Sunday, May 20, 2012

Reconciling Righteousness

"You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time."
"And how long is that going to take?"
"I don't know. As long as you live, perhaps."
"That could be a long time."
"I will tell you a further mystery," he said. 'It may take longer."
— Wendell Berry (Jayber Crow)
We live in a divided world and the divisions seem deeper by the day. Are you friend or foe?  One of us, or one of them?  We keep our checklists handy: check the wrong box on any one of fifty issues and the walls go up, alarms sound. Dialogue is over.

The world Jesus walked in was surely as divided. Romans and Jews, Pharisees and Sadducees, men afraid to speak with or acknowledge women, lepers and other “unclean” living in isolation out on the margins.

Read through the accounts of Jesus’ trials and watch the deceit and manipulation as each group maneuvered toward preservation of power, with Jesus, the blameless one, propelled toward his death. He didn’t fit, wouldn’t affirm the checklists of any party. His very silence threatened those committed to their own authority. The solution was obvious: make the silence permanent.
The Baptism of Cornelius the Centurian
Francesco Travisani, 1709

The resurrection is the great rebuttal to that attempted silencing, to those confident in their own power, to those dependent on their own divisive categories. From the Acts of the Apostles to John’s Revelation, the New Testament shows the followers of Christ struggling to explain and live out the profound implications of his unexpected return, not just for themselves, but for the opposing groups around them, for the nations beyond their borders, for the earth itself, groaning under the weight of human folly.

Christ’s followers found themselves living into mysteries beyond their understanding. We read through their writing, looking for bits that are easy to remember, that line up neatly with our own preferred positions. But much of what they had to say, lived out across a backdrop of miraculous events, unexpected alliances, frightening persecution, leaves us baffled. We shrug, and go on with our own agendas.

Here’s one of those passages I’ve been puzzling over:
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-21)
The Christian faith is often presented as a simple, personal transaction. If we say we believe in Christ, God forgives our sins, gives us eternal life, and all is well. No worries.

But this passage draws us into a net of relationship – not just with God, but with others, a wide mix of unsorted others. According to the Apostle Paul, this resurrection life demands our alignment with Christ in his love, in his death, and in his role as reconciler. He took our place on the cross, so now we take his place as ambassadors, agents of reconciliation.

But Paul goes further than that: as people of the resurrection, we are agents of God’s reconciling purpose, but even more: “we become the righteousness of God.”

St. Philip Baptizing the Eunuch
Theodore Chasseriau
That’s a startling statement. Most theologians take one look and head off into discussions of “imputed righteousness.” In fact, this passage about reconciliation and righteousness has itself become a point of less-than-righteous division: what exactly did Paul mean? Does your interpretation line up with mine?

I’m not sure Paul is talking theology here. To me, he’s concerned with a day-to-day, walk- it-out practical question: What does it mean to live as resurrection people in the broken, battered right-now world? How do we show God’s glory in these imperfect jars of clay? How do we live God’s power when we’re so worn down we have trouble standing?

And if Paul is using the term "God's righteousness" in a way that reflects his study of Torah, he's talking about relationships: How do we engage in consistently redemptive relationships that show, in action, the steadfast love and faithfulness of God himself? (For insight into translation difficulties check section 4 in this challenging discussion).

Miroslav Volf is a theologian who has inhabited these questions for decades. A Croatian who grew up in Serbia under Communist rule, a Pentecostal whose theological studies were interrupted by forced military service in Yugoslavia, he has struggled personally with the challenge of reconciliation, of forgiveness, and the call to love in a way that reflects God’s faithfulness. In Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation, Volf reflects on this passage in Corinthians:
"'So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.' When God comes, God brings a whole new world. The Spirit of God breaks through the self-enclosed worlds we inhabit; the Spirit re-creates us and sets us on the road toward becoming what I like to call a “catholic personality,” a personal microcosm of the eschatological new creation. A catholic personality is a personality enriched by otherness, a personality which is what it is only because multiple others have been reflected in it in a particular way. The distance from my own culture that results from being born by the Spirit creates a fissure in me through which others can come in. The Spirit unlatches the doors of my heart saying: 'You are not only you; others belong to you too.'"(51)
Volf talks about becoming selves capable of including and forgiving others, not just tolerating those with different ideas, cultures, values, but embracing them:
"Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us. Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others in ourselves and invite them in - even our enemies" (129)
Is Volf right? Is our experience of God’s grace shaped by our willingness to extend it to others?

The resurrection men and women of the New Testament lived God’s embrace in a way that broke down century-old barriers between ethnic groups, that dissolved ancient hatreds between nations, that drew the most marginalized into the heart of community. Their faithfulness as agents of reconciliation shook the Roman empire, radiated across continents, rearranged social constructs and left a heritage of hope that still echoes across the globe.

Where does Christ’s love compel us today?  What new selves are we called to be? What will it cost us to make space for others?

We Are All One in Jesus Christ, Soichi Watanabe, 2009, Japan

This is the sixth in a series about the resurrection:

Risen Indeed: The Hermaneutic Community 
The Great Reversal: A Resurrection People 
Earth Day Shalom: Ripples of Resurrection  
Resurrection Challenge: Feed My Sheep
Resurrection Laughter 
Resurrection Women: Happy Mother's Da

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the ___comments link below to see comments and to post your own.