If you want to know what people are calling the Missional Church click this link and listen to an an expert on all things 'emerging'. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFFlSb-Zsc8 Here Tim Keller discusses the characteristics of the missional church with the traditional evangelical one. This video was recorded at the Desiring God 2006 National Conference.
Thursday, 31 May 2007
Monday, 28 May 2007
I’ve been thinking recently about chicks being born (See previous blogs)and for that matter the birth of human babies along with their spiritual parallels. Is being ‘born again’ always an instantaneous action as many evangelicals believe? Certainly there are examples of this in the gospels and Acts as one has only to think of the woman at the well in John 3 and the Philippian jailer in Acts. But is it not true that before a child or chick is born there has been a lot going within the mother or egg. Ask any mother: she knows well before the child is born that that she is going to give birth ( apart from the odd exceptions). There was a physical process going on within the mother. Even before conception there was the relationship between the man and woman. They had to meet up for the first time and develop that relationship. They wouldn’t have always known each other. If they had never met up the child would never have been born. In fact if the same process had not happened for their parents they would never had been born- and we can go as far back to our first parents and to God our Father who first breathed life into them. If one of the relationships had not occurred previously we would not be here. Without the Grandparents the grandchildren would not be here.
Back to the spiritual parallel. Paul writes to the Galatians:
'My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you'.
He had obviously laboured previously for them and because they were going back to their old ways he had to labour for them again. It was therefore a process.
When looking back on his own life he wrote:
'But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles'.
God set him apart from birth, yet the process continued until after his Damascus Road experience when he met Ananias who prayed for him. (Acts 9)
'The word of the LORD came to me, saying,
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations'.
Paul also records elsewhere that we were chosen before the foundation of the world.
If we look back on our own lives we may be surprised to see how God was working: despite our rebellion and sin. And for those we seek to bring to God we should not be surprised that God has already been at work there. In fact be very surprised if He hasn’t been. Don’t also be discouraged if you experience opposition or problems. Be faithful and strong in God: He is working his purposes out. Don't give up on yourself OR somebody else: He hasn't.
Note that the video above is used purely as an illustration for this blog. It is not a family video: despite the name.
Wednesday, 23 May 2007
Yesterday I mentioned the Youth group I spoke at in Belfast. It is led by Dave ‘Clapton’ Whitcroft an incredible guitarist and singer as well as Youth leader. In trying to encourage some of the young people to help out with the Youth Club I got them to think of a chick hatching from its egg. The chick starts off very small within the egg but as it starts to feed on the yoke it gets bigger and bigger. Eventually it becomes too big for the egg and starts to break out. As Christians having the Holy Spirit within us, we have if you like, Christ’s D.N.A. within us. As we feed on his word and walk with Him we start to grow and in the process he begins to prepare us the ministry and service he wants us to do. However, he has given us free will and we sometimes disobey him and don’t budge being quite content to stay as we are. He wants us to break out of our ‘comfort zone’ but we are too frightened or sometimes just can’t be bothered. Sadly some Christians have never broken out of their comfort zone and are still in the egg!
As seen in the video it is hard work to break out. But listen how the children cheer and squeal with delight when the chick does manage it. All heaven waits for you to break through! When you feel the Spirit moving you and challenging you: go out in faith and take a risk. You never know he might even teach you how to fly!
Monday, 21 May 2007
1 Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, "I find no pleasure in them"-
2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain;
3 when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim;
4 when the doors to the street are closed and the sound of grinding fades; when men rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow faint;
5 when men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets; when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along and desire no longer is stirred. Then man goes to his eternal home and mourners go about the streets.
6 Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well,
7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
8 "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!"
The Conclusion of the Matter
9 Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. 10 The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
11 The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd. 12 Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.
13 Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
Friday, 18 May 2007
CLICK A FEW TIMES ON THE LINK ABOVE
This is a wonderful and poignant signing off from the ‘Man in Black’. He had many great songs from ‘ A boy named Sue’, ‘A thing called love’ to ‘I’ll walk the line’, ‘personal Jesus’ and lastly ‘Hurt’. This video covers his good and bad times. Yet like the wise man Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes (Chapter 12) he sees the futility of a life lived for self. ‘Vanity of vanities for all is vanity.’ Listen to the memorable lines
‘Everyone goes away in the end’
‘and you could have it all
my empire of dirt.’
‘if I could start again
a million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way’
I hurt myself today
to see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
the only thing that's real
the needle tears a hole
the old familiar sting
try to kill it all away
but I remember everything
what have I become?
my sweetest friend
everyone I know
goes away in the end
and you could have it all
my empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
I wear this crown of thorns
upon my liar's chair
full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
beneath the stains of time
the feelings disappear
you are someone else
I am still right here
what have I become?
my sweetest friend
everyone I know
goes away in the end
and you could have it all
my empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
if I could start again
a million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way
Friday, 4 May 2007
What did God have in mind when He created the family? The Bible says, "God makes a home for the lonely (Psalm 68:6 NASB) A family involves a circle of relationship including an adult male and female, into which tiny, dependent human beings are born and raised. Why do we enter the world as such helpless, inadequate persons, and then slowly grow up physically, mentally, and emotionally into self-sufficient adults? Have you ever wondered why God didn't come up with some sort of reproduction system that would produce a physically completed person such as His original creation of Adam and Eve?
I believe God wanted us to come into this world totally dependent and helpless, because He intends the family unit to be a place where His love is demonstrated to both parent and child. As parents we begin to really understand God's heart towards us as His children. And as children, it is God's will for us to see His love revealed through parental tenderness, mercy, and discipline.
