God Bless the Theologians
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 1.6-14; Psalm 68.1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4.12-15; 5.6-11; John 17.1-11
Last Thursday was Ascension Day, the day we commemorate Jesus’ ascension to the Father. We are not really sure what happened at the ascension, but suffice it to say, the bodily presence of Jesus was no longer with us. I ran across an apropos cartoon from Man Martin’s “Man Overboard” comic strip. Jesus says to three of his disciples, “Gotta go, Dudes. Don’t forget what I taught you.” The next frame shows Jesus’ feet as he is ascending, and Jesus says, “See you in the funny papers.” The disciples say, “Bye boss.” One of the disciples then asks, “So what have we learned?” Another answers, “Pretty much it’s love God and love your neighbor.” The disciple who asked the question replies, “Well, that seems pretty simple – I don’t see how we can mess th –.“ Just then the third disciple, looking in the opposite direction, sees four men dressed in academic and ecclesiastical regalia; he says, “Uh oh, here come the theologians.”
As noted previously, in ancient times, when we began to discuss theological issues, we did not have language suitable for theological discourse. Hence, we barrowed from the Greeks, especially Plato and Aristotle. A certain amount of baggage accompanied this language, much of which remains.
For example, what comes to mind when we speak of eternal life? Most of us think of a never-ending, blissful existence of our soul outside of space, time, and matter, even though the Apostle’s Creed states, “I believe … in the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” The emphasis on the immaterial soul is a carryover from Platonism.
In John 17, a portion of Jesus’ farewell discourse, Jesus prayed, “Father, the hour has come; glorify (exalt) Your Son, that the Son may glorify (exalt) You, even as You gave him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life” (John 17.1-2; NRSVUE). Here Jesus emphasizes the gift of eternal life. Jesus then said: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (17.3). If you asked any Christian for the definition of eternal life, what is the likelihood of hearing that?
Eternal life is knowing God and Jesus Christ, not in a cognitive sense, but in a relational sense. One who possesses eternal life stands in an intimate relationship with God and Jesus Christ. In that respect, we can have eternal life now – it is not something which occurs only after we are dead and resurrected. Jesus also speaks of eternal life as “life to the full;” eternal life is the “abundant life.”
As I have mentioned previously, the Greek for “eternal life” is zoe aionios which reflects how ancient Judaism viewed time as existing in two “aions,” or as we would say “eons:” the present age (ha-olam hazeh) and the age to come (ha-olam ha-ba). As N. T. Wright tells us,
The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to rescue us from the present evil age.” In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the “age to come.” But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay (John for Everyone, pp. 44-45).
In rescuing the world, all shall be made new. On Wright’s view, the goal is not about “going to heaven.”
Let’s face it – translation from one language to another is always subject to misinterpretation and misunderstanding which can persist for centuries. The emergent church attempts to recognize and correct some of the errors of the past which continue to influence our perspective. Paul Nuechterlein comments on some of these errors as follows:
The original Reformation was all about discovering God anew as a God of grace. But, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. Five hundred years of subsequent history has shown those efforts to have largely failed. A God of grace must be a God who is completely nonviolent, and a God who produces true Oneness. As John puts it, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). The Reformation never came close to achieving this pinnacle of a nonviolent God. Reformation churches soon promulgated wars and various forms of violence, using God to justify it. It produced the same old kind of oneness based on Us-against-Them . . . now formulated as Protestants vs. Catholics.
Theologically, Protestantism landed squarely with the ultimate dualistic god, who instead of “creating one new humanity in place of the two” (the clear results of a gracious God proclaimed in Eph. 2), proclaims a god who eternally divides humanity into two — believers and unbelievers, the saved and the damned, those who go to heaven and those who go to hell. Instead of seeing in the Crucified God a gracious God who is launching a renewal of creation and healing of humanity, Protestant theology landed with its abhorrent penal substitutionary atonement theory of a wrathful God who sacrifices the Son in order to save a few believing souls for heaven. After a century of World Wars, it’s no wonder that people are fleeing churches in rapidly increasing numbers.
Next week, we celebrate Pentecost. In preparation for Pentecost, let us remember Jesus’ promise, which we noted last week, to send another Advocate, the Holy Spirit. In today’s reading from Acts 1, the apostles ask Jesus if this is the time during which he will restore the kingdom to Israel. The Apostles clearly recognize they represent the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.7-8; NRSVUE). Jesus ascended immediately thereafter.
The gift of the Holy Spirit empowers us to live in eternal life, to live in a loving relationship to God and to our neighbor. Let us anticipate the celebration of Pentecost. Amen