’s gospel does not preclude the possibility of some future, posthumous existence with God. It is just that such an existence is not John’s concern.)

Our lives are “eternal”—in John’s sense—to the degree to which we fully participate in the divine reality of God and the grace and love presumed in that participation. It is a quality alteration of our present reality and a call to awaken us to immediate action rather than delayed expectation.

In some ways, this dislodging of our notion of eternal life from its comfortable station as an eternal reward is a radical idea. But, isn’t that the very purpose for having a gospel, i.e., some good news, in the first place? If the gospel is a kind of pronouncement of victory over something, isn’t this kind of change in how we understand the world exactly what a victory means, i.e., going from one state of perception to another? Isn’t the pronouncement of a victory over a kind of faith built on a delayed reward system (inherent in many of our preconceptions about a life of faith) a good thing? Isn’t the gospel supposed to shatter our preconceptions about the world, turn them on their head, and set them right for a new purpose and work for our lives and God’s world? Doesn’t such a faith that injects the abundant reality of God into our seemingly limited existence alter how we see our present circumstances; our calls for austerity in scarcity; our engagement with those currently poor, powerless, and outcast; our claims about hell and suffering; our visions about heaven and joy? Does it similarly inject an impatience with systems that deny love and abundance every time those systems delay the realization of God’s eternality materially infused into our presence? Aren’t those notions of faith that see our faithfulness as a litmus test for future reward both (1) predicated on a kind of subtle selfishness that our faith is really something that—in the end—benefits ourselves and (2) a denial of the reality that if God really has come into the world that our world should look significantly different to us? Isn’t all this what John is saying?

Consider the fact that in John’s Revelation—a text believed to have come from the same community as the writer of this gospel—that the fulfillment of all our existence is not our leaving this place to receive our heavenly reward but the arrival of heaven to meet us in our here and now, removing all suffering, pain, and crying. If the Christian faith is to mean anything in John’s estimation it must mean that the incarnation changes everything, especially the here and now!

So, what is the claim of victory for John? For John, the victory is a winning of the present from the future, a present that is more about quality of a life in God than quantity of a life to come!

Gospel

Posted in Uncategorized on August 22, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation . . . .
—Isaiah 52:7

This year in chapel, we will tweak the year’s Religious Life theme. Rather than concentrating solely on the concept of “one,” we are adding the notion of how the gospel relates to this oneness. Playing with the multiple meanings assigned to our word “one,” the theme for chapel worship services is “the gospel according to . . . one.” And, by “one,” we are drawing upon two of the meanings of “one,” both as a reference to an individual and as a reference to a unity of many parts that is a solidarity.

Each week, we will examine how the gospel is understood by a single individual or expressed in a single place. For example, we will consider how the idea of the gospel is portrayed in Ephesians, in Revelation, in John, and other books of the Bible. We will, also, look at how the gospel is lived and understood by well-known figures across the centuries, examining the life and works of folks like John Wesley, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa. In considering all these individual interpretations of the gospel, we will ponder how these diverse interpretations simultaneously speak to the unity of the narrative of the faith despite the reality of the complexity and discrepancies of our faith. In this way, we are reiterating what was covered in last week’s iChapel by re-centering our understanding of “oneness” on the spatial analogy proffered in Ephesians and the communal analogy that text suggests is present between God’s multiplicity and singularity as witnessed in the Trinity and that same multiplicity and singularity evidenced amongst us.

Having last week considered the idea of “one,” here, I want to turn address the idea of “gospel.” If we are to spend an entire year centering on a theme that, in large part, is reliant upon the concept of the gospel, then we need to make sure we have a solid understanding of what we mean when we say “gospel.”

The word “gospel” is what linguists call a calque or a word-for-word translation of a word from one language into another language. That word-for-word translation originates in Greek. Yet, we are getting ahead of ourselves. We will return to that original Greek word momentarily. More directly, our word “gospel” comes from an Old English word “god-spell,” meaning “good tidings or good story.” We retain both roots for our word “gospel” in our words “good” (something preferred or beneficial) and “spell” (a story or speech, e.g., someone who is good storyteller might leave you “spellbound”).

The original Greek word from which our word “gospel” derives is “euangelion,” which is itself a compound word. The two words composing “euangelion” are “eu” and “angelion.” The word “eu” means “good.” And, it remains a prefix we use often. Consider our word “euphoria.” It combines “eu” + “pherein,” meaning “to carry” creating a word that means “to carry a good feeling.” The word “angelion” means “message.” Together, we now have a word that means “good message.” However, the root words that form “euangelion” are only half of the intriguing story behind this word. The reason for its initial construction as a word supplies a greater depth of meaning to this term.

Originally used to mean the gift given to a person who delivered news about a military victory, the word morphed into a reference about that message of victory itself. Eventually, once the church had almost exclusively commandeered the word, the term shifted, again, to refer to a kind of literature that describes the life of Jesus, e.g., the four gospels of the New Testament. Although, that reference to a kind of literature is much later and is not as interesting for our purposes.