But what if the ideal did not happen? What if you have been failed in some way by parental authority? So many have suffered hurt and rejection by their families that it is hard for them to see God as He really is. Understanding the character of God is essential if we are to love Him, serve Him, and be like Him
I want to talk about six different areas of misconception concerning God and His love for us. For ease of communication I will be referring almost exclusively to God's qualities of fatherhood. However, a full revelation of God's parental love is incomplete without the presence of the male and female attributes of parental affection. "And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:27 NASB) I want you to look back into your personal past and see if your relationship with God has been hindered in any way because of a failure or absence of tender loving care from one or both of your parents.
I. Parental Authority
Have you ever turned into the driveway of a friend's house to be greeted by the family dog? The foolish mutt will either cower away from you, trembling with fear, or leap upon you with an unwanted display of affection, demonstrated with tongue, tail, and dirty paws. The browbeaten puppy that cannot be induced to trust you has obviously been mistreated. The exuberant mongrel attempting to give you a facial with his tongue has obviously come from a loving home.
So it is when God approaches man. Our past experiences dictate our response when God reaches out to us. A weeping prophet named Hosea heard the voice of God saying, "When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from Me. They sacrificed to the baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them." (Hosea 11:1-4 LB) God's authority is not harsh and vindictive, but to the contrary, He is unspeakably gentle and long-suffering.
The other day I rushed into my den urgently needing some information from my files. As I sorted frantically through my papers, my five-year-old son repeatedly blew his shrill tin whistle. I told him again and again to stop. There was a period of silence followed by a deafening blast right next to my ear, including a spray of saliva. I reached around, swatted him with the back of my hand and bellowed at him in anger. Immediately I felt that the Spirit of God had been grieved. I remembered the biblical statement that God is slow to anger and delights to be merciful. I took my son in my arms and asked him to forgive me. It was only right that I should correct his disobedience, but our children should always know that we discipline them because we love them, and not because we are venting our momentary frustration.
Our Heavenly Father is at this very moment being slandered and misrepresented all over the world by man's cruelty and selfishness. Not only in the home, but in all forms of human government. His laws of love have been ignored and our mangled hearts continue on in carrying out injustice to all those smaller and weaker than ourselves.
What horror is God seeing at this moment? A bedroom door bursts open. A small boy is slapped awake by a drunken and angry man in the middle of the night "The sprinklers are still on. It's a flood. I'll teach you, boy!" The terrified child is beaten mercilessly by the dark, hulking shape of a man he calls "Daddy."
A 15-year-old prostitute with blank, empty eyes, mechanically performs through a night of degradation on Hollywood Boulevard. She doesn't care what happens to her. She hasn't felt clean since the night she was molested by her own father.
A wounded generation stumbles through their youthful years, only to visit the same hurts on their own children. Generation after generation it goes on. Is there no one to comfort us? Who will father the children of men? Whose arms are big enough for all the lonely children of the world? Who weeps over our pains? Who will comfort us in our loneliness? ONLY GOD. A BROKEN-HEARTED FATHER who is rejected by the little ones He yearns to heal. Our problem is that we, like the browbeaten puppy, shrink away from the One who we assume will be like the other authorities in our lives. But He is not He is perfect love. It was God who gave this command to parents in Ephesians 6:4: "Parents don't keep on scolding and nagging your children, making them angry and resentful. Rather, bring them up with the loving discipline the Lord Himself approves."(LB)
II. Parental Faithfulness
Every promise of God will be fulfilled. He is consistently loving. His one heart motive remains the same through time and eternity. He never changes. He only desires to show love and forgiveness.
Do you distrust God? Our distrust hurts Him deeply. What if I came home to my wife and children after a long journey and they ran away from me when I opened the door and called their names. I would be terribly hurt.
You are God's child and even now He calls your name, but maybe deep in your heart you doubt His faithfulness. As a child you may have experienced the complete absence of a father because of death or divorce. Maybe you were orphaned by the demands of your parents' career? Or is it just the childhood memory of broken promises or neglect that haunts you? Some of you screamed for hours as babies but nobody came to relieve you of your discomfort and hunger. Some of you whimpered behind locked doors, a small child, forgotten and alone.
Do you have an inability to sense His presence with you? Is your heart soft towards God or hardened with cynicism and distrust? Look up into His eyes and see His love for you. "I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you... I am with you always even until the end of the age. "(Heb. 13:5; Matt.28:20 NASB)
You may say to me, "But if He has loved me so much, then why haven't I felt Him or seen Him?" It isn't God who has failed you my friend, but I and those who know His love personally. Too many times we have failed to become His voice and His hands to those who do not know Him. Far too few allow themselves to be driven by the broken heart of Jesus into the dark corners of this world where the poor and needy wait Jesus is not attracted to pleasant places, but to hurting people. He pursues us with His love from our first breathing moment until the day we die.
Your Heavenly Father was there when you first walked as a child. He was there through hurts and disappointments. He is present now at this moment. You were briefly loaned to human parents who, for a few years, were supposed to have showered you with love like His love. But you are and always will be a child of God, made in His image. Your loving Father awaits even now with outstretched arms. What would keep you from Him?
