Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Lines In The Sand

In him we live and move and have our being. – The Apostle Paul  
Abide in me. - Jesus

The relationship between Christians and those who are not Christians is hard to describe, because it is hard to identify the nature of these “two” groups of people from a Christian perspective. Or rather, because the Bible offers varying – perhaps even contradicting – perspectives on the nature of those who are not Christians. When we try to draw a line in the sand there is usually a wave waiting to wash it away. The most obvious line is the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” Christians are those who make this confession, non-Christians are those who do not. Jesus, however, says that not everyone who calls him “Lord” will enter into the kingdom of heaven. Moreover, Paul says that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. There are numerous implications of this eschatological scene – one of them may be that non-Christians are really just future Christians. (If that sounds like arrogance, it is not meant that way. After all, from an atheist perspective (for example) Christians are really just future atheists, for there can be no believers in god(s) once we die and the whole supernatural realm is revealed to be a sham. Of course the problem for atheism is that it can have no living witnesses of its truth. The truth of the non-being of god(s) can only be known to non-beings, and therefore not really known at all.) The obverse of this implication is that Christians are those who know something that non-Christians do not know now, but will one day know. So, for example (and this is, I think, a Barthian line of reasoning), it is not that Christians are those who have been forgiven whereas non-Christians are those who haven’t. Rather, it is that Christians know they have been forgiven and live in the light of that knowledge, whereas non-Christians don’t know that they really have been forgiven. This is an epistemological or noetic difference before it is an ontological difference. And for Barth, because it has to do with knowledge it also has to do with obedience. 

Indeed, obedience seems to get close to the heart of the distinction between Christian and non-Christian. As Jesus went on to say after his undermining of verbal confession, it is those who do the will of the Father than enter into the kingdom of God. These deeds are the “fruit” by which people are known. Is it as simple, then, as saying that Christians are those who do good and non-Christians are those who do bad? Or that those who do good are Christians and those who do bad are non-Christians? What about the atheist who has dedicated her life to clothing the poor and feeding the hungry and searching for justice? We may not want to label her an “anonymous Christian” a la Karl Rahner, but does she belong in the kingdom of God? Does she abide in Jesus without her knowing it? What role does “belief” have? What is the relationship between what we believe and what we do? In John 6, Jesus says that what people need to do is to believe in Jesus. In John 13, he says that disciples of Jesus are known by deeds of love modelled after his own. In John 15, Jesus says that unless his disciples abide in him, they can do nothing. 

Which brings me to the two verses that head this post. Everyone lives and moves and has their being in God, but not everyone abides in Jesus. The first verse is descriptive. The second is prescriptive. What, then, is the particular content of abiding in Jesus? What does one have to do to abide? Jesus says “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love.” What is commanded? Love. Love is the fruit produced, but it is also the vine disciples of Jesus must be connected to, and they can only be connected to it by loving love. Like can only be known by like, and love can only be known by love. 

I began this post talking about lines in the sand. John 8 mentions Jesus doing quite literally this, in the context of a group of the “righteous” who were metaphorically drawing lines between themselves and an unrighteous adulteress. “Let he who hasn’t sinned cast the first stone” was Jesus’s response to the situation. The lines drawn by the Pharisees were quickly rubbed out. But then at the end of John’s gospel, on the sand by the sea of Galilee (the Gospel doesn’t mention any sand, but just go with me on this), Jesus does draw a line. He asks Peter, “Do you love me?” This is a yes or no question. There is no place for lukewarmness. 

I haven’t even mentioned the elephant in the room: the church. That is for another time, most likely my dissertation.

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