Sunday, April 7, 2013

Newness Beyond Our Achieving

Yours is the kingdom….not the kingdom of death,
Ancient cross of India
Yours is the power….not the glory of death.
     Yours….You….and we give thanks
             For the newness beyond our achieving.
                           (Walter Brueggeman)

“Newness beyond our achieving.”

That little phrase, at the close of the resurrection prayer by Walter Bruggeman I quoted in my last post, has been traveling with me.

Isn’t that the ongoing evidence of Christ’s resurrection, the “newness beyond our achieving”?

The newness in the world around me, trout lilies in bloom, forsythia budding, reminds me how dependent we are on power beyond ourselves – the movement of the planets, the shifting of clouds and wind.

But beyond weather, seasons, discernable cycles, Christ’s resurrection promises newness unexpected, uncharted, astonishing.

The early church shaped itself around that astonishment.

No one inventing a religion would sign on Peter as patriarch. Self-absorbed lout of a fisherman, he had trouble thinking before he spoke, and understood almost nothing Jesus told him. As Jesus described the challenges ahead, Peter put himself center stage once again, interrupting: “I’ll never betray you! You can count on me!” And denied Jesus three times before the next sunrise.

Yet, following the resurrection and his experience of the promised Holy Spirit, he was a new person, with a newness beyond his own achieving or imagining. Willing to invite a lame man to stand and walk. Able to explain the sweep of Jewish history in a way that made God’s purpose clear. Courageous in the face of the same religious leaders who planned Christ’s crucifixion. Joyful in prison after a brutal beating.

Luke noted, in Acts 4, “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”

Peter and John weren’t the only ones.

“Doubting Thomas,” once his doubts were dispelled, carried the good news of the resurrection across the landmass of Iran and Iraq and through much of India, where the Thomas Christian community still carries his name.

Matthew, Philip, James and John, all the disciples but Judas Iscariot, carried their amazement and joy to the farthest reaches of the known world, planting churches, all but John losing their lives in service to the story of resurrection newness.

Forty Martyrs of Sebaste
First century Christians, in places like Antioch and Alexandria, Cypress and Seville, even as far north as Gaul and as far east as Madras, captured attention for their openness to outsiders, their care for those more often marginalized, their commitment to peace, their inexplicable joy and courage. Accounts of those early believers provides a catalog of some of humanity’s most creative, capricious acts of cruelty, yet the resounding testimony of those within the church, as well as those opposed, was that the mark of the Christians was peace and courage in the face of persecution, gentle response to violent attack.

According to the unknown author of the historic “letter to Diognetes,” (ca AD 130): 
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. . . Inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined . . .they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.
 . . .They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. . . They are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers.”
 In North Africa, Tertullian (AD 160-225) echoed the same themes: 
We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope. . .
 Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are . . . not spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in the prisons . . . See, they say, how they love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred. See, they say about us, how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves would sooner kill.
Athenagoras of Athens, writing to “the Emperors Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus," explained:
Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth.
 They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.
Justin Martyr, c. A.D. 150, called attention to the same new priorities and changed behavior: 
We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring what we have into a common stock and share with everyone in need.
 We who hated and destroyed one another and because of their different customs would not live with men of a different tribe, now—since the coming of Christ—live familiarly with them, pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ.
Was the Roman empire undermined by its dissolute, demented leaders, or swept away by the tide of newness welling up from the spread of Christian conscience and courage?

Historians have been arguing that for centuries. A similar discussion will someday focus on the fall of the Communist era. Laszlo Tokes, the Hungarian pastor who helped lead the Romanian resistance, has said “Eastern Europe is not just a political revolution but a religious renaissance.”

Hill of crosses in Lithuania
In East Germany, resistance to communism sprang up from teaching about the sermon on the mount at Gethsemane Church. Christian Fuhrer, the pastor who eventually led over thousands of Germans in peaceful protest through the streets of Liepzig, described his experience of God’s power at work through prayer: 
People accepted Jesus’ message, especially the message of the Sermon on the Mount. We experienced in a very special way that everything that is written here is true. . . . “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit.” “He pulls the powerful from their throne and lifts up the poor.” “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” We experienced it just like that—the church as a refuge and a place for change, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, no mention of paradise and redemption, but the daily bread in the reality of political hopelessness.
The special experience that we had during the years of peace prayers and then with this massive number of non-Christians in the church, which was exceptional, was that they accepted the message of Jesus. They grew up in two consecutive atheist dictatorships. They grew up with the Nazis who were preaching racism, the master race, prepared for war, and replaced God with Providence, as Hitler liked to say. They also grew up with the Socialists preaching class struggle and vilified the church by saying Jesus never existed, that’s all nonsense and fairy tales, legends, and your talk about nonviolence is dangerous idealism; what counts is politics, money, the army, the economy, the media. Everything else is nonsense. And the people who were brainwashed like this for years and grew up with that.
The fact that they accepted Jesus’ message of the Sermon on the Mount, that they summarized it in two words—no violence—and the fact that they did not only think and say it, but also practiced it consistently in the street was an incredible development, an unprecedented development in German history. If any event ever merited the description of “miracle” that was it . . . A peaceful revolution, a revolution that came out of the church. It is astonishing that God let us succeed with this revolution. After all the violence that Germany brought to the world in the two wars during the last century, especially the violence against the people from whom Jesus was born, a horrible violence, and now this wonderful result, a unique, positive development in German history. That is why we are so happy that the church was able to play this role and enabled this peaceful revolution.
The most important thing for us was the power of prayer, which is still true today. We are not praying to the air or to the wall, but to a living God.
The astonishing power of prayer that eventually tore down the Berlin Wall is the same power that dissolved the Roman Empire, that brought apartheid to a close, that ended slavery in England, that bubbles up in newness wherever God’s people grasp the astonishing truth Jesus preached, then demonstrated in his death and resurrection: Love is stronger than hate. Peace is more powerful than war. The darkness of death dissolves in the light of resurrection.
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people,  and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.  And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:17-23)

Other posts on resurrection:
Where is Newness Needed? March 31, 2013
Risen Indeed? The Hermaneutic Community  April 8, 2012
The Great Reversal: A Resurrection People  April 15, 2012
Earth Day Shalom: Ripples of Resurrection  April 22, 2012
Resurrection Challenge: Feed My Sheep  April 29, 2012
Resurrection Laughter  May 6, 2012
Resurrection Women – Happy Mother’s Day May 12, 2012
Words Half Heard: Reconciling Righteousness  May 20, 2012
Resurrection Power: A Prayer for Pentecost  May 27, 2012
 If Only   Apr 10, 2011
 Resurrection  Apr 25, 2011
Thank you for the cross  Apr 17, 2011