Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The White-Hot Gospel

The early decades of the Christian movement were infused with a radical sense of a new Kingdom that turns the whole world upside down, but things changed as the Church began to settle into life in Empire. It is tough to swim against the current of the dominant culture. As time went on and the expectation of Jesus' second coming gradually diminished, the followers of the Way began to adapt to the expectations of Greco-Roman society. Decades passed, and Jesus still had not returned to establish his outward reign on earth, so the Church began to develop a meantime theology, seeking to live peaceably - and unobtrusively - within the Empire.

This made all kinds of sense. After all, Rome regularly carried out persecutions against those who refused to submit to the cosmopolitan religion of the Empire, to worship the Emperor as a god. Christians were already in very serious trouble much of the time. Under such circumstances, the temptation to blend in and do as the Romans do must have been huge.

But this decision to compromise with the surrounding culture came at a price. The white-hot gospel of Jesus upended the social hierarchies that were so integral to the internal logic of Empire - master above slave, lord above servant, husband above wife. Yet, as the Christian community struggled to get along in the Empire, all of these harmful dynamics reemerged in the life of the Church. Why?

The radically counter-cultural gospel of Jesus simply could not coexist with the Church's compromise with the unjust culture of the Mediterranean world. The only force that was able to hold this explosive witness together was the intense experience and expectation of Christ's presence and coming Kingdom. A new Order was coming that would replace the old ways of Empire.

But the years passed. Decades went by without the outwardly visible return of Jesus that the community had assumed would take place. Jesus did not come riding on the clouds, taking his seat on the throne of David and establishing a millennial kingdom for all the world to see. Gradually, much of the Church lost a sense of Christ's immanence. Jesus became someone out there, beyond the sky. His Kingdom became a distant reality, something that would eventually take shape at some point in the future - but certainly not today. For much of the Christian community, Jesus became a myth rather than an experienced relationship.

This feeling of distance from the Kingdom of God has made it even more difficult to resist the relentless pressure of Empire. It may be precisely because the Church has experienced and proclaimed God's Kingdom as existing only in a far-off heaven that we have been so susceptible to the distortions and compromises of a long succession of human kingdoms.

As long as the followers of the Way had a sense of Christ's living presence and power in the world, miracles happened. The sick were healed, the dead were raised and the poor had good news preached to them. Men and women entered into their originally intended state of full equality, just as they had been before the Fall. Jesus - not as mythical figure in some distant heaven, but as a viscerally present Teacher and Lord - broke down the divisions between Greek and Jew, slave and free, male and female. In this imminent experience of his Kingdom, all became brothers and sisters, functioning together as a living and growing body.

It is this astonishing reality that the early Quaker movement tapped into. Rather than looking to a distant Kingdom in the clouds, they experienced and proclaimed that Jesus had come to teach his people himself. The Kingdom of Heaven had come near, and all bets were off.

It was in this way - through the experience of Jesus himself, living within each believer and in the midst of the gathered community - that the Quaker movement was able to re-discover the radical equality of Christ's Kingdom. In an age of deep patriarchy, Quakers spiritually empowered women just like the earliest church did. Women served as elders, apostolic ministers and evangelists. Women and men labored side by side for the radical gospel of the Risen Jesus, and all were free to preach as the Spirit gave the words.

This powerful experience of Jesus is available to us today. It is this personal and community experience of God's life and presence that can break us out of our fallen addiction to racism, patriarchy, homophobia and all the many ways that this world encourages us to marginalize one another. When we walk in the light of Christ's Spirit, God gives us power to resist the injustice and false assumptions of our present culture, this current manifestation of Empire.

Are we ready to embrace the white-hot gospel of a present and living Kingdom? Are we prepared for the subtle and radical ways that the Holy Spirit calls us to live in contrast to the dominant culture? Do we have the courage to embrace the love that raises up the lowly and humbles the proud? Is today the day when we will meet the Risen Lord for ourselves?


Bill Samuel said...

To tie into the current dialogue over the papacy, historically the notion of the papacy developed when Christians got with the empire. And the Church structure which developed, and still exists in the RC Church, largely apes imperial patterns. The pope is the religious equivalent of the political emperor, and it goes down from there. It is not the structure of the Body of Christ, where no part is better than any other part, as Paul taught.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the thrust of this post that we need to vigilant in orienting our attention to God's continual presence. Today, however, we work from a veiled Deism which makes embodying the kind of attention you mention a unique challenge. Also, I am not quite convinced that it has much to do with the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church or, institutional controls for that matter. Did, and do, negative things happen under such rubrics, sure. Man has proclivities toward sinful engagements and the world and institutions can, though not always, focus such sins and support them. But though this is a reality, I would say that what you are discussing is more the natural proclivity of being human: The continual reality that Man forgets his Creator. This theme jumps off the pages of the Old Testament. Thus, there should be little surprise that we constantly lose our direction. Paul, James, John, and Peter were also continually having to remind the small churches of their time to remember what God had done for them through Christ and to orient their affections accordingly. I point this out because it continues to be an overreach to blame the RC Church for certain ills that are more the ills of being human persons saved but being sanctified. If we would like to elevate something from the early church, it should be that they were as forgetful as we are and that the same God who was present offering grace and mercy to have courage to face their troubles is present with us today to do the same. This kind of persistence by God seems to be the substance of the ‘white-hot Gospel’ and it is something of which we all, regardless of denomination, need to be reminded.

Thank you for the encouragement to remember His presence and the continual grace and mercy his extends toward us all.

Jnana Hodson said...

Our individual experiences of Christ come in many forms, some of them more akin to the cool "sweetness" Isaac Penington articulates, and some of them as the "white-hot" encounters you describe.
Meeting with people alive in that awareness, however, can be discomforting. Are we really open to it in our Quaker circles?
Let's not forget how quickly the early Quaker leadership began tamping down the emotional "excesses" of that first decade of the movement.

broschultz said...

There's a song sung by Fernando Ortega at what looks to be the celebration of Ruth Graham's transition to heaven called "Give me Jesus". The basic theme is summed up in the words "you can have all the world but give me Jeus". Until your experience of Jesus, the living Christ, is such that you can sing that song with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul, you will always find a reason to compromise your individual call to love as Jesus loved.