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Political Theology

If this story of Jesus is the story of Israel reaching its climax, it is inescapably political and will raise questions the Western world has chosen not to raise, let alone face, throughout the period of so-called critical scholarship. The post-Enlightenment world was born out of a movement that split church and state apart and has arranged even its would-be historical scholarship accordingly; and that same Enlightenment insisted that Judaism was the wrong kind of religion, far too gross, far too material. Rejection, from the start, of a “political” reading of the gospels and of a “Jewish” reading went together. Fortunately, genuine history–the actual study of the actual sources–can sometimes strike back and insist that what a previous generation turned off this generation can at last turn back on. It is time, and long past time, to reread the gospels as what we can only call political theology–not because they are not after all about God and spirituality and new birth and holiness and all the rest, but precisely because they are.

~ from How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels by N.T. Wright

found at http://images2.layoutsparks.com/1/30243/the-seduction-green-apples.jpg

“I Cannot Do It”

Lectio: Romans 7:15-25

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Meditatio: I Cannot Do It.”

If you found the link above, you were brought to an SNL sketch from this past season, probably my favorite all year. It is as different in tone from Paul’s frustrated laments as can be, and yet I couldn’t help but be reminded of this sketch. It is hysterical watching a mountainous man completely incapable of exerting any strength, but it is shatteringly defeating when our own strengths and efforts are discovered to be just as worthless and ineffective in the face of temptation and sin and shortcoming.

This reading is perhaps one of the more familiar passages of Paul’s letters, because we see in it that even our spiritual heroes do not have it all together, and we are comforted. (This is also one of the most difficult passages to read, or hear read, because of the convoluted sentences: “do, do not, do not do, what I want, do not want, want to do, do not want to do.” A tongue-twister, and an ear-wrangler.) At the same time, it offers us only a brief glimpse of any really good news, and only at the end.

I am drawn this morning to hear Paul saying, “I cannot do it.” This is like watching the strongest man in town straining to lift a pebble: hilarious, and saddening. If not even Paul the Apostle can keep in step with the Spirit and do the good God calls us to, what hope is there for us? Are any of us able?

What if that’s the good news? Can we even see utter inability as good news? I am profoundly comforted and reassured to know that God’s “omnipotence” really does mean he is all-powerful, all-able, all-doing. What is more, if God has all the power, then I do not, can not, should not. This is complicated good news, because being freed from having to engineer my own salvation and transformation does not free me from the responsibility of right response when it is freely offered to me. This is the crux of Paul’s quandary: if we are not able to transform ourselves, but are still responsible when transformation is offered to us, where do we stand when “this body of death,” sin’s constant, hidden influence, endures?

We stand in God’s grace. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Oratio:

Lord, Jesus Christ,

I surrender all of me to you, the parts that are already yours by your indwelling presence, and the parts of me that still resist and hold out for their own satisfaction and gratification. Open my eyes to the places within me where the light of your Spirit has not yet been shone, and shadows are still sown to keep the secrets hidden. Soften my heart towards myself, that I may see my hidden, unseen faults without self-abuse or self-loathing. Let me love the false parts of myself as you do, and let self-giving love chase out self-preserving fear and apathy.

Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

Amen.

Contemplatio: Surrender

I close with this quote from 15th-century mystic Catherine of Genoa:Catherine of Genoa

Since I am determined to join myself to God, I find that I am also bound to be the enemy of his enemies. And since I find nothing that is more his enemy than the self that is in me, I am constrained to hate this part of me more than any other. Indeed, because of the war that exists between it and the Spirit, I am determined to separate it from myself and treat it as nothing.

I then saw others who were fighting against their evil inclinations and forcing themselves to resist them. But I saw that the more they struggled against them, the more they committed them. So I said to them, “You are right in lamenting your sins and imperfections, and I would be lamenting with you if it were not for the fact that God is holding me. You cannot defend yourself and I cannot defend myself. The thing we must do is renounce the care of ourselves unto God who can defend our true self. Only then can God do for us what we cannot do ourselves.”

~ Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), Life and Teachings

(in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings, ed. Richard Foster & James Brian Smith)

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St. Basil, on Pentecost

On the Holy Spirit: St. Basil the Great“Why We Stand to Pray on Sundays”

We say our prayers standing on the first day of the week, but not all know the reason why. By standing for prayer we remind ourselves of the grace given to us on the day of the resurrection, as if we are rising to stand with Christ and being bound to seek what is above. Not only this, it also seems somehow to be an image of the day to come. On account of this, although it is the beginning of days, Moses names it not “first” but “one.” For it is written, “There was evening, and there was morning, one day” (Gen 1.5), as if the same one often repeated. Now, “One” and “Eighth” are the same, which indicates of itself that the really “one” and the true “eighth”–which the Psalmist mentions in some titles of psalms–are the state after this time, the unceasing, unending perpetual day , that never-ending and ever-young age. Necessarily, then, the Church teaches her foster children to pray standing on this day, so that we would not neglect the provisions for our journey to everlasting life by a constant reminder of it. And the whole of Pentecost is a reminder of the resurrection to come in eternity, for that “one” and first day, multiplied by seven seven times, fills up the seven weeks of sacred Pentecost. It begins on the first day and ends on the same day, revolving fifty times through similar days in between. Eternity is like a circular movement, beginning from the same points where it ends. The ordinance of the Church well taught us to prefer to stand at prayer on this day, as if we were leading our minds from the present to the future. With each going down on the knee and rising up we indicate in deed that we have fallen through sin to the earth and are called up to heaven by the love of our creator.

