Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Unmasking the Powers with N. T. Wright

For in [Christ] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones (qronoi) or dominions (kuriothtes) or rulers (arcai) or powers (exousiai) – all things have been created through him and for him. For in him all the fullness (plhrwma) of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

"For in him the whole fullness of deity (pan to plhrwma ths qeothtos) dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness (plhrwmenoi) in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. He disarmed (απεκδυσαμενος) the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross]." (NRSV)

These verses from Colossians have been on my mind quite a bit lately, with particular emphasis on what is meant by fullness and what is meant by powers. I’ll put down a few quotations to bring some shape to what I’m getting at. First, from a sermon on Colossians by N. T. Wright:

Ancient pagans, like some animists to this day, thought of the world as peopled with hostile, or potentially hostile, forces. In fact, there were so many that life became extremely complicated, and not a little threatening. And a lot of ordinary folk went about their daily business in a climate of fear and uncertainty. They did their best to stay out of trouble; but often the best wasn’t good enough, and the demons that lurked behind every bush would get you anyway.

As often as not, the gods and demons would act through human agency. If Rome won a victory over Britain, that was because the goddess Roma was stronger than the goddess Britannia. The earthly battlefield and the heavenly battlefield were not separated by a great gulf; the heavenly was the hidden dimension of the earthly, the extra feature of ordinary reality that explained what was ‘really’ going on. The principalities and powers were not far away. They were the inner dimension of exterior events.

Wright goes on to say that we, today, though we smile at such superstition, still give the nod to forces: forces that create recession or homelessness or political ineffectiveness, forces that create disasters and conflicts that just can’t seem to be sorted out. He says:

We can’t touch and see these forces. Some of them may, for a while, come to be quite closely identified with certain human beings; but take that person away, and the force will remain. The only significant difference between us and our pagan ancestors appears to be that they recognized the situation and gave the forces vivid names, while we hide them behind the grey obscurity of vague words, in order to go on [with the illusion we are gods to ourselves, and in control of things].

Wright then talks about the virtue of gratitude that should characterize believers because they have been rescued from the powers and translated into the Kingdom of light, the Kingdom of the Son. He writes:

This is Exodus language. Now, by the preaching of the gospel, people everywhere can be transferred from the grip of the powers into the kingdom of Jesus--because he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. Events in the socio-political world carry an interior meaning, and often a threatening or disturbing one; the events of Jesus carry an interior meaning, a powerful and liberating one. He is the image of the invisible God [who] is in the business of rescuing the world, and calls us to follow his Son as rescued rescuers." (Following Jesus, 17-18)

Now Wright asks a few questions. (1) Where do the powers come from? He points to Colossians 1.15: all things were made through Christ. "God intended his world to be ordered, not random; to be structured, not chaotic. He intended what came to be called the powers, the forces, to be part of the way his world worked." (18) (2) Why are the powers so threatening? Human beings, he says, gave and give their power over to the powers. "When the powers take over, human beings get crushed." (3) What does this mean for the church? The church, after Christ, is no longer subject to the powers, but is in the business of triumphing over them by the cross. "There is only one Power we are to follow, and that Power has a human face." The cross is the defeat of the powers; in him they are totally subverted, and this is the call to the church. The powers will resist, even with violence, but they are defeated. Not annihilated, and this is important, but defeated through reconciliation. "God is in Christ making a new world; now, however, brought into new order under the authority of Christ." God intends the powers to serve him.

Thus, in some ways, Wright has put a few bricks into the bedrock of my understanding of providence: the powers now serve God’s purposes. But, in other ways--and I hope to get into this with Luther later, there is a way in which Christians are called to reshape the powers. They are called not to be afraid of them, but to know them, to subvert them, and to use them for the Kingdom. "To say," writes Wright, "that you must not worship Aphrodite is not to say that you must become sexless beings. To say you can’t serve God and Mammon doesn’t mean we should give up using money. To say that racial prejudice is wrong doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the differences between us. God intends the powers to serve him and to serve and sustain his human creatures."(20)

So, here again, friends, I find the program of the liberal arts: the effective un-masking and re-shaping of the powers to serve the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ (for thine is the Kingdom and the Power). Wright ends this sermon talking about the grateful, liturgical celebration of the eucharist, but he could be talking about any act.

We celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ in a way which, by the power of its symbolic action, resonates out, into the city, into the country, into the world . . . that God is God, that Jesus is his visible image, and that this God has defeated the powers of evil that still enslave and crush human beings today. (21)

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

N.T. Wright addressing Hebrews in outline

N T. Wright, in his collection of sermons entitled Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1994), devotes a chapter to an analysis of the larger themes in the book of Hebrews. He identifies three motifs running through the book, or, as he says, “three lines of thought which may open the book up for us, not least in coming to the Eucharist.” These are: A compelling portrait of Jesus; A new reading of the Old Testament; Jesus the Final Sacrifice. In the process, he also outlines the structure of the book, and it is this that I want to reproduce here. Why? Well in order to provide context to the long-in-the-making discussion of the definition of faith in Hebrews chapter 11. Now, to Dr. Wright:

“In chapter 1, Jesus is the Son of God, superior even to the angels. There were some in the early Church who thought of Jesus as just a special sort of angel; no, says the writer, he is of a different order of being altogether. But at once, in case you should get the wrong idea, chapter 2 emphasizes that Jesus is also totally and truly human. Please note: not only was Jesus totally and truly human, he still is. One writer described Hebrews’ portrait of Jesus as ‘our man in heaven’. That is one of the major thrusts of the book – to emphasize that the one who has sat where we sit, who has lived our life and died our death, has now been exalted and glorified precisely as a human being. He hasn’t, as it were, ‘gone back to being just God again’. Chapter 2 closes with the first statement of our opening theme: because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Then, in chapters 3 and 4, Jesus is the true Joshua; it’s the same name, actually, in Hebrew and Greek. He is the one who leads the people of God into their true promised land. Then, in chapters 5, 6, and 7, he is the true high priest. That’s where Melchizedek comes in. To understand this we need to take a step sideways for a moment.

It was a problem for the early Church that Jesus was from the house of David. It meant he was qualified to be Messiah, that is, King of Israel. But it disqualified him from being a high priest, who should have been from the house of Levi, a different tribe altogether. Hebrew points out that, in Psalm 110, the King is said to be a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchizedek, whose priesthood does not depend on ancestry but on the call of God alone. Jesus is not, then, a transient high priest, to be replaced by someone else. He remains a priest for ever. In other words, summing up where we’ve got to so far, Jesus, the Son of God, the truly human one, is leading his people to their promised land, and is available for all people and for all time as the totally sympathetic one, the priest through whom they can come to God. Following Jesus is the only way to go.

We then move into chapters 8-10, which speak of Jesus’ sacrifice and the new covenant, to which we shall return. This leads us to the great list of the heroes of faith in chapter 11. There are lists like this in various Jewish writings; and the vital thing about the list is, who comes at the end? In one of the most famous lists, the one in Ecclessiasticus which begins ‘Let us now praise famous men . . .’, the answer is: Jesus himself. In chapter 12.1-3 the writer issues an appeal which could stand as the key biblical text on the whole theme of ‘following Jesus’:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.

The themes we have already looked at come to a head in this passage. Take them in reverse order: Jesus, the high priest, coming at the end of the great list of heroes. Jesus, the one who leads us into our promised land, the pioneer, the one who goes ahead to blaze the trail. Jesus, the truly human being, who has travelled the road of human suffering ahead of us. Jesus, now enthroned as Son of God. Jesus, therefore – as the final chapter, chapter 13, puts it – Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today, and for ever; Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, the one brought again from the dead. That is the picture of Jesus which Hebrews offers us; . . . And at the heart of this picture we find the cross: the cross which Jesus endured on our behalf, which was, as we shall see, the final sacrifice. This, then, is the first part of the bird’s-eye view of Hebrews: a picture of the human high priest Jesus and his cross.” (pp. 5-7a)
Cf. the previous post in this series: The danger of substantial faith - pt 2

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