The community who reads this blog today is in fact the community of original disciples (‘this is that’) confronted by the mysterious first Easter Sunday AND the community of final disciples (‘then is now’) who will be present on that Day of Christ’s last coming. With our heads and hearts on a swivel, we have a focus behind us in Great Story told in the New Testament and before us in the ‘end pictures’ that portray the End of the Great Story someday in the future! The past and future compel us today.
In the 21st century, with so many complex issues and moral questions confronting us, how can we organize an ethical life that faithfully follows Jesus today? What does God will for us to be obedient to? McClendon describes the quest for the Christian ethical life as a binding of three ethical strands that together form a rope that is quite difficult to break. Each strand is interdependent on the others for the task of living faithfully in this complex world. These strands are first identified, not by looking to ourselves, but instead viewing the last days of the Jesus in the gospels.
It is important to remember that these ethical strands are tied to the Great Story in which our community participates. Because it is the point where our individual and communal stories intersect with God’s Great Story, this is known as ‘narrative ethics,’ which is different than focusing on ‘principles’ or ‘values’ to follow. The Great Story always resists reduction to smaller units that, in the end, tend to forget the Story we are participating in. In a later meeting, we will explore more why concepts like narrative, tradition, community and virtue are so vital to Christian living in the 21st century.
In our last meeting, we saw that the event of Jesus’ life was the inbreaking of God’s rule. Through his teaching, his miracles, his healings and his entire obedient life, God brought his rule to bear on the lives of Jesus’ diverse band of disciples. At the end of his life, he was arrested, ‘tried’ and convicted to die on a Roman cross. At this point in the story, McClendon asks three key questions:
<blockquote>1. Surely the inbreaking of the new age will succor one who loved even his enemies?
2. Surely the solidarity of community (the disciples) will sustain its leader and Lord?
3. Surely, if all else fail, a mighty sign from God will intervene to turn back the power that crush him?
As each gospel writer shows us, NONE of these ‘surelys’ come to be! Instead, Jesus dies at the hands of his enemies, his disciples scatter and, as Mark’s gospel laments, God forsakes him. However, as the reader of the story gives up, God intervenes:
1. The body is renewed, raised
2. The disciples are re-gathered
3. The new age is begun
On the first Easter Sunday, God weaves three ethical strands for those who dare to live the ‘new in Christ’: (1) an embodied strand that takes seriously the body with all of its needs and drives; (2) a social strand which takes seriously life in community; and (3) a resurrection strand which characterizes the adventurous transformation that God brings in Jesus.
In the first strand of our ethical lives, God is the ‘Powerfully Present One’ who provides and cares for our human needs, desires, drives and ambitions. He is the creator of the world and everything in it [Acts 17] and knows what we need before we even ask. Love is a powerful example of a strand one reality. Our ideas of what love is and how to get it are heavily influenced by many of the stories that our culture tells us about love. Ultimately, love according to the Great Story is a gift from God and a legitimate feeling [however shaky and deceitful our feelings can be. But love, in the Great Story, is also a ‘virtue,’ a skill for living as a character in the Great Story. We learn this virtue from Jesus who, like a slave, washed his disciples feet and then died for his friends on the cross (John 13:34-35):
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Our second ethical strand takes seriously our need for and virtually constant existence in community. God’s intent for humanity is for each embodied self to need others. God’s rule has broken into this world of ‘powerful practices.’ These are what God has created to organize society: government and all of its agencies, schools, workplaces, families and all of its traditions and many, many other examples. These ‘powers that be’ are essential to ordering our lives—otherwise, we would have chaos, anarchy. Powerful practices—from Christmas gift-giving to ‘rules’ for what to do when you sit on a public bus to the lack of grocery stories in the inner-city neighborhoods to how health-care is provided in the United States—are not either ‘all-bad’ or ‘all-good.’ Instead, most of them serve an important God-given function, but have the capacity to carry out evil in many forms. They have been created by God to serve us, but instead have become our masters and enslave us. But God’s rule inaugurated in Jesus has unmasked the illusion of these ‘powers’ (Colossians 1:15; 2:10,15):
…for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
...and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority…
He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
As God’s ‘eschatological people,’ our vocation is to confront these ‘powerful practices with ‘almost infinite adjustments, distinctions and gradations’ (Ethics, 176). Communities of Jesus followers enact ‘powerful practices’ that engage these powers of society by creatively redeeming them. As agents of God’s rule, God is our Companion along the way!
Lastly, the resurrection strand is the transforming adventure that God calls us to (II Corinthians 5:17).
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is significant for us in three ways:
1. It confirms that God is just and gives us a reason for ‘why’ we should be moral: ‘Because God has continued his powerful action by raising Jesus from the dead!’
2. It gives us a whole new way of viewing the world—-we now live in a tension of two ages, concretely embodying the ‘age to come’ as a foretaste of what life will be like when the ‘old age’ is finally replaced.
3. It reveals the true nature and intent of God’s rule—-it is not just about beliefs or religious experiences or a new philosophy—it is about the active transformation humanity into the very image of the full faithfulness of Jesus.
The resurrection strand reminds us time and time again that God is active in this world and will end our present world on his terms. God is the Adventurer, the One who goes before us. This reminds us that our nuclear capacities and the war on terror, our big banks accounts and 401k plans, our resumes and all the important people we know—none of these are ultimate:
[Jesus’] resurrection stakes out indelibly in history the claim of the One the Bible calls the God of peace [Heb 13:20]; it announces that while the worst man can do is bad indeed, it is immeasurably fainter, weaker than the best that God can do. [326, Ethics]
These three strands make up the life we call ‘Christian.’ They call us to a lifestyle [both individually and communally] that reflects God’s rule, his design and intent for humanity and everything else there is.
1. Review the three strands together. Take some time and think about how each of the strands is a factor in your own life.
a. Share something that represents your embodied strand—what is something that you can transparently share with the community that you need prayer for?
b. Share something that represents your social life. Can you think of a ‘powerful practice’ that you would like to see redeemed in a certain way?
c. Name one thing in the world that you look forward to God transforming!
For Further Reading:
The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder
In Southern California, there are many unique ethical issues. Younger communities of the ‘baptist vision’ are confronted with complex questions about
image and fashion consciousness,
sexual touching and talking,
economic inequalities and
gross materialism [to name a few].
This is a daunting list and communities are called to dialogue and discern their way-of-life together. How can churches engage in powerful practices that critique and redeem the brokenness, victimization and enslavement that multitudes experience in these areas? And how can churches empower and equip individuals to think through these and experience healing, renewal and liberation? God is deeply concerned with the individual drives, needs and desires of each individual, but also cares just as much for structures, organizations and institutions [‘powerful practices’] that make up our society at large. In the process of this very life, He yearns to transform the world any way we divide it—individually, socially, communally, nationally and structurally.