Pure Kingdom - Finding an Emergent Eschatology
I was born with glaucoma, an eye disease that can result in blindness that typically only afflicts the elderly. I read once that only 1 in 100,000 infants have the propensity to be born with glaucoma. Pretty slim odds, to be sure. Still, I was born with it. When the genes and chromosomes of my parents joined forces the resulting union contained a blight, and that blight nearly left me blind.
The surgery to save my sight was very new in 1969, and only two doctors in the United States were doing it. Funny. It's outpatient surgery now, but then it was pretty serious and fairly experimental. After all was said and done, I ended up legally blind in one eye---which is better than how things could have turned out, but not ideal. Though I am legally blind in my right eye, I can still see things like shadows, colors and shapes that I can sometimes identify. It's a whole lot better than nothing, I suppose. Because of its blindness, my right eye tends to wander a bit, and wants to peer in all directions. When I was young, the eye doctors told my parents it had to do with the muscles around my eye, and how they weren't going to develop properly. Consequently, I grew up dealing with a slightly crossed eye, a malady that resulted in some teasing, a few wonderful nick-names (Cross-Eyed Freak, is my fave) and more than one ruined school picture.
When I am tired, my wandering eye is especially noticeable. I often find myself looking in one direction with my left eye while my right eye is looking somewhere else. I have grown so accustomed to my wandering eye that I don't even think about it much any more. But then something will happen that reminds me once again that I am not completely whole. I'll be conducting a meeting, for example, and will recognize someone to speak---only the person I recognize will think I am looking behind them and will look around in consternation. At that point, I will usually close my wandering eye and point at them. Admittedly, that's kind of weird, too. I imagine that I look sort of strange, winking and pointing at people in a meeting, but there you are. I have no depth perception to speak of, either, and I have also discovered that I can't read the greens on a golf course. Oh, and 3-D movies... can't see them in 3-D. I'll put on the 3-D glasses like everyone else, and pretend to be startled by the magic of three dimensional film, but I am seeing it in 2-D and its kind of fuzzy.
And from time to time I run into poles and people when I am walking down the street.
If you met me, you might not notice right away that I am somehow different--that my right eye tends to gravitate a bit to the left or the right depending on which way my head is cocked. I have learned to hide it. Once after revealing my semi-blindness to a group of people who had known me for some time, I was approached by a lady who said, "I have never noticed that about you at all." It's true. For as many people who have noticed my eyes crossing a tad, there are as many or perhaps more folks in my life who have not.
In the great, grand scheme of things this is a pretty small cross to bear, but I often find myself focusing on the the times when my "other-ness" has been exposed. Those moments when I am reminded of my perceived weakness are humbling and hurtful. Try as I might to shut them out, I will hear the voices of schoolchildren, of girls I dated, of the bully who pinned me to the ground---all asking me, "Are you looking at me? I can't tell. You're eye is crossed. What are you looking at? " In those moments I am confronted with the thought that my "other-ness" is never going to go away, and I will always be reminded of it no matter how accustomed I feel I have become, or how much I want to forget.
In the end, however, my "other-ness" seems so petty and small in the grand scheme of things. There are stories much more poignant than mine, to be sure and humankind is particularly adept at creating "others" through division and difference. When I compare my own experience with the ways so many of my brothers and sisters in the world are marginalized I feel a bit ashamed for even feeling troubled at all by my wandering eye. Still, my experience does give me a way to understand more fully what it means to be "other" in some small way---at least if I am willing to learn from it. The trouble is, I am not often willing to learn, and all-too frequently I find myself standing in judgement over those who dare to differ from me. I long for those "better angels," as Abraham Lincoln called them, to step forward and carry me above the petty and stupid ways that I divide and separate, but despite my best intentions I find myself falling flat on my face more than I would like to admit.