~ St. Basil the Great, in On the Holy Spirit

Resurrection Life, and Resurrection Community

Is the resurrection really so important? Does Easter really matter, beyond pastel colors that mildly suggest spring’s vitality and innocent animals that vaguely represent springtime fertility? Is it necessary to believe that Jesus really rose from the dead to a new life — rather than simply resuscitating or waking up or something more objectively plausible — to be called a Christian?

Paul seems to think so.

Paul writes urgent, lengthy letters to the Corinthian Christians, because they seem to be asking many of these same questions. Their debates and misunderstandings prompt Paul to write pages and pages, all of which hinge on Jesus’s–and, therefore, on our own, as those in Christ–real resurrection. Paul comes right out and says it in chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians:

And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you—a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord. If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Do not be deceived:

“Bad company ruins good morals.”

Come to a sober and right mind, and sin no more; for some people have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame. (1 Corinthians 15:30-34)

Paul offers himself as a living example of what he is trying to say. Because Christ is risen and death is vanquished, Paul lives a certain, peculiar way. He is willing to undergo and endure suffering “every hour,” to “die ever day.” He even “fought with wild animals”! This is Christ-ian living, because it is firmly and forcefully directed by hope in the promise of sharing in Christ’s new life.

N.T. Wright explains this further in his book Surprised by Hope:

For Paul, holiness is never a matter of simply finding out the way you seem to be made and trusting that that’s the way God intends you to remain. Neither is it a matter of blind obedience to arbitrary and out-of-date rules. It’s a matter of transformation, starting with the mind. That is why, to return to I Corinthians, it is the resurrection–both that of Jesus and that of ourselves–that provides…the ultimate rationale for Christian behavior. It isn’t the case that Christian ethics consists of a few odd regulations and restrictions that Christians are supposed to follow while still living in exactly the same world as everyone else, just as it isn’t the case that the resurrection of Jesus was simply a very strange miracle within the world of old creation. The resurrection was the full bursting in to this world of the life of God’s new creation; Christian ethics is the lifestyle that celebrates and embodies that new creation. (page 284)

This may sound strange and surprising. I was certainly caught off guard. So much of the spiritual formation material I have read and sampled and seen used in churches relies on the idea that Christian living is precisely “a matter of simply finding out the way you seem to be made and trusting that that’s the way God intends you to remain.” So-called “spiritual gifts” surveys, the Enneagram tool, and many of the Bible-application studies for small groups assume that who I most basically am is exactly who God made me to be, and yet at the same time expect an unspecified, eventual “transformation” to occur in spite of this premise. Thankfully, I have also seen some more helpful tools used — for instance, the Apprentice series — which honestly and helpfully examine the whole self, the inherently mixed good and bad of which we are comprised, and present a very specific vision of transformation into Christ-likeness.

We are not already perfected creatures. This was, in part, the Corinthian Christian’s mistake, to believe that they had achieved real transformation and that sanctification was a finished thing. Christ’s resurrection does not mean that we are already resurrected; we yet wait. The 16th-century English pastor and poet John Donne articulates the struggle and suffering of this waiting well:

Holy Sonnet II: “As Due by Many Titles I Resign,” by John Donne

As due by many titles I resign
Myself to thee, O God, first I was made
By thee, and for thee, and when I was decayed
Thy blood bought that, the which before was thine,

I am thy son, made with thy self to shine,
Thy servant, whose pains thou hast still repaid,
Thy sheep, thine image, and, till I betrayed
My self, a temple of thy Spirit divine;

Why doth the devil then usurp on me?
Why doth he steal, nay ravish that’s thy right?
Except thou rise and for thine own work fight,
Oh I shall soon despair, when I do see

That thou lov’st mankind well, yet wilt not choose me,
And Satan hates me, yet is loth to lose me.

Donne recognizes that he is thoroughly and wholly God’s — “made” by God, “bought” by God; “son,” “servant,” “sheep,” “image,” “temple”; God’s “right” and “own work” — and yet he must wrestle with the reality of his sinfulness: “I was decayed”; “I betrayed / My self”. What is more, Donne wrestles with Satan’s work to “usurp,” “steal,” and “ravish” Donne. This is the paradox of the Christian life: that God has utterly and entirely claimed us as His own, and yet can seem so distant and disinterested; meanwhile, Satan loathes all that bears God’s divine signature, and yet sweats and swears to claim it for his own. It is this paradox that Christ’s resurrection answers. We wait in hope, real hope, because Christ has risen indeed!

One last note. An important component to this resurrection transformation, which Paul recognizes, is the Christian community and it’s life together. Paul uses a proverb — “Bad company ruins good morals” — to encourage the Corinthian Christians to persevere toward transformation together. This is a particular strength of the Apprentice series I mentioned earlier. This is also why our churches must become resurrection communities, and why “membership” is not optional for the Christian, but vital.

Living out a life of Christian holiness makes sense, perfect sense, within God’s new world, the world into which we are brought at baptism, the world where we are nourished by the Eucharist. Of course, if you try to live a Christian lifestyle outside of this framework, you will find it as difficult, indeed nonsensical, as it would be for an orchestral performer to play his or her part separated from the rest of the players amid the crashes and metallic screeching of an automobile factory. Not that we aren’t called, of course, to practice our discipleship in the hard, outside world, which rumbles on as though Easter had never happened. But if we are to be true to our risen Lord, we will need, again and again, to retune our instruments and practice once more alongside our fellow musicians. (Surprised by Hope, 284-285)