Thursday, May 19, 2005

"Lord, when did we see you?"

This is the kind of thing one reads in seminary. A pity it never makes it beyond the cloistered halls and ivy-covered walls:
To be sure, the established churches need the refreshing influx of new and wider ranges of charismatic experience, but in the long perspective of spiritual growth the individual charistmatic needs the home of the full church in which he or she matures in faith and learns the most important lesson of faith: to love God who gave the gift rather than to love the gift that God gave.--Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1976), p. 123.
Or, for that matter, this:

Nobody can come to grips with the drama of history unless he recognizes that most of the evil in this world is done by people who do it for good purposes. Evil is not that popular. If one gathered together a lot of people and said, "Let us be evil together," it would not go over very well. Thanks be to God!....

Thus the question is not to balance judgment and mercy. Whenever one reads the Bible or theology, what I would call the "who-is-who" question always arises. Who speaks to whom and for whom? The mighty message of God was often heard in a wrong way because one listened in on the wrong message. There are many examples of this. Jesus did say, "Man does not live by bread alone," but he never said that to a hungry person. When he was faced with hungry persons he fed them--4000 or 5000. And he massproduced wine in Cana just to prevent the wedding feast from turning into a fiasco. It was to Satan that he said "Man does not live by bread alone," speaking for and to himself. The church, however, often quoted Jesus in the wrong direction--to the hungry, in defense of the well-fed.

Who speaks to whom? For whom is judgment mercy? That is the question, and unless one understands it, even the most glorious dialectical understanding of theology becomes not only counterproductive but evil. (Stendahl, p. 105-06)
I will tell you know that I have preached this message; and it is not a popular one. As Stendahl points out, "reconciliation" is a beautiful word. "Yet here in the United States we have been poignantly taught that reconciliation may be a word abused by the comfortable and for the "haves." He goes on:

Of course, for him who has and for him who is comfortable, reconciliation is very attractive--the sooner the better, so that we give up as little as possible. That is what reconciliation has come to mean, in stark contrast to the Christian tradition's sign of reconciliation, the cross where Christ gave all in order that reconciliation might be had. Judgment and mercy. We must resist all homogenizing, neutralizing, dialecticizing and balancing acts with these terms. There is little mercy except the chance of repentance for us who sit in judgment; but when judgment comes upon us, there is much mercy for the oppressed.
As the people ask on Judgment Day in Matthew 25: "Lord, when did we see you?" For believers, that is always the fundamental question. Many critics of Christianity on the blogs insist such ideas don't exist, or are never considered by the church. Stendahl is a Lutheran theologian, as "churchly" a thinker as Protestantism can produce. What he says deserves consideration, even application. Pastors here and there manage to get some of this implemented. But churches large and small, and the "Christian church," to the extent such mythical beast even exists, is like an ocean liner: it changes direction very slowly, and is built to insist on and insure stability at all times. Sometimes that is a good design; sometimes it is not. But when dealing with such concepts as mercy and judgment, who wouldn't prefer stability to uncertainty? What we have to look for is not certainty in our doctrine, but adherence to the truth: where ever that truth may lead.

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