Why We Need Each Other

Here’s a talk I gave recently for Harvard College Faith and Action:


Vanstone“Either this dependence and limitation must be a source of increasing resentment and frustration and even self-contempt; or there must be a rediscovery of the dignity which belongs to man as patient, as object, as one who waits upon the world and receives that which is done to him.” (W. H. Vanstone, The Stature of Waiting, p. 66)

“So it may be that the thought of the handing over of Jesus—of His transition from action to passion—can be of practical help to people who must face, or have already faced, a similar transition in their own lives…‘Passion’ does not mean, exclusively or even primarily, ‘pain’: it means dependence, exposure, waiting, being no longer in control of one’s situation, being the object of what is done.  So the passion of Jesus ‘connects’ not simply or even primarily with the human experience of pain: it connects with every experience of passing, suddenly or gradually, into a more dependent phase or area of life—with going into hospital, with retiring or losing one’s job or having to wait upon the actions of other people and other factors beyond one’s control.  If the thought of the passion of Jesus is helpful at all, then it may be helpful not only to the person who is bearing the ‘cross’ of pain but also to the person who feels that he is ‘on the sidelines,’ that he has become useless or ineffective, that he is no longer making his mark in the world or his contribution to it.  ‘To be handed over’ in ways such as there is particularly disquieting to a person who, by habit or temperament, has been exceptionally active and energetic or a notable achiever; and such a person may well find comfort in the thought that a similar pattern appears in the life of Jesus—that He also passed from activity and work and achievement into a final phase of waiting and dependence and passion…It might emerge from recognizing that, according to the Gospel story, the transition which Jesus made was no mere misfortune but rather a kind of triumph, no diminution of Himself or His calling but rather a kind of elevation.  If a man should be guided by the Gospels to see such worth and quality in the transition which Jesus made, then—and perhaps only then—he may have a possibility of seeing his own transition in a new and more favorable light.” (W. H. Vanstone, The Stature of Waiting, pp. 70-71)

Wainwright“The church thus identified [in the New Testament] sounds Catholic in its comprehensiveness, Calvinist in the unconditionality of its chosenness, and Lutheran in its possibilities of unfaithfulness while remaining genuinely the church; but the total effect, not surprisingly, is more Jewish than anything else…

Also Jewish sounding is the church’s mission.  It is above all by the character of its communal life that it witnesses, that it proclaims the gospel and serves the world…The primary Christian witness, in short, is not to save souls but to be a faithfully witnessing people.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude from this in the currently popular fashion that the church’s mission is therefore primarily diakonia in the sense of serving the needs of humanity at large.  Christians are responsible first of all for their own communities, not for the wider society.  It is by the quality of their communal life that God wills them to be a light to the Gentiles.  This does not mean that the chosen people is more important than the world.  On the contrary, its role is instrumental: it exists in order to witness to the nations.  It does this, however, not primarily by striving to save souls or to improve the social order, but by being the body of Christ, the communal sign of the promised redemption, in the time between the times.  When serving the world results in the neglect of the household of faith, the church becomes not a sign but a countersign, a contributor to that human confusion which is the opposite of God’s design.  It comes to resemble the philanthropist who loves humankind at a distance but not his neighbors or family in need.  Its primary task should be to build up sisters and brothers in the faith, not to liberate the oppressed everywhere; and it is only through performing this task that it becomes a liberating force in world history.  This makes mutual responsibility of all for all crucial to the church’s mission and witness…

Once the traditional understanding of mission as [only] the saving of souls is [rightly] abandoned, the task of witnessing tends to become indistinguishable for that socially responsible righteousness, that commitment to peace, justice and freedom, to which all human beings are called.  The problem is not only practical but theological: it is difficult in most ecclesiological perspectives to legitimate greater concern for Christians than for non-Christians.  Perhaps the only way out is a people-of-God perspective in which the mutual concern of all the churches for each other’s worship, faith, fellowship and action becomes of paramount importance precisely for the sake of missionary witness to the world.” (George Linbeck, “The Church,” in Keeping the Faith, ed. Geoffrey Wainwright, pp. 192-95)