The Christian community has been plagued with a lack of understanding when it comes to maintaing and promoting the peace, unity and purity of the Church. Though God calls the Church to faithfulness when it comes to God's redemptive and reconciling work among all people, and indeed all of Creation, the Church stumbles and falls more often than it runs. Those of us who call ourselves disciples of Christ should be living sacraments of the God's once and future kingdom, but instead we tend to choose far more pedestrian ideals. We squabble and fight and divide ourselves over petty issues, to be sure. Communities of faith engage in struggles over worship style, battles over the color of carpet in the sanctuary, fights over who has the power over the church budget, and a whole host of other things like denominational and doctrinal differences, disputes over Biblical interpretation, etc., etc., etc.
And worse... It has been said that the most segregated hour in America is on Sunday morning. Now this comment typically is made in relation to racial division, but could easily be applied to class, gender, sexuality, politics or age. As the Church we are called to be a "city on a hill," a "light" that should not and cannot be hidden. But in our culture it's become a negative, rather than a positive that those outside the church can step in and take a gander. Most of them don't like what they see at all.
I have been thinking about the Church and the Kingdom of God. Admittedly, my thoughts have been directed thus because I am preparing a sermon on the topic, but still...
The text I was struggling with is Luke 13:22-30, a moment where Jesus responds to an extremely loaded question: "Will only a few be saved?" The question was asked of Jesus with an assumption behind it that God favored a small, privileged few, who were fortunate enough to be born in the right family, the correct tribe, the most favored nation. It was a legitimate enough question, and there doesn't seem to be any evidence to suggest that the questioner meant any harm by asking it.
There were some assumptions that were behind the question, however--assumptions that were undoubtedly shared by more than a few of the people gathered around Jesus when it was asked. Many of the Jews in Jesus' day held to the belief that with the coming of the Messiah all things would be set to rights and justice would finally prevail. Justice, in their minds, would be for the Gentiles (foreigners, people of other races, religions, backgrounds and creeds) to get their comeuppance and for the Jews (at least those Jews who faithfully adhered to the Mosaic Law) to be lifted up at last. One of the images that was often used to describe this messianic moment was a huge party where the privileged few were allowed access to the table. It's no wonder that Jesus used this very same image time and again to describe an alternate view of God's imminent kingdom. The party guests that were painted in Jesus' portraits of the kingdom feast would have not been welcomed by the elite, Jewish, religious leaders of the day. Jesus' party guests were often the outcasts, the sinners, the foreigners and sometimes even the enemies of the Hebrew people. Jesus' portrayal of the kingdom of God was not at all what the religious elite would have expected. nor appreciated, for that matter.
Still, the question is there: "Will only a few be saved?" I am sure that when it was asked, everyone stopped and listened intently to what Jesus would say. After all, Jesus had made a name for himself as an out-of-the box rabbi, a teacher for the people, some might have said. To hear his answer to one of the dominant questions of his culture would have definitely piqued the interest of more than a few of those in the crowd.
I love how Jesus responded to this question. Instead of answering it directly he declares, "You need to make every effort to find your way to the narrow door." Instead of enumerating all of the people who would or wouldn't find a seat at God's table, Jesus essentially tells everyone who is listening, "Instead of being so concerned about who is in or out, you need to be concerned with your own relationship with God, on securing your own invitation to the feast."
I like to imagine what would happen if existing congregations tossed out their long and wordy mission statements and simply adopted Jesus' words as their vision. Perhaps then we would be able to find the energy to deal with two of the most fierce objections that those outside of the Christian faith seem to have with Christians--objections that are essentially eschatological in nature.
First, there is no getting around the fact that in many ways Christianity is a particular faith, which is to say that there is an aspect of it that speaks of exclusion and inclusion. The problem for a lot of people outside of the Christian sphere doesn't lie so much in the fact that Christianity is particular, but in the way that particularity has become a source of triumph for most Christians. The huge popularity among evangelical Christians of the "Left Behind" books (not to mention the movies, countless spin-off books, etc.) by Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins is a prime example of this very kind of Christian triumphalism---a triumphalism that lifts up the destruction of the "other" and the triumph of the elite few. A great many Christians revel in the idea that one day they will be snatched away to glory while the ungodly and the sinners will be left to suffer. The idea of a "rapture," which is taken from an oft- disputed text from Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, has been used, quite frankly, to inject terror into the Gospel narrative. But the fear and dread of being "left behind" to experience all manner of apocalyptic judgement that is such a part of "popular" Christian eschatology stands in direct contrast to the blessed hope that should fill us at the thought of Jesus' reign.