Few people know God in all His loveliness while living this brief life. Many of us are like the thief who died on the cross next to Jesus. Outwardly he saw a bloody, disfigured body, but soon he began to perceive the true nature of Jesus, and at the last minute, entered by faith into the family of God. We too must see past the religious and commercial mutations of Jesus, and behold the God of Love who still stands with open arms saying, "I came that you might have life and that more abundantly." (John 10:10 NASB)
"Even when we are too weak to have any faith left, He remains faithful to us who are part of Himself and He will always carry out His promises to us. "(11 Tim.2:13 LB)
III. Parental Generosity
A few years ago I stood in a native village in the South Pacific, watching the children play. It occurred to me that these children would very seldom hear the words, "Don't touch that! Leave it alone! Be careful!" Their homes were simple, consisting of earth floors, thatched roofs, and mats that rolled down to serve as walls at night.
In contrast, our modern homes are stuffed with expensive and fragile furnishings and appliances that represent a minefield of potential rejection and rebuke for inquisitive toddlers. How many mothers have exploded in anger at a child who has damaged a treasured object of great expense or sentimental value. Children are constantly reminded of the importance of things - their value, and how to care for them. Very few times do they hear the simple words, "I love you."
A repetitious and destructive chant is working its way into the subconscious minds of our children, "Things are more important than me. Things are more important than me!" What are we to do? Abandon our modem homes? Obviously not. But we do need to realize that our concept of God's generosity may have been crippled by our childhood experiences.
The truth is that God is innately generous. Creation shows an extravagance of color, complexity, and design that goes far beyond simple functional value. At this moment, high in the Italian Alps, a tiny white flower glistens in the sunlight. It has never been seen by the human eye in all of its seasons of bloom. It is not an essential part of the food chain. It was created by God in the hope that one day a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve might glance at it and be blessed by its beauty.
The greatest demonstration of God's father heart seems to come with His attention to the details of our life. He surprises us with those extra things, those little pleasures and treasures that only a father would know we yearn for. God is not stingy, possessive, or materialistic. We use people to get things, He uses things to bless people.
My family and I have worked as missionaries since 1972, trusting God for our daily needs. Our testimony is that in providing for us, God goes far beyond or basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. We serve a truly generous God! The Psalmist said, "Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He will do it." (Psalm 37:3-5 NASB)
IV. Parental Affection
Do you have any idea how attractive you are to God? One of the biggest hindrances to our walk with Him is a sense that our flesh is repulsive to Him because of sin. When my small son is covered with mud from the back yard, I pick him up and clean him off with the garden hose. I reject the mud, not the boy. Yes, you have sinned. Yes, you have broken God's heart. But you are still the center of God's affections - the apple of His eye. It is He who pursues us with a forgiving heart. We say, "I found the Lord," but the truth is, He found us.
Many children, particularly boys, have had no physical display of affection from their fathers, or no real compassion when they are hurt. Because of our false concept of masculinity, we are told, "Don't cry son, boys don't cry." Jesus is not like that. His compassion and understanding are measureless. He feels our hurts more deeply than we do because His sensitivity to suffering is so much greater.
I once had to hold my screaming two-year-old while a doctor stitched a large gash in his forehead. He quickly forgot his painful experience and fell asleep in my arms. But I was tormented by the experience and grieved for hours. You have forgotten most of your pains, but God has not. He has perfect recall of every moment of your life. Your tears are still mingled with His at this very moment
God was there when you experienced cruel teasing in the school yard and you walked alone avoiding the eyes of others. When you sat in a math class confused and dejected, He was with you. At the age of four when you got lost at the county fair and wandered terrified through the huge crowd, it was God who turned the heart of that kind lady who helped you find your mother. "I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love." (Hosea 11:4 NIV)
Sometimes we don't understand what a fussy, doting Father God is. Your parents may proudly display bronzed baby booties on the mantle, pictures in an album, or trophies on the wall - but how does that compare with God's infinite capacity to be overjoyed with your every success? It was actually God who heard you speak your first real word. The hours you spent alone exploring new textures with baby hands were a delight to your Heavenly Father. Some of His greatest treasures are the memories of your childhood laughter. There has never been another child like you, and there never will be.
Moses once invoked a blessing on each of the tribes of Israel. To one tribe he said, "You shall dwell between the shoulders of God." What a fantastic blessing! But that is where you dwell also. Whatever you become in the eyes of men, even a person of great authority, fame, or title, you will never cease to be more or less than a babe in the arms of God.
V. Parental Attentiveness
There is one attribute of God that not even the best parent can hope to imitate - that is God's ability to be with you all the time. As parents we just cannot give constant attention 24 hours a day. We are finite beings who can only focus on one thing at a time. Not only is God with you all the time, but He gives you His whole attention. "Let Him have all your worries and cares, for He is always thinking about you and watching everything that concerns you." (I Peter5:7 LB)
God is constantly thinking an uninterrupted stream of loving thoughts toward you as though nobody else in the world exists. You say, "How does He do that? How can He be personally involved with billions of individuals at the same time?" I don't know, but I know it's no problem for the Creator of the world. Perhaps the explanation is the speed of His thought. There are 5 billion people on this planet. God has created things in nature that pulsate at incredible speed. I have heard that the quartz crystal's molecular structure vibrates at the speed of 9 billion movements per second. If God could only think that fast, He could think a loving thought towards you about twice every second without straining His ability to relate to the rest of His children. Who knows how He does it? Just enjoy it! As far as you are concerned, it's just you and God. You don't have to get His attention, He's already listening. Don't worry about taking His time... it's all yours.
