Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Earthiness of the Old and the Dualism of the New

How do we account for the contrast between the OT's preoccupation with hard work, harvests, politics, and justice, and the NT's urging to get our eyes on things above, to live as exiles, to labor for eternal fruit, and store imperishable treasure? Without trying to jam both Testaments into the same mold, I don't think the differences are as drastic as they may seem.

Certainly there is discontinuity in God's plan of salvation from Old to New. But it's wrong to imagine a false discontinuity that envisions Israel's salvation as an earthly utopia and the church's as a heavenly one. There is no such naive idealism in the OT. From Abraham's doubts and white lies to Israel's grumblings and golden calves to the Law's depressing prediction of absolute failure and punishment, the Scriptures stand witness to the blatant shortcomings of the people of God. At best, men and women of faith are fed shadowy images of better things to come. Hebrews 11 offers us a window into a "dualism" older than Israel and its practical implications.

This parade of exemplary saints from Abel to David all demonstrate one thing - commendation of hopeful faith embodied in earthly action. These were not OT caricatures pouring themselves into building heaven on earth. In the Promised Land itself, Abraham was "like a stranger in a foreign country"! No, at their best they were looking forward, seeing from a distance, welcoming "a better country - a heavenly one". Their sacrificial offerings, boat building, baby making, civil disobedience, prophesying, conquering, and administering justice all economically, socially, religiously, and politically served the same purpose - banking their physical lives on something better to come; living a heavenly reality in earthly bodies and communities.

As Christians we look back on a rich inheritance of ancestral witnesses. We look forward to Jesus, whose own obedience meant flesh, blood, work, sweat, connecting the theological dots of worship within our bodily existence, and then dying and resurrecting bodily himself. This "race marked out for us" is tied taut between these examples. No wonder the fledgling church of Acts is instantly forced to define social structures (1:14-15), property rights (2:44-45), politics (4:19; 5:29), and treatment of the poor (4:34) in light of Jesus' resurrection and their mission in the opening chapters. The church is at its worst when it hangs limply in the balance of an aritificial dualism, affirming Jesus' lordship over everything we can't see and having trouble finding his relevance in things that matter.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Communion and our Engagement to Christ

I posted this on my church's blog recently. Sorry about the length PD.

When we read about the Lord’s Supper in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-26, and Luke 22:14-23), something strange becomes apparent. We are familiar with the first two parts of communion; Jesus breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples, and then He passes the wine telling them that it is, “the new covenant in My blood,” (Lk. 22:20) These parts of the Lord’s supper are mentioned perhaps every time and everywhere it is practiced. What we often neglect to notice is the promise given with the Elements:

“But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom,” (Mt. 26:29, cf. Mk. 14:25, Lk. 22:16,18)

It does not sound like a promise at all, and no doubt the disciples did not hear it as such. To them, it is difficult to hear anything except, “We did some amazing things together, I am leaving you. Oh, and by the way, I’ll come back sometime ” If this were all Jesus meant, despair and desertion would not be difficult to understand. However, upon closer examination we see that there is a very great promise here.

Recall a couple of weeks ago Dusty talked about the Jewish custom of marriage (Parable of the Ten Virgins). He mentioned how the bridegroom and bride would become engaged (and at that point they were viewed as essentially married to the extent that if the bridegroom died, the bride would be considered a widow) and then the bridegroom would proceed to leave and prepare a home for his bride. As soon as his estate was ready the bridegroom would return in a glorious procession and days of feasting and dancing would ensue, and the marriage would finally be consummated.

If we return to the scene in that upper room shortly before Christ’s death and look again at Christ’s language with this image of marriage in mind, its meaning changes. His announcement of His departure is not an expression of abandonment, but a promise of perfect marriage. It is not a funeral march but the beginning of the engagement. Interpreting the Lord’s Supper with an understanding of marriage, His instructions at the passover come to mean two things:

1) Our relationship to Christ has changed. In the Luke account Jesus says, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” There cannot be a new covenant unless there is an old covenant. The old covenant was our guardianship under the Law. By Christ’s death, our obligation to the Law has been satisfied in Christ, and by joining with Him in death, we announce that the old relationship has ended and a new marriage is beginning. If our old master was merely right in its expectation of us, our new master is good and right in His expectation and aid. And so, as we take communion, we remember the beginning of our betrothal to Christ. What Christ means, then, by saying that He will abstain from the cup until God’s kingdom is established is essentially a commitment to abstinence, since the blood is the very thing that binds husband and wife. Christ is saying that until the proper time, the marriage will not be consummated between He and His Bride. So even though we have fellowship with Christ, our fellowship with Him is not what it will be. This brings us to the second point.

2) Our relationship to each other has changed. Inasmuch as it is important to understand who our Bridegroom is, we must understand who the Bride is. Jesus gives the cup and says, “Take this and share it among yourselves,” and then the bread, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you,” (Lk. 22:17, 19) Remember that God’s intention from Abraham on was to make a great family, or nation, bound by a common heritage and blood (Gn. 17:1-8). The lineage that went from Abraham down through Isaac, Jacob, and all of their descendants all the way down to Christ is a tangible symbol of an eternal reality, that is, the Vine that is Christ in whom we find our spiritual lineage (Jn 15:1-11). In the same way that the Jews trace their physical lineage to Abraham, we trace our spiritual lineage to him through Christ. Hence, by ingesting His blood and body, we are taking in the very elements that make a family a family. I am related to my mother and father and sister by a temporal sort of blood, and my ties to them will end (again, in a temporal sense) as soon as I die. In the same way that my physical blood binds me to my earthly family, the blood of Christ binds us together as His Church as long as we are alive (which is, of course, forever).

The implication here is that when you, the reader, sit in the pews of Rutledge Chapel and eat of Christ’s body and drink of His blood, you sit among family. These same people who eat and drink with you, assuming that they are indeed in Christ, are as much apart of you or more than your physical family, and ought to be treated as such. Christ’s blood flows through my veins and your veins and animates the various limbs and members of this body that is the Bride. This is the Church, this is the Bride of Christ, and this is what is in store for those who trust in Him. It is a terrible, glorious and weighty title to be given. At the same time, it is a wonderful thought that a wedding greater than any bride could ever conceive of is being prepared by a Lover who has not spared any expense to be united with us.

Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, For the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready. It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.
Revelation 19:7-8