Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
I have come to the conclusion that we are at a stalemate. Now, your mind may be jumping to all sorts of binaries in the world, but I’m thinking about the divide between the Church and the world. No matter how you conceptualize that binary, Scripture is clear that there is a difference and that the difference matters. The Church and the world are oriented toward different ends and are interested in steering the other side toward their own agendas.
But that steering, that’s the stalemate I’m thinking of. Whether we are talking about ontological proofs of God’s existence, evolutionary biological proofs against the creation narratives of Genesis, the plausibility of Christ’s resurrection, social scientific accounts for religious phenomena, we all can marshal evidence in support of our beliefs. Nobody has yet provided the definitive evidence in support of theism or atheism.
This was what modernity was supposed to. Science and empirical rationalism would provide all the necessary explanations for existence and causation. God would fade into irrelevance as people gradually awakened to the reality that He is unnecessary. The Church in the era of modernity took the bait and attempted to “play the game” on the world’s terms. The Church attempted better arguments for the existence of God, for the existence of miracles, for the life of Christ. We would convince the world of the necessity of Christ through our arguments.
Several decades into postmodernity, however, we can see that this has not happened, not on either side. Since the Church was never supposed to play by the world’s rules, we have at best arrived at a stalemate. More realistically, we, the Church, are licking our wounds and regrouping, turning again to the Scriptures to understand not only our identity as the Church, but the rules of our engagement with the world.
When the Church turned its attention to tighter arguments for the existence of God it allowed itself to bifurcate the cognitive life of the apologist from the worshipping life of the community. An obsession with “grace alone” arguments within a guilt/innocence framework neglected the Bible’s emphasis on Christ’s reign as king and our relationship to that king as one of the “obedience of faith.” This is not to suggest that we ought never to think rightly about God or to never think within philosophical frameworks (it is unavoidable, in fact). Rather, just as in ancient traditions of rhetoric, where the character of the speaker was intertwined with his/her argument, the Church must always keep in mind its own character.
The writers of our lectionary passages in Deuteronomy and Matthew understood that the shape of our witness is the shape of our communities and vice versa. Proper relationship with God required a proper relationship with one another and when those two dimensions are aligned then the world will take notice.
In the case of Israel, they were to be a beacon to the world, drawing all the nations to Israel to marvel at their God, who makes perfect laws. When they failed to do so, they were ejected out of the land of their inheritance for they lost sight of the purpose of that inheritance. In the case of the Church, they were to be a beacon to the world, going out into all the world where it all belongs to the Lord and none of it belongs to us.
There is a remarkable passage in the ancient letter to Diognetus: “And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.”
The nations noticed these peculiar people within their lands and it was the particularity that marked them as different. It was the witness of their ethical communities that was the greatest testimony to Christ.
So we are indeed at a stalemate with the world at large with regards to our arguments for the existence of God and the plausibility of the resurrection. We believe in Christ so we find the proper arguments. They do not believe in Christ and so they find their proper arguments. Let us instead stop playing by the rules of the world and instead focus on the shape of our communities, where Christ’s otherwise insane commands against hatred, lust, marriage, and oaths become possible. Let us be a Church that demonstrates the gospel through our restored relationship with God through our restored relationships with one another. There can be no argument against it.