Your parents were often preoccupied with their activities, and sometimes showed no vital interest in the small events of your life, but God is not that way. He cares. He is a God of detail. Why does the Bible say that God has numbered the hairs of your head? Not because God is concerned with abstract mathematics. He's not a computer wanting data, it's just that He's trying to tell us in what detail He knows us and cares about our lives.
A little boy has worked all afternoon pounding nails into pieces of scrap wood. He finally emerges from the garage and shows a three-level battleship to mom. He can't wait until dad gets home. Dad is late. At 6:30 a tired, preoccupied man finally arrives. A cold dinner is waiting, and so are the income tax forms. The excited boy proudly displays his handiwork to a daddy who barely looks up from the calculator. Daddy never looked, never appreciated, but God did. Father God always looked, always took delight in the work of your hands. He's your real Father, always will be. Don't ever resent the failings of your human parents. They are just kids that grew up and had kids. Rather rejoice in the wonderful love of your Father God.
VI. Parental Acceptance
We live in a performance-oriented society. Acceptance is always conditional - if you make the football team, if you bring home a good report card, if you look pretty, if you have money, if you win. The kingdom of this world is a kingdom of rejection. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of unconditional love. God's promises are conditional, we must obey Him to see blessing, but His love is unconditional. You don't have to wait to experience the love of God. Come as you are. Just be honest with Him about your sin - He delights to forgive you. Even in the depths of your past rebellion He still loved you. Even God's judgments are motivated by love.
Many of you have an inability to receive God's love and approval. You are trapped in a slave-like relationship with the harsh god of your imagination. A true love relationship involves the giving and receiving of love responses. There's one night I will always remember - the night I proposed to my wife, Julie. I kissed her and asked her to marry me. What if she had responded like this, "I'll wash your socks, I'll clean your car, and I'll type your letters." I didn't want to hear that! I wanted a response that matched my feelings of love for her. I wanted to know that she felt the same way about me.
What is your response to God when He simply says He loves you? Can you "Be still and know that He is God" without rushing into frantic activity to earn His approval? (Psalm 46:10 KJV) One of the greatest pictures of human peace and contentment is that of a baby asleep in the arms of a mother after having been fed at the breast. The child no longer squirms and demands, but rests in the embrace of loving arms. A deep mellow contentment wells up into the sound of a lullaby sung by mothers at times like this. The prophet Zephaniah described a similar emotion in the heart of God. "He will save, He will rejoice over thee with joy, He will rest in His love, He will joy over thee with singing." (Zeph. 3:17 KJV)
Don't be so restless in the presence of God. Corrie ten Boom had some simple advice to offer this generation. She who experienced so much suffering at the hands of the Nazis, yet went on to great spiritual victory, once said to my friends and me, "Don't wrestle... nestle." What a profound but simple truth.
God already loves you. All through life you have had to perform and compete. Even as a tiny baby you were compared with other babies. People said you were "too fat," or "too thin," or had "his legs" or "her nose," but God delighted in your uniqueness and still does. It's when you bask in the love of the Father that you cause God to "rest in His love and joy over you with singing."
Yes, there is much to be done in your life and through your life. There will be days when God comes bringing deep conviction of sin, showing you areas of your life that need to be changed, committed and submitted to Him. But God is not always demanding changes. He knows our limits and He gives us the grace and power to do the things He asks of us. He is tender and compassionate. Most of the time He just says, "I love you," and softly speaks your name.
If you see that you have been hindered in your relationship with God due to some kind of failure of parental love, then take these things to the Lord. You must find forgiveness in your heart towards anyone who has hurt you. If you don't, your bitterness will consume you and you will find no peace with God. Realize, too, that you are not alone. I haven't met a perfect person yet, or a parent who hasn't made mistakes. Everyone has suffered some kind of hurts in their life. One of the keys for release is found in forgiveness. The important thing is that you go forward and get to know God for who He really is - not who you think He is. He is the Perfect Parent. He always disciplines in love. He is faithful, generous, kind, and just He loves you and He longs to spend time with you. He wants you to receive His love and know that you are a special and unique person to Him. Will you receive God's love and affection? Won't you open up and enter into an intimate relationship with your true Father? He is patiently waiting for you to come. It is my prayer that you will realize His love for you and respond to the father heart of God.
'In concluding this series of lectures, I want to do something rather different than what I have done in the previous two. My interest in the resurrection of Jesus is at the same time fully historical, fully theological, and fully oriented toward the mission of the church. I fail to see why I or anyone else should be browbeaten by certain forces within the academy or elsewhere into splitting up what God has joined together. For this reason, as an attempt to bring these tasks to creative fusion, I want now to look at two biblical texts and at the challenge of our present social and cultural situation. These will knock some sparks off each other and, I hope, generate some light as they do so.
The text at the middle of the picture is one of the great resurrection stories, the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). I want to lead this story with you in the light of one of the greatest among the Psalms, that combined poem which we call Psalms 42 and 43. Together these texts tell a story of enormous importance for us as we reflect on the mission of the church as the Western world lurches from modernity to postmodernity.
Let me spell out this latter context for just a moment to set the scene for considering the church’s mission today. We live at the overlap of several huge cultural waves. At the social and economic level, we moved two or three hundred years ago front an agricultural economy to an industrial one, and a great many implicit values and aspirations within our culture changed drastically as a result. Many still cherish a yearning to be rooted in agriculture, and they feel frustrated as that becomes ever more impossible. But now we are also moving away very rapidly from the modern industrial economy into a world where the microchip carries more muscle and generates more money than the factory chimney. Politician and industrialists alike are caught up in the clash between the two quite different cultures. Patterns of work, economic growth, and social and cultural values are again being turned inside out in the process.
