Sunday, March 6, 2016

After the Ashes: Newness

Five years ago on New Year’s Eve, a house not far from us caught fire. No one was home and no one was hurt, but the fire started in the basement, the firehouse was lightly staffed, and by the time
enough firefighters arrived to get the blaze under control the house was just a smoldering shell and needed to be torn down.

The new house built on the lot looks almost exactly like the old: same split-entry design, same windows, same narrow cement porch. The weird mansard roof is gone (roof tiles sloping down sharply from a flatter roof of the same material), and the siding is newer, but in many ways it looks the same.

I walk by the house often and find myself wondering: if you were going to build a new house, wouldn’t you want to make it really new? Start with a new, more functional design, rather than settle for new siding?

I suppose the interior may be totally redesigned, but from what I can see, it’s new, but not really.

That word “new” is a tricky one. There are two words in Greek that are sometimes translated “new”. “Neos” has the same root as new:  “With neos the temporal aspect is dominant, marking out the present moment as compared with a former.” 

That new house on Biddle is “neos”: fresh, recent, in the same way that the new growth in my yard is neos: fresh, green, but showing up where the same plants grew last year.

The other word translated “new’ is kainos:  qualitatively different from what came before; unprecedented; unheard of; new not just in time, but in substance.

“Newness” is a recurrent theme throughout the Bible: promises of a new heaven and earth, a new creation, new covenant, new testament, new people.

That newness is almost always kainos: unprecedented, unheard of, new not just in time, but substance.

I’ve been reading 1 and 2 Kings. Israel had lots of new kings, from the first new king, Saul, to the last,  Jehoiachin, living in exile on an allowance from his Babylonian captors. From first to last, they were new in time, but never new in substance. The very idea of “king” was borrowed from surrounding nations. God, through Samuel, described it as a derivative idea that would come to no good.

In 1 Samuel 8, the priestly leader Samuel described the reality the people were demanding:
This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. (2 Samuel 8:11-18) 
Those words echoed through the centuries that followed as kingly power was misused, labor and goods demanded by the increasingly profligate leaders while the people themselves slipped closer and closer to the status of slaves.

Sometimes we think “new” will bring relief from the old, but if new is simply “neos”, new in time, new face, new surface, but not “kainos”, new in quality, substance and structure, little really changes.

We are living in a time when the cry for “new” is very loud. Our old structures seem more and more to benefit the few at the expense of the many: party politics, consumptive capitalism, fossil-fuel-dependent progress, ethnic loyalties, nationalist agendas.

Potential leaders promising “new” are met with energy and eagerness, but what’s promised is too often a recycling of failed paradigms: ideas that have led to tragedy before and will lead to tragedy again.

Like the Hebrew nations longing for new kings, we hope a new leader will bring relief.

The real relief looks very different from what’s currently on offer: an unprecedented newness brought by an unexpected leader who said the last will be first and the least shall be greatest, who refused to inhabit the failed paradigm of power and instead offered an outrageous new “kainos” testament of sacrifice, grace, and love.

I am hungry for that genuine newness: a new form of leadership, a new economic model, a new conversation, a new community.

We live in that already/ not-yet kingdom, invited to follow the example of Christ, called to live as new people, with new agendas, in the not-new world of distrust, envy, anger, pride.

It’s a painful, challenging place to live.

I’ve been wondering about John, author of the gospel of John, three short epistles, and the book of Revelation. More than almost any other, he saw the new life Jesus promised, but knew the cruel reality of this present world. He was at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified and was no doubt well aware of the martyrdom of so many of his fellow disciples: beaten, stoned, and clubbed to death; killed with sword or spear; beheaded; crucified.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans 
under the Command of Titus, David Roberts, Britain, 1850

According to many scholars the letters of John were written late in his life, sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. By the time they were written, most of his fellow disciples were dead, along with many others martyred for their faith in Christ. Thousands of his people had been massacred by Roman procurator Gessius Florus. Many thousands more died during the four-year Jewish-Roman War. A five-month siege of Jerusalem ended with starvation, slavery, and complete dispersal of the remaining residents of Jerusalem. Anything of value in the temple was carted off to Rome, then all that remained was smashed and burned.

John had more reason than most to long for revenge, give way to hatred and bitterness, long for renewal of the old ways, the old places.

But his letters speak of astonishing newness, grounded and governed by love:
Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard.  Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.
 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. (1 John 2:7-10)
After the ashes of Jerusalem John was able to speak of newness: an unprecedented command that repeated one of the oldest commands, but put it in a new, unheard of, unimaginable context.

Love your neighbor as yourself. The command was passed down by Leviticus, encoded in the ten commandments, an essential part of the Torah.

“Yet I am writing you a new – kainos – command,” John wrote. “It’s truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.”

That new command took the idea of love, expanded it, enriched it, bathed it in light.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. if anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.  (1 John 3:16-18) 
It’s hard to imagine talking of love when one’s whole way of life has been burned by the oppressor.

It’s hard to live as children of light when darkness seems to be closing in.

Yet we’re called to a newness that springs up from ashes, called to live as light in a world of darkness, called to welcoming, active, sacrificial love when all around are voices of anger, hate and exclusion.

Called to walk in a newness of life that grows deeper, richer, more surprising with every step. A newness that will never grow old.

"Behold, I am making all things new."
This is the fourth in a Lenten series.

Other Lenten posts:




From 2013: