Archive for June, 2014

Martin Buber once expressed, with profound insight, a dynamic that is at the heart of the tension between Judaism and Christianity:

“Now to the Christian, the Jew is the incomprehensibly obdurate man, who declines to see what has happened; and to the Jew, the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man, who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished.” (Martin Buber, “The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul,” in Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis, pp. 28-40)

lohfinkWhile not citing Buber directly, Gerhard Lohfink is one of the only Christian writers I have come across who not only acknowledges the truth of Buber’s implicit critique of Christianity, but who is also willing to respond on its own terms.  What an incredible challenge to every generation of Christ-followers, until the end of the world:

“The Jews argue quite correctly that if nothing in the world has been changed, the Messiah cannot have come…This Jewish objection must be taken very seriously.  It is the strongest objection there is against Christianity.  It strikes the innermost nerve of Christian faith.  As we have seen, the [early church] Fathers evidently took the objection quite seriously.  It is above all important that they did not dispute its premises.  They agreed completely with Judaism that the world must really be changed when the Messiah comes.

The reply of the early church Fathers to the central Jewish objection to Christianity is not that the world need not be changed, since redemption takes place invisibly ; nor is it that redemption will not occur until the end of the world.  Their answer is rather that the Messiah has come and that the world has in fact changed.  It has been transformed in the Messiah’s people, which lives in accord with the law of Christ…

It must be obvious that this answer is quite risky.  It endangers the whole of Christology if one day the reality of the church contradicts it…But the early church Fathers did not follow the harmless, safe path.  They insisted that the new worship of God, the new manner of life, the new creation already had visible and tangible effects in the church…

How can the Messiah have come if nothing in the world has changed?  Examined more closely, this is not only the basic question of Jews.  Every non-Christian raises a similar question.  How can you speak of redemption if nothing in the world has changed since the coming of your redeemer?  For this reason, the truth of Christian faith can shine only when it is intelligible through the praxis of Christians.  The ancient church, filled in this respect as in others with biblical sobriety, recognized this connection clearly.  It knew that it had to be a sign of the truth of the gospel in its entire existence.  The astonishing growth which it experienced in a relatively brief period can only be explained through the radiance of that sign…

The twelve apostles preached the gospel in the whole world and established a sufficient number of local churches.  This marked the conclusion of mission in the strict sense.  The communities established by the apostles existed from then on as signs of the truth.  Pagan society was then in a position to choose.  This was in principle the whole missionary theory of the ancient church.  A strict distinction was made between the specific and unique missionary charge of the apostles and the task of symbolic presence incumbent upon all churches.  Obviously this did not exclude missionary activity in the period which followed the apostles.  But it is evident ‘that Christianity in the pre-Constantinian age achieved its astonishing growth simply through its presence and notability, not through organized missionary efforts.’  A great and unshakeable confidence that Christian praxis will itself convince others permeates the writings of all the Apologists [he cites a number of relevant passages in the pages that follow]…

Evidently the ancient church saw a much stronger connection between the symbolic character of the church and Christology than we do today.  The true nature of Christ can shine forth only when the church makes visible the messianic alternative and the eschatological new creation which have taken their place in the world since Christ.” (Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community, pp. 175-79)

 [UPDATE: “The story is told of a wise old Jewish rabbi who was informed that some say that the Messiah had already come.  He made no answer but went to the window, opened it, and looked out into the world.  After a moment he turned and sadly shook his head.  If the Messiah had in fact come, things would have been different, but in fact nothing had changed.” (Jerome Murphy-O’ConnorBecoming Human Together, p. 9)

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lohfink“The church serves the world best when it takes with radical seriousness its task of being a ‘holy people’ in the sense of 1 Peter 2:9-10.  The church is the salt of society precisely by living symbolically God’s societal and social order.  It is extremely questionable that not a few engaged Christians today act as if responsibility for the world and transformation of the world were possible only beyond and outside the church…The most important and irreplaceable service Christians can render society is quite simply that they truly be church.” (Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community, p. 168)

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Munck“Jesus came forward in Israel as the Messiah whom the Jews awaited.  He did not turn to others besides the Jews, and he forbade his disciples to go to Samaritans and Gentiles.  This apparent particularism is an expression of his universalism—it is because his mission concerns the whole world that he comes to Israel…Only in Israel, God’s chosen people, can Jesus speak and act for the whole world; and only in Jerusalem, the holy city and the center of the world, can he be rejected as the Messiah and suffer for the whole world.” (Johannes Munck, Paul and the Salvation of Mankind, pp. 271-72)

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To Change the World

lohfink“What has been said above about mission also applies to Christian efforts to transform the world.  It does not correspond to the New Testament unless it has its basis in the people of God.  The world can be changed only when the people of God itself changes.  It is not possible to liberate others unless freedom radiates within one’s own group.  It is not possible to preach social repentance to others unless one lives in a community which takes seriously the new society of the reign of God…[The early Christians] knew that this missionary effort would change nothing among the nations unless the people of God itself stood as a transformed society in the background of the mission.  The mission received its credibility through the concrete social construction of the people of God which conducted it…The decisive task of the church is thus to build itself up as a society in contrast to the world, as the realm of Christ’s rule in which fraternal love is the law of life.  It is precisely through the church’s doing this that pagan society will grasp God’s plan for the world…We may simply say it is precisely through the church’s being what it is by virtue of Christ that the church will grow of its own accord in pagan society and that Christ will be able to fulfill all things through the church.” (Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community, pp. 138-45)