This quite sudden and threatening transition is bound up with die movement in recent years from what has been called modernism to what is being called postmodernism. To oversimplify, this has focused on three areas.
First, knowledge and truth. Where modernism thought it could know things objectively about the world, postmodernism has reminded us that there is no such thing as neutral knowledge. Everybody has a point of view, and that point of view distorts. Everybody describes things the way that suits them. There is no such thing as objective truth. Likewise, there are no such things as objective values, only preferences. I heard somebody say at a meeting in 1996, “Today, attitudes are more important than facts—and we can document that!” That statement trembles on the brink between modernity and postmodernity. The cultural symbols that encapsulate this revolution are the personal stereo and the virtual-reality screen; everyone creates their own private world.
Second, the self. Modernity vaunted the great lonely individual, the all-powerful “I,” symbolised perfectly in Descartes’s cogito ergo sum and in the proud claim, “I am the master of my fate. . . the captain of my soul.”1 But postmodernity has deconstructed the self, the “I.” The “I” now may be just a floating signifier, a temporary and accidental meeting place of conflicting forces and impulses. Just as reality collapses inward upon the knower, the knower deconstructs itself.
Third, the story. Modernity implied a narrative about the way the world was. It was essentially an eschatological story. World history had been steadily moving toward, or at least eagerly awaiting, the point at which the industrial revolution and the philosophical enlightenment would burst upon the world bringing a new era of blessing for all. This huge overarching story—such overarching stories are known in this postmodernist world as metanarratives—now has been conclusively shown to be an oppressive, imperialist, and self-serving construct. It has brought untold misery to millions in the industrialized West, and to billions in the rest of the world, where cheap labor and raw materials have been ruthlessly exploited. It is a story that serves the interest of Western industrial capitalism. Modernity stands condemned of building a new tower of Babel. Postmodernity has gone on to claim, primarily with this great metanarrative as the example, that all metanarratives are suspect. They are all power games.
Collapsing reality, deconstructing selfhood, and the death of the metanarrative—these are the keys to understanding postmodernity. It is a ruthless application of the hermeneutic of suspicion to everything that the post-Enlightenment Western world has held dear. It corresponds exactly with the microchip revolution, which has generated and sustained a world m which creating new apparent realities, living in one’s own private world, and telling one’s own story, even though it does not cohere with anybody rise’s story, becomes easier and easier. This, on one level, is what the Internet is about. We live in a cultural, economic, moral, and even religious smorgasbord. “Pick-n-mix” is the order of the day.
What does the church do when faced with this huge swirling set of cultural movements and tensions? Most of us learned our trade, learned Christianity, and learned to preach and live the gospel within the resolutely modernist and industrial world. Some branches of Christianity, it is true, have managed to hold onto a premodern way of thinking and even of living, holding the modern world, let alone the postmodern world, at arm’s length. But most of us traditionally have articulated the gospel to people who thought and felt as modern people, particularly as “progress” people—people who thought that if they worked a little harder and pulled their weight a bit more strongly, everything would pan out. That modernist dream, translated into theology, sustains a sort of Pelagianism: pull yourself up by your moral bootstraps, save yourself by your own efforts. And since that was what Martin Luther attacked with his doctrine of justification by faith, we have preached a message, of grace and faith to a world of eager Pelagians. We have announced a pure spiritual message, uncorrupted by political and social reflection.
That looks fine to begin with. If you meet a Pelagian coming down the street, give him Augustine or Luther. But there are two problems with this procedure. First, of course, it is not what Saint Paul himself meant by justification by faith, but that is another subject for another day. Second, with the move to postmodernity, most of our contemporaries already, and all of them soon, will not be Pelagians any longer. Those who have abandoned the smokestack economy for the microchip, those who have denied all objective knowledge in favor of a world of feelings and impulses, those who have abandoned the arrogant Enlightenment “I” for the deconstructed mass of signifiers, those who have torn down the great metanarrative and now play with different interchangeable stories as they come along—those who live in this world, which is increasingly our world, are not trying to pull themselves up by their moral bootstraps. Where would they pull themselves up to? Why would they bother? Who are “they,” anyway? Goal, motive, identity—all of these have been undermined by the shifting sands of postmodernity.
Faced with this situation, many have tried—some are still trying—to deny the presence of postmodernity, to retain the modern world in which we felt so comfortable and in which (whether we realize it or not) we preached a modernist gospel. Many want to turn the clock back, culturally and theologically.
It cannot be done.
My proposal to you is that we should not be frightened of the postmodern critique. It had to come. It is, I believe, a necessary judgment on the arrogance of modernity, and it is essentially a judgment from within. Our task is to reflect on this moment of despair within our culture and, reflecting biblically and Christianly, to see our way through the moment of despair and out the other side. That is why I want to talk to you about the resurrection and about the Emmaus Road story; that is why I want to do so through the lens of the poem that we call Psalms 42 and 43, which (despite its customary division in the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin Bibles) is actually a single poem, with its refrain:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God. (42:11)
This psalm contains a magnificent prayer, which we do well to echo as we consider our own calling:
O send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill.
and to your dwelling.
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God. (43:3-4)
Let me take you quickly through this poem, so that we see its shape and its thrust. The whole is about being in the presence of God. At its most obvious level, it is about someone who has experienced the presence of God in the Temple in Jerusalem. The poet remembers the excitement of being close to God and feels a deep ache and a sense of loss because he is not there any more.