The second fierce objection that is often directed at the Existing Church is in the way it has become a place that fosters division and separation. It's sort of ironic that many congregations within the Existing Church will join together ideologically in things like upholding a triumphalist Christian worldview, but won't break bread with one another, worship together, recognize baptism from one another's denominations, and a host of other wonderfully divisive things. You can see why so many people outside the Christian faith are stymied by the dissension and infighting that they see within the Existing Church. For them, it appears that the qualifications for being one of the privileged few who will sit at the messianic feast are defined by the Christian community in ways that are both arbitrary and capricious.
In Luke 13, when Jesus exhorted his listeners to "make every effort" to find their own way to the "narrow door" of salvation, the Greek word that is used there is agonizethe. It carries with it a sense of maximum effort and energy. The fact that we derive the English word "agony" from agonizethe should give us even more insight into what Jesus was trying to say. He was telling those who had ears to hear that if they devoted all of their heart, soul, mind and strength to being a God-follower, they would find themselves far less concerned about who was "in" and who was "out." They would, in fact, not be concerned about it at all. And further, they would find themselves surprised, Jesus seems to say, by the people who will be sitting next to them at the messianic table.
I named this essay in part after a book by Bruce Chilton, and in part to help me remain focused. You see, if I say that I am "finding an emergent eschatology," then maybe I will actually find myself moving toward it more deliberately than I would otherwise. I'm a firm believer that the way we speak about things helps form and inform their meaning. In other words, when we are finally able to develop different ways of thinking and talking about eschatology, we are one step closer to understanding the fullness of the kingdom of God as Christ did.
For example, Jesus talked about a kingdom that was imminent rather than immediate. The dominant eschatology of the Existing Church deals almost exclusively with immediacy, and the fear of being caught off guard. An imminent kingdom is one that is near enough to be felt. Jesus painted a picture of a kingdom that already existed in heaven, but had come so near to us that it could be imagined, felt, and experienced.
Jesus portrayed the kingdom of God as a celebration that included people of races, backgrounds, classes and ages. Anyone who heard the invitation and responded would be welcomed. This stands in sharp contrast with the dominant eschatology of the Existing Church, which (by its actions), seems to favor separation over unity. Far too many faith communities qualify their requirements for "membership" in both spoken and unspoken ways based on what they will not tolerate or allow rather that what they value and embrace. Some even go so far as to delineate who is "in" or "out" based on ethnicity, birthplace or language.
It seems clear in Scripture that the grace given to the "elect"---those who hear and respond to the kingdom invitation---does provide a certain sense of confidence and assurance, but absolutely does not give those who are called any reason to boast. The Apostle Paul once wrote, "If anyone feels like they need to boast, let him boast in Christ." The dominant eschatology of the Existing Church is one that fosters a sense of over-confidence and superiority. Faith communities who ascribe to this sort of eschatological understanding often find themselves giving voice to shrill messages of judgment. They forget that the grace they have been given is undeserved at best. At the very least they should be feeling broken and burdened over those who may not respond to the messianic invitation, rather than triumphant that the "others" will one day get their just desserts.
A more emergent eschatology will find its voice in the margins---safely within the "others" who have been excluded by the Existing Church. It will find its place among the diverse multitudes who are sitting down at the messianic feast. It will find its mission in the words of Jesus who exhorted his listeners to devote all of their being into their relationship with God. It will find its heart in the spirits of those who hear the invitation to the kingdom celebration and are brought to their knees in gratitude that God in God's great mercy invited even them.
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