Sunday, February 8, 2009

The perception of Jesus in History

April writes (in February even!)

And it is quite clear ... // that the second generation of Christians thought his [Jesus'] message about the coming of the Kingdom of God was an eschatological message //
that did not fulfill itself as expected.
Before deconstructing this sentence, I think the bracketed part is what many of those who believe in the risen Christ today would say. The initial 'quite clear' is anything but. The final qualifier 'that did not fulfill itself as expected' depends on what is meant by expected. Once one's expectations are - what shall I say? - purified by the mystery of obedience, then the words just fall into place and the kingdom of love is known without violence and exploitation.

The second generation - I assume this could mean any time following the crucifixion.

of Christians - I find this term impossible. I know we need an abbreviation for this concept. I just avoid using it.

thought Jesus' message about the coming of the Kingdom of God - What is this kingdom and why is it not seen in the radical nature of Jesus life and death? He is one who exhibits what it means to have God as king. His message is not new - it is in the Psalms and the Prophets of the Old Covenant. The Psalmists have as much trouble with it as Jesus did - but they do not ultimately fail in their hope and neither does he. Jesus message, per the witness of his disciples in their various guises, is Jesus himself.

was an eschatological message - eschatological is an adjective that defies understanding. I am not into a pure linearity of time. The ephemeral nature of thought as a byproduct of biology has perhaps given us an oversimplified time dimension. In any case, I don't know where on this time-line to place the eschaton. If by eschatological we mean 'the last things present', or 'the presence of the end' as for instance what Job wanted -

my sayings written?
... in a book inscribed?
on a tablet of iron and lead
for ever in the rock engraved?
I? - I know my vindication of life
As with me, I would know my redeemer alive
one that comes later will stand over my dust
and after my skin is stripped
but from my flesh I would see God
whom I - I will see for myself
and my eyes will gaze and not another
fired my own fires within me

- whereby the Vindicator is not simply presiding over our dust, then the mystery of the presence of the end in history is there in the New Testament texts to be solved even among all the so called contradictions of the secret of the kingdom and the hardened hearts of the disciples. God and God's kingdom fit in both the manifestations and the interstices of things.

that did not fulfill itself - depends on what you were expecting. I don't think much is 'very clear' about these ancient thoughts and their history. What is clear is what people think of them today - and it is confused and often wrong. Wrong because it leads to violence and exploitation, i.e. Christian (or scholarly) imperialism in its many forms over the last 1700 years.

Suppose that I could write a book that would explain the origins of Christianity. If I were a believer, it would be a book that was informed by my faith - and every translation I made and every word I wrote would be informed by that faith. But the information of those words would not be the faith. If I were not a believer, then what I wrote and what I read would be informed by that lack of faith. But the information would not the lack of faith. Whether believer or not, there is a time of confrontation - a judgment - did I really believe that I could act this way - for what I thought of as a good but which I knew might be destructive to another? If you are not a believer, then who cares? But you care. Why else would you be writing?

Perhaps someone has acted this way recently and their conscience is touched. But the drive to destroy, the compulsion and the addiction to violence are there in that person, or society, or culture. The judgment against that culture / person happens. Maybe he or she was not appointed to taunt or to destroy or to teach or write in such and such a way. How do we respond to such judgment? If we are not a believer than this is not judgment nor is our action 'sin'. Who cares? God is indifferent as far as we are concerned. If we are a believer, even if we are to complain of our judgment - as Job, or agree with it, as David, we will want to reestablish the relationship -

Make me to hear rejoicing and mirth
rejoice the bones you have crushed
Hide your face from my sin
and all my guilt, blot out
A clean heart create in me, O God
and a right spirit, renew within me
Do not cast me from your presence
and your holy spirit do not remove from me
Return to me the joy of your salvation
in a willing spirit, support me
I will teach criminals your ways
and sinners to you will be turned

As a layman I can only surmise based on my own experience. I am satisfied with what I have known and how I have been known in my history of Christ. That history is all I have - even including all the many Historical Jesus and Gospel decomposition books I have read, or all the Pauline and Johannine theology I have thought, or all the translations of scripture and non scripture I have read and remembered, or all the attempts at my own translation of ancient texts that I have made. I have no idea quite how to express it. The heart is known and judged by its actions. I have no complex confession, nor an ecclesiology, nor a set of impossible things to say three times a day. There is no experiment you could do on me to discover its essence. The only one who is allowed such freedom with me is God. Clarity is not mine to share except that I know how I got here.

Coincidentally, Ken Schenck has just written a bit on C.S. Lewis and his image of Deep Magic, his stretch to find words. Lewis was very helpful - but the book of his that helped me the most is The Great Divorce. In no other literature outside the Bible have I seen a clearer image of the power of the agreement of the person confronted with addiction to the destruction of that addiction. The very distortion of the addiction itself, once released in covenant by the death of Christ, is able to use its power now freed to achieve its real desire, the presence of God. In this light, we see light, and things become clearer. Lewis's analogy is a direct interpretation of Romans 8:13: "but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live".

This is, I think, why the first Jewish believers in Jesus wrote and spoke. Because they knew the reality of their baptism into his death. His death became their end of time in history, and the beginning of their new life.

(My rendering of Job is influenced by The Book of Job, A New Commentary (1967) by N. H. Tur Sinai. For my translation of Psalm 51 see here.)

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