So, in verses 1 to 5, he is in a state of what we might call depression. He is thirsty for God, like a deer in the desert longing for cool water. He finds himself in tears twenty-four hours a day. His memories of happier times only make him feel worse. All he can do is engage in an inner dialogue: Why are you so heavy? Hope in God—I shall again worship him.
Then, in 42:6-11, he remembers what it was actually like, being in the presence of God. He is a long way away from Jerusalem, in the land of Jordan or up on Mount Herman. He knows that in theory YHWH is there with him, even in exile, and he can pray to YHWH, but still the poet feels as if he is a very long way off, that his enemies oppress him and people taunt him, “‘Where is your God?” There is no evidence of the presence of YHWH. So the poet longs to be back in Jerusalem, where one could sense God’s presence and grace where everyone was caught up with worship and adorations again the poet reminds himself that he must hope. (Telling yourself to hope is not, incidentally, the same as hoping; but if it is all you can manage, it is a good deal better than nothing.)
Then, in what we call Psalm 43, but which is actually the third and last stanza of the same poem, the problem comes more into focus. The psalmist is not just geographically distant from the home of God, he is surrounded by people whose whole way of life is radically opposed to God. They are ungodly, deceitful, and unjust. He is powerless before them, and God seems to have abandoned him. It is at this point, the low point in the whole poem, that he prays:
O send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling.
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God. (43:3-4)
He is far away from Jerusalem and needs to be led back with joy, like Israel in the wilderness being led by the pillar of cloud and fire, the strange symbolic presence the living God. “Light and truth” are what you need, not just when your intellect is curious and needs stimulating, but when your whole being is lost, downcast, depressed, and thirsty for God. Then he returns once again to the refrain:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God. (43 -5)
I want you now to hold this poem in your minds as we turn to the New Testament. We will use the language and imagery the poem supplies as the visual backdrop, or perhaps the musical accompaniment, to the story we are now going to examine, the story of the two disciples, on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35.
I should like first to consider the background to the events that Luke describes here. It is the afternoon of the first Easter Day. All sorts of strange things have happened in the morning—rumors of visions and of an empty tomb-and the disciples still have not a clue as to what is really going on. As the day wears on, two of them set off to go home to Emmaus. They are joined by a mysterious stranger, who engages them in conversation about the new events. If we are to understand this section historically, it is vital that we grasp the central point stated in verse 21. “We had hoped,” they say, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
Where were they coming from? What was their problem?
They had been living out of a story, a controlling narrative, a “metanarrative,” as we might say. This story was built up from historical precedents, prophetic promises and of course from the songs of the Psalter. The Exodus was the backdrop. God’s subsequent liberations of his people from various foreign power, formed successive native layers all pointing in the same direction. When pagan oppression was at its height, Israel’s God would step in and deliver her once more.
Why are you cast down, O my soul
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him.
In particular—and this is perhaps the most important point to grasp—most first-century Jews believed that the Exile was not yet really over. Yes, they had come back from Babylon, geographically. But the pagans were still on top: first Persia, then Greece, then Syria, and now Rome. No sensitive or intelligent Jew would have dreamed of asserting that the promises of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the rest had been fulfilled in the various paltry “returns” that had taken place. Israel still needed “redeeming”—which, in their language, was an obvious code for the Exodus. The Exodus was the great covenant moment; what they now needed was covenant renewal. So we may imagine that when they prayed Psalm 43, they had this situation in view and some very clear notions as to what they were hoping for: Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people; from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me? . . . O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; . . . Why are you cast down, O my soul . . . Hope in God!
The Hebrew Scriptures thus offered to Jesus and his contemporaries a story in search of an ending. Jesus’ followers had thought that the ending was going to happen with Jesus. And clearly, it had not.
How had they thought it would happen? The pattern of messianic and prophetic movements in the centuries either side or Jesus gives a fairly clear and consistent picture. The method and the means would be quite simple: holiness, zeal for God and the Law, and military revolt. The holy remnant, with God on its side would defeat the pagan hordes. Thus it had always been in scripture, and thus, they believed, it would be when the great climax came, when Israel’s God would become King of all the world. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” The two on the road to Emmaus had been doing what the psalm told them to do: Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
The crucifixion of Jesus was therefore the complete and final devastation of their hope. Crucifixion is what happens to people who think they are going to liberate Israel and find out, too late, that they are mistaken. It is not simply that Jesus’ followers knew from Deuteronomy that a crucified person was under God’s curse. Nor was it simply that they had not yet worked out a theology of Jesus’ atoning death. The crucifixion already had, for them, a perfectly clear theological as well as political meaning: It meant that the exile was still continuing, that God had not forgiven Israel’s sins, and that pagans were still ruling the world. Their thirst for redemption for God’s light and truth to come and lead them had still not been satisfied. All of this we must, as historians, hold in our minds if we wish to understand the story of the road to Emmaus at its most basic level.
This explains, of course, why the two disciples were arguing so vigorously. They had been traveling up a road that they thought was leading to freedom, and it turned out to be a cul-de-sac. As they explained to the mysterious stranger, all the signs were right: Jesus of Nazareth had indeed been a prophet mighty in word and deed; God had been with him, and the people had approved him (24:19). Surely he was the one through whom the story would reach its climax, and Israel would be free! How could they possibly have been so mistaken—as his execution by their leaders and rulers showed they had been (24:20)? And now the confusion has become worse, confounded because of strange reports about a missing body and a vision of angels (24:22-24). This has nothing to do with what they have been hoping for. It is merely a disturbing extra puzzle on top of the deep sorrow and disappointment they are feeling (24:17). The two disciples in this story are not feeling guilty about having run away, as people so often say in the describing Easter. They are feeling sad, let down, and possibly even angry. I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me” (Psalm 42:9)?