Rather, what I am interested in exploring over this coming year is not how we have come to use the term but to understand better how the early church used the term in its formative years when the church decided it wanted to apply this particular term to describe the message it was delivering to the world. It is that term’s association with victory that the church co-opted (from both Hebrew and Greek contexts) to convey something about the person and message of Jesus, e.g., consider the text from Isaiah quoted at the beginning of this reflection. It is that term of victory that lies behind early church speakers, hearers, and writers use of the word. And, it is that notion of victory that shapes their theological imaginations and practical behaviors.

So, each week, our task is to identify the particular “good news” conveyed by the various writers and enhabitors of the gospel, to establish what they meant by it, to consider what sort of victory they imagined, and to wrestle with how that victory has any practical bearing on our lives and work, today. Or, in other words, to try to answer the question: “Victory over what?” Their answers might surprise you.

This should be fun!

One

Posted in Uncategorized on August 15, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

. . . with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

—Ephesians 4:2-6

In our lives, it is amazing how much energy we can pour into a single event. Consider how much time, how many resources, level of emotional commitment we allocate to one thing. Look at the pains taken to plan a wedding, to organize a festival, to build a house. It seems like everything we have done hinges on a single moment, an “I do,” an “it’s been great; thanks for coming out,” a “here are your keys.” Despite all that goes before and after that has equal bearing on the success or failure of any enterprise, we put a disproportional weight on one day’s, one moment’s happenings.

At a college, our community’s life appears to carry a similar degree heightened expectation loaded onto a single event: the start of a new academic year. Students are recruited; money is raised; faculty and staff are hired; rooms are assigned, materials purchased, lectures written, grounds and buildings prepared, and events planned. All this is done to make the first day a great day, serving to catapult the semester toward success. In our minds, we all know that the first day is just another day among many days that collectively work together to create an experience we might call “great”. Yet, regardless of the logic that one day is no more important to the whole than the totality of all the days of our academic lives, there is something significant that lingers in the idea of the first day . . . that one, singular day from which all other days follow.

I guess this emphasis upon those singularly important events is unavoidable. And, in many respects, the author of the letter to the Ephesians recognizes the importance and weight of the “one,” choosing to use our appreciation for “one” to make a theological point. The writer makes this point by making a shift.

Early Christian thinking within those first decades of the church often focused theological claims around a temporal cosmology. Now, a “temporal cosmology” is just a complicated way of saying that when thinking about theological things early Christian writers—namely the apostle Paul—formulated their thoughts on an understanding of the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in terms of time and the way that God’s actions in Jesus altered everything by merging the past, present, and future into the single, transformative event of cross. In this way, early Christian theologians see a paradoxical tension between the “now” of the new kingdom Jesus has initiated and the “not yet” of that kingdom still to come. With regard to our notion of “oneness” in this temporal cosmology, we stand both in the present reality of our lives yet, also, within the future reality of a radical new way of living where slaves and masters are one people, where Gentiles and Jews are not distinguishable, and where men and women hold the same status. The “now” and the “soon to be” are somehow “one in the same.”

Yet, here, in Ephesians, the author is trying a different strategy. In part, the author is trying a different strategy because many years have passed since the first Christians imagined their theological ponderings in the language of time and a presumed imminent return of Jesus. Obviously, that return had not happened—at least not in ways that they might have initially assumed. So, they are having to adjust their thoughts. Accordingly, they are adjusting their language and their imagery used to understand their faith.

There is value in this adjustment in imagery. In addition to allowing them to distance themselves from their potentially errant prediction that Jesus should have already returned, this new way of conceptualizing their faith avoids the temporal paradox of “now” and “not yet” by imagining the faith not in terms that are temporal but, rather, spatial. (It seems somewhat easier to imagine two places existing concurrently instead of two times.) Relying on this shift in thought, the author uses its practical effectiveness to consider how something can be both multiple and singular simultaneously, e.g., a body with many parts.

Building on this idea that “one” might also be “many,” the author takes the opportunity to imply the Trinity into the argument—“one Spirit . . . one Lord . . . one God and Father of all”—as a way of confirming that multiplicity and singularity are natural companions and that such a reality that exists in heaven must also be possible on earth. Note the spatial rather than temporal texture of this thought. Heaven and earth are spatial notions that overlap with practical consequences for how we are to live in our present reality, i.e., many in the faith community are one body while many faith communities are one church. This is the author’s point in Ephesians that despite our distance from each other because of time and space and despite some variations in practice and belief that our common God makes for one people comprised of many peoples.

This concept of unity is interesting for our College as we start a new year. We are people from many places, backgrounds, disciplines, understandings, persuasions, and beliefs. Yet, we are somehow, despite all our differences, one. This unity, as the author of Ephesians seems to be aware, is not to be confused with uniformity. After all, the Trinity—the very model upon which the author chooses to base this argument—is a diverse multiplicity not to be compressed into a singularity. We can celebrate the uniqueness we possess while rallying as a single people commonly working to create a place of outstanding education through faith-filled personal and social transformation.

Without a doubt, the pressure of a single moment, of one day remains important to us. However, in light of this passage from Ephesians, the “one” of this day is not so much about its timing but about its allusion to common people of a common purpose. Over the coming academic year, I invite you to explore with us in Religious Life what it means to claim to be “one.”

Have a great start to the year.