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lohfink“Jesus emphatically rejected, as far as his community of disciples was concerned, domination and the structures of domination which are customary in society.  In a community of brothers no fathers are permitted to rule…It is presupposed [in Mark 10:35-45] that authority and power must exist within the church.  But this authority must not be domination of the sort that is exercised in the rest of society.  Elsewhere rule is exercised all too frequently in the interests of the rulers.  In the people of God, on the other hand, authority must derive completely from service.  Within the church only one who abstracts from oneself and one’s own interests and lives a life for others can become an authority…

[Secular rulers] must enforce or defend the welfare of society by the use of force–with the instruments of power given them by the law.  In the divine contrast-society which our text has in mind, even this is not allowed.  The authority discussed here may not compel even what is legitimate and right.  All it can do is bear witness and in extreme cases die for its cause.  It is anything but fortuitous that Jesus’ sacrifice of his life for the many is mentioned at the conclusion of the passage (Mark 10:45).  Jesus did not use force to advance his message…He was only a witness, and he made his disciples witnesses.  When others took steps to do away with him by violence because of his message, he preferred to let himself be killed than to answer the violence of his enemies with violence in return.  That is Jesus’ authority.  It is a paradoxical authority to the very last, an authority which in its unprotectedness and vulnerability turns any other type of authority upside down.  On the basis of Jesus’ conduct, Mark 10:42-45 defines with disturbing consistency every possible form of authority within the church.  Nonviolence, renunciation of domination and consequent vulnerability are irrevocably embedded in the church and its offices by the praxis of Jesus…

Paul above all others was the living conscience of the early church on this point.  He possessed a very explicit knowledge of his apostolic authority…Paul issued regulations for his communities by virtue of apostolic authority…It is true that Paul was primarily a preacher of the gospel; but in this preaching we encounter God’s command as well as his mercy.  For this reason the apostle gave binding directives for the moral life of the individual and for the common life of the community with the same authority that he proclaimed the gospel.  These directives could even extend into the juridicial realms; the apostle could make decisions in the spirit of the risen Lord and could establish laws.

So Paul was well aware of the apostolic authority (exousia) which had been conferred on him by Christ himself.  But that is only one side of the coin.  Paul’s exercise of this authority was almost always limited in a distinctive way; it was integrated into the structure of service (diakonia).  For this reason his exercise of apostolic authority raised no suspicions of dominating the community; it had the character of self-sacrificing service [he cites 1 Cor. 4:21; 1 Thess. 2:7; Philemon 8; 2 Cor. 1:24].  Now texts like this could be just empty words.  For this reason it important that our sources are not limited to individual formulations of this sort.  Even the form of Paul’s letters proves how little he wished to be lord over the faith of the churches…Paul did not primarily issue decrees, but rather argued with deep theological engagement.  He sought to convince his communities; he wrestled for their agreement so that they could participate in the decision with the aid of the insight they had gained.  Paul took seriously the freedom and responsibility of his communities.  It was not only the first, argumentative part of his letters that shows he did not merely decree and command, but also their second, admonitory section (paraklesis).  Paul’s paraklesis is indeed instruction and directive, but it is simultaneously appeal, encouragement, admonition, consolation, invitation, even request…

Even more telling than the form in which Paul wrote is the way in which he treated his coworkers…The Pauline form of mission should be described as ‘collaborative mission’–which was by no means always the case in the early church…In view of his many collaborators Paul made the ‘common work’ the ‘core which guaranteed unity,’ not his own person.  Paul himself was ‘coworker’ in this endeavor (1 Cor. 3:9), and he treated other coworkers as mature and autonomous partners, not as his assistants…

Paul’s failure and defeats were also part of his praxis.  The apostle’s sufferings were not due only to persecutions from without, but also to his constant ‘anxiety for all the churches’ (2 Cor. 11:28)…It came also from Paul’s unwillingness to keep his communities immature, which led him to leave them an extraordinarily broad room for charismatic activity.  Paul sought free obedience and bound the charisms to the reason of the Spirit and of love–and in doing so undertook a great risk.  But this was precisely the risk of authority without domination in the following of Jesus.  The church will always find it necessary to choose between the security of bondage and the risk of liberty.  Paul reflected on this alternative more than anyone else.  He knew very well that an authority required to renounce domination would very quickly be brought close to the cross of Christ.  His apostolic service was realized in weakness…The weakness and helplessness of apostolic existence (cf. also 1 Cor. 4:9-13) is also its power and its strength…Even service can subtly be transformed into domination.  The bearer of authority can avoid this most abysmal of all temptations only by grasping failures and defeats as a co-dying with Christ.  Only in this impotence does service become completely selfless and achieve a power able to overcome all obstacles.  Only in such cases can a preacher truly say with Paul (2 Cor. 4:5): ‘For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ the Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.’

It is one of the church’s tragic blind spots that it again and again seeks to protect its authority (which is certainly necessary and legitimate) through domination.  In reality is undermines its authority in this way and does serious harm to the gospel.  True authority can shine forth only in the weakness of renouncing domination.  True authority is the authority of the Crucified.  Paul knew this better than anyone else; for this reason he constantly connected the paradox of his apostolic authority with the paradox of the Crucified and Risen One.  It is astonishing how intensely the substance of Mark 10:42-45 reappears in Paul.” (Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community, pp. 115-20)

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