The response from the stranger is to tell the story—differently—and to show that within the historical precedents, the prophetic promises, and the psalmists’ prayers there lay a constant theme and pattern to which they had hitherto been blind. Israel’s sufferings increased in Egypt to the screaming point, and then the redemption occurred. Israel cried to the Lord in her suffering, and then he raised up judges to deliver here. The Assyrians swept through the country and surrounded Jerusalem; then they were routed by YHWH himself when they were on the point of taking the city. When Israel is cast down, walking about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy, then her God will act, sending out his light and truth to lead her like the pillar of cloud and fire in the wilderness. And though Babylon had succeeded where Assyria failed, to be followed by the other pagan nations climaxing now with Rome, the prophets pointed into the gloom and declared that it would be through this darkness that the redemption would be narrowed down to a point, a remnant, a Servant, one like a Son of Man attacked by monsters; and this little group would pass through the raging waters and not drown, thrown the fire and not be harmed. Somehow, strangely, the saving purposes of YHWH for Israel—and through Israel for the world—would carry Israel and the world through the most intense suffering to emerge on the other side as exile was at last undone, as sins were at last forgiven as an act in history, as the covenant was renewed, and as the kingdom of God was finally established.
This, then, was after all how the story worked; this was the narrative the prophets had been elaborating. Yes, the scriptures were indeed to be read as a narrative reaching its climax. They never were a mere collection of arbitrary or atomized proof texts. But no, the story was never about Israel beating up her enemies and becoming established as the high-and-mighty master of the world. It was always the story of how the creator God, Israel’s covenant God, would bring his saving purposes for the world to birth through the suffering and vindication of Israel. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (24:27). This could never be a matter of soiled “messianic” proof-texts alone. It was the entire narrative, the complete storyline, the whole world of prayer and hope, focused on Israel as the bearer of God’s promises for the world, then focused on the remnant as the bearer of Israel’s destiny, and finally focused on Israel’s true king as the one upon whom the task even of the remnant would eventually devolve. He was the one who had been the servant for the servant-people. He was the one who had done for Israel and the world what Israel and the world could not do for themselves.
Their slowness of heart and lack of belief in the prophets had not therefore, been a purely spiritual blindness. It had been, a matter of telling, and living, the wrong story—or, at least the right story in the wrong way. But now, suddenly, with the right story in their head and Hearts, a new possibility—huge, astonishing, and breathtaking—started to emerge before them. Suppose the reason the key would not fit the lock was that they were trying the wrong door? Suppose Jesus’ execution was not the clear disproof of his messianic vocation but its confirmation and climax? Suppose the cross was not one more example of the triumph of paganism over God’s people but was actually God’s means of defeating evil once and for all? Suppose this was, after all, how the exile was designed to end, how sins were to be forgiven and how the kingdom was to come? Suppose this was what God’s light and truth looked like, coming unexpectedly to lead his people back into his presence?
As this strange realization began to creep over them, they arrived at their house and invited the stranger to stay with them. He quietly assumed the role of host, taking, blessing, and breaking the bread. They recognized him, and he vanished. And with that recognition the story of the last hour itself suddenly made sense. “Were not our hearts burning within us when he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us” (24:32). And their testimony to each other turns into eager testimony to the others as they hurry back to Jerusalem, where their own news is met with answering news from the eleven: The Lord has indeed risen—he has appeared to Simon (24:34)! Then they told what had taken place on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread (24:35).
Notice what has happened. Their prayer has been answered. Their longing has been satisfied. They have returned to God’s holy hill, and to his dwelling. God’s light and truth have led them back, and their sorrow has been turned into praise.
Already, of course, we are not just telling the bare facts of what happened. There are, after all, no such things as bare facts, least of all in a story like this. But we have been focusing on the disciples themselves. Let us shift the focus for a few moments, and look at what Luke is doing with this story.
The first thing to point out is Luke’s stress on the surprise fulfillment of scripture in the death and resurrection of Jesus. At the key moments in each section of the chapter—verses 7, 26-27, and 44-49—he underlines the fact that the story he has been telling makes sense, and only makes sense, as the great climax of the story told by Moses, the prophets, and the psalms, that is, the story of how the creator God is saving the world through his people, Israel, with that action now visibly focused on Jesus, the Messiah.
Let us consider in a little more detail just one of these features. The way in which Luke has told central story of this chapter invites us to compare and contrast it with Genesis 3. Genesis 3 begins with the man and the woman in the garden, starting the task set before them of being God’s image-bearers in his newly created world, that is, of bringing God’s love and care and wise ordering to bear upon the whole creation. The woman takes the forbidden fruit and gives it to the man, and they both eat it. “The eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked”(3:7). And they begin, in sorrow and shame, to argue about responsibility and to go out into a puzzling world of thorns and thistles.
