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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