“So I join the psalmist in lament. I voice my suffering, naming it and owning it I cry out. I cry out for deliverance: “Deliver me, O God, from this suffering. Restore me, and make me whole.” I cry out for explanation, for I no more know in general why things have gone awry with respect to God’s desire than did the psalmist. “Why, O God, is this happening? Why is your desire, that each and every one of us should flourish here on earth until full of years, being frustrated? It makes no sense.” To lament is to risk living with one’s deepest questions unanswered.

The cry occurs within the context of the yet of enduring faith and ongoing praise, for in raising Christ from the dead, we have God’s word and deed that God will be victorious in the struggle against all that frustrates God’s desire. Thus divine sovereignty is not sacrificed but reconceived. If lament is indeed a legitimate component of the Christian life, then divine sovereignty is not to be understood as everything happening just as God wants it to happen—or happening in such a way that God regards what he does not like as an acceptable trade-off for the good thereby achieved.

Divine sovereignty consists in God’s winning the battle against all that has gone awry with respect to God’s will.” (Nicholas Wolterstorff, “If God is Good and Sovereign, Why Lament?”)

“The minister is interested primarily in building a moral universe and facilitating right conduct in a community of persons.” (Don S. BrowningThe Moral Context of Pastoral Care, p. 99)


“The new birth, whose subject is the merciful and electing God (1:2), creates a two-fold distance.  First, it is a new birth.  It distances one from the old way of life, inherited from one’s ancestors (1:18) and transmitted by the culture at large–a way of life characterized by the lack of knowledge of God and by misguided desires (1:14).  Second, it is a birth into a living hope.  It distances one from the transitoriness of the present world, in which all human efforts ultimately end in death.  In more abstract theological terms, the new birth into the living hope frees people from the meaninglessness of sin and hopelessness of death…

Christian difference from the social environment is therefore an eschatological one [eschatos is a Greek word that means “last” or “final”, so eschatology refers to “the last or ultimate things” in reality].  In the midst of the world in which they live, they are given a new home that comes from God’s future.  The new birth commences a journey to this home.

Notice the significance of the new birth for Christian social identity.  Christians do not come into their social world from outside seeking either to accommodate to their new home (like second generation immigrants would), shape it in the image of the one they have left behind (like colonizers would), or establish a little haven in the strange new world reminiscent of the old (as resident aliens would).  They are not outsiders who either seek to become insiders or maintain strenuously the status of outsiders.  Christians are the insiders who have diverted from their culture by being born again.  They are by definition those who are not what they used to be, those who do not live like they used to live.  Christian difference is therefore not an insertion of something new into the old from outside, but a bursting out of the new precisely within the proper space of the old.

The question of how to live in a non-Christian environment, then, does not translate simply into the question of whether one adopts or rejects the social practices of the environment.  This is the question outsiders ask, who have the luxury of observing a culture from a vantage point that is external to that culture.  Christians do not have such a vantage point since they have experienced a new birth as inhabitants of a particular culture.  Hence they are in an important sense insiders.  As those who are part of the environment from which they have diverted by having been born again and whose difference is therefore internal to that environment, Christians ask, ‘Which beliefs and practices of the culture that is ours must we reject now that our self has been reconstituted by new birth? Which can we retain? What must we reshape to reflect better the values of God’s new creation?…

Genuine Christian distance has ecclesial [ekklesia is the Greek word for “church”] shape.  It is lived in a community that lives as ‘aliens’ in a larger social environment.  The new birth is neither a conversion to our authentic inner self nor a migration of the soul into a heavenly realm, but a translation of a person into the house of God erected in the midst of the world…Wherever Christians find themselves–alone or with other believers–a Christian social difference is manifested there.  Communities of those who are born anew and follow Christ live an alternative way of life within the political, ethnic, religious, and cultural institutions of the larger society.  We get no sense from 1 Peter, however, that the church should strive to regulate all domains of social life and reshape society in the image of the heavenly Jerusalem…It did not wish to impose itself or the kingdom of God on the world, but to live in faithfulness to God and to the values of God’s kingdom, inviting others to do the same.  It had no desire to do for others what they did not want done for them.  They had no covert totalitarian agenda.  Rather, the community was to live an alternative way of life in the present social setting, transforming it, as it could, from within.  In any case, the community did not seek to exert social or political pressure, but to give public witness to a new way of life…

Though 1 Peter does not envisage changing social structures, Christians nevertheless have a mission in the world…The distance from society that comes from the new birth into a living hope does not isolate from society.  For hope in God, the Creator and Savior of the whole world, knows no boundaries.  Instead of leading to isolation, this distance is a presupposition of mission.  Without distance, churches can only give speeches that others have written for them and only go places where others lead them. To make a difference, one must be different…For people who live the soft difference [both like and unlike the culture around us], mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation.  They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation…Whether it takes place gently or not, colonization is colonization.” (Miroslav Volf, “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relationship Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter,” pp. 18-20, 24)


Calvin“To the resurrection is quite appropriately joined the ascent into heaven.  Now having laid aside the mean and lowly state of mortal life and the shame of the cross, Christ by rising again began to show forth his glory and power more fully.  Yet he truly inaugurated his Kingdom only at his ascension into heaven…For Christ left us in such a way that his presence might be more useful to us–a presence that had been confined in a humble abode of flesh so long as he sojourned on earth…He consoles them for his bodily absence, saying that he will not leave them as orphans, but will come to them again in an invisible but more desirable way…Indeed, we see how much more abundantly he then poured out his Spirit, how much more wonderfully he advanced his Kingdom, how much greater power he displayed both in both in helping his people and in scattering his enemies.  Carried up into heaven, therefore, he withdrew his bodily presence from our sight, not to cease to be present with believers still on their earthly pilgrimage, but to rule heaven and earth with a more immediate power.  But by his ascension he fulfilled what he had promised: that he would be with us even to the end of the world.  As his body was raised up above all the heavens, so his power and energy were diffused and spread beyond all the bounds of heaven and earth…

Therefore, we always have Christ according to the presence of majesty; but of his physical presence it was rightly said to his disciples, ‘You will not always have me with you’ (Matt. 26:11).  For the church had him in his bodily presence for a few days; now it holds him by faith, but does not see him with the eyes.  Consequently, these words come immediately after [in the Creed]: ‘Seated at the right hand of the Father.’  The comparison is drawn from kings who have assessors at their side to whom they delegate the tasks of ruling and governing.  So it was said that Christ, in whom the Father wills to be exalted and through whose hand he wills to reign, was received at God’s right hand.  This is as if it were said that Christ was invested with lordship over heaven and earth, and solemnly entered into possession of the government committed to him–and that he not only entered into possession once for all, but continues in it, until he shall come down on Judgment Day…Therefore, they are wrong who think that it [the ascension of Jesus into heaven] designates simply his blessedness…

Faith comprehends his might, in which reposes our strength, power, wealth, and glorying against hell.  ‘When he ascended into heaven he led a captivity captive’ (Eph. 4:8; cf. Ps. 68:18), and despoiling his enemies, he enriched his own people, and daily lavishes spiritual riches upon them.  He therefore sits on high, transfusing us with his power, that he may quicken us to spiritual life, sanctify us by his Spirit, adorn his church with divers gifts of his grace, keep it safe from all harm by his protection, restrain the raging enemies of his cross and of our salvation by the strength of his hand, and finally hold all power in heaven and on earth.  All this he does until he shall lay low all his enemies (who are our enemies too) and complete the building of his church.  This is the true state of his Kingdom; this is the power that the Father has conferred upon him, until, in coming to judge the living and the dead, he accomplishes his final act.” (John CalvinThe Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.14-15)