Luke wants to tell us that this story has now been reversed. I take it that the couple on the road were husband and wife, Cleopas and Mary (cf. John 19:25). The thorns and thistles and turnip of their world have been puzzling enough, and now they stand in sorrow and shame with their hopes in tatters. Following Jesus’ astonishing exposition of scripture, they come into the house; Jesus takes the bread blesses it, and breaks it, “and their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (the Greek is very close to the Septuagint of Genesis 3:7). They thereby become part of the vanguard for Gods project of restoring the world, in which his image-bearers take his forgiving love and his wise ordering—that is, his kingdom—to the whole of creation. Earle Ellis in his commentary on Luke points out that the meal in Emmaus is the eighth meal scene in the gospel, where the Last Supper was the seventh: the week of the first creation is over, and Easter is the beginning of the new creation.2 God’s new world order has arrived. The exile is over: not just Israel’s exile in actual and spiritual Babylon, but the exile of the human race, shut out of the garden. The new world order does not look like people thought it would, but they must get used to the fact that it is here and that they are not only its beneficiaries, but also its ambassadors and and witnesses.
Within this new world, there is a new awareness of who Jesus is. Consider how Luke has used this story to balance the story he told way back at the beginning of his gospel about another husband and wife, Mary and Joseph, and Jesus: the boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52). The whole village had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover. When the feast was done, Jesus parents set off for home with all the family and friends. Then, after a full day’s journey, they realized that Jesus was not with them. Panic! They rushed back to Jerusalem and spent three days looking for him. Eventually they found him—in the Temple. “Did you not know,” he said, “that I must be about my Father’s business?” (2:49). And they did not understand what he meant.
Now do you see what Luke has done? Here is the later Passover. Here are the two going away from Jerusalem. They have waited for three days in agony of spirit, and now they are leaving the city. This time Jesus is with them but incognito. “Was it not necessary,” he says, “that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (24:26) And now their eyes are opened, they do know him, and they rush back to Jerusalem full of joy.
In framing his gospel narrative m this way, Luke has given us a historical version of Psalms 42 and 43. Here, in Luke 2, are Mary and Joseph on the road, thirsty for God and not finding him, living with sorrow and tears away from Jerusalem. Here is another couple in Luke 24, also sorrowful; and here is the light and truth of God in the person of Jesus, the exposition of scripture, and the breaking of bread; and they are led back to Jerusalem, back to God’s city, back to the place of hope and promise. The last line of Luke’s gospel picks up the fourth verse of Psalm 42 and 43. They worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the Temple, praising God. Somewhere along the road, literally and metaphorically, Gods light and truth had come to lead them, to lead them into his very presence, to the place where despair gives way to joy, and mourning to dancing.
And how has this come about? It has happened because the Messiah himself has gone to the place of pain, the place where Israel and indeed the whole world was in deep distress. He has been cast down and oppressed by the enemy. In Gethsemane he echoed the grief of Psalm 42:9, praying in anguish (22:44). On the cross, he acted out Psalm 42:9, “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’” Jesus as Messiah became the suffering Israel on behalf of the suffering Israel; he went into exile—Israel’s exile, the human exile from the garden, the exile of the whole cosmos—to redeem those who were in exile. And in so doing, he became on the cross on Good Friday and in the resurrection on Easter morning, the very embodiment of Psalm 43:3. This is what God’s light and truth look like when at last, in response to a thousand years of prayer, they come forth from God’s presence to lead God’s people to his holy hill and to his dwelling back from the place of tears to the place of Joy. Where are God’s light and truth in this story? Are they not there, incognito, on the road, leading the disciples to understand the scriptures, and strangely known in the breaking of the bread? And does that not lead us to say also that God’s light and truth were there like the pillar of cloud and fire on the previous afternoon m the wilderness of Calvary, outside the city walk, outside the garden, away from the place of hope rather than the place of tears, the place where God seems to be forgotten and God seems to have forgotten his people?
I wish to make one last point about the way in which Luke has told the story. It concerns the central symbol, carefully repeated, that lies at the heart of the Emmaus narrative. Jesus is recognized when he takes the bread, blesses it, and breaks it (24:30). Yes, Luke says a few verses later, summing up the entire excited announcement of the two disciples: “they told what had happened on the road”—which we already know means the full-dress exposition of scripture, the telling of God’s story—“and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (24:35). Now, unless we are extremely dense, we can hardly miss what Luke is saying. The last time he had broken the bread was, of course at the Last Supper (22:19). And the first Lucan summary of the whole life of the church is found in Acts 2:42, in these words: “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The only reason for “breaking of bread” in such a list is if that “breaking” earned particular significance. Luke’s first audience would have heard him bring together the exposition of scripture and the breaking of bread, the word and the sacrament, the story and the symbol, as the central, normative, daily marks (Acts 2:46) of the church’s life. The heart is warmed, says Luke, when scripture is expounded so as to bring out the true story, and the Lord is known in the breaking of the bread. The two belong together, interpreting each other and together pointing to the new world, the new vocation, the kingdom of God, and above all to Jesus himself as the climax of Israel’s history and now Lord of the world.
So in terms of Luke’s reading of the whole Old Testament scriptures, we discover at last now we might reread Psalms 42 and 43 within a Christian setting. The Temple, the place where God has promised to dwell with his people is quietly but decisively replaced by Jesus himself. And the Temple worship is replaced by the breaking of bread in Jesus’ name. Why are you cast down, O my soul? Why are you so disquieted within me? Hope in God—in the Word made flesh, in the God who wept in Gethsemane and who became God forsaken on Calvary, in the God who comes to you incognito on the road, who comes as light and truth to lead you to his holy hill and to his dwelling, who prepares a table before the presence of your enemies, who makes himself known in the breaking of the bread. Hope in this God and you will again praise him, your help and your God.
What does all this have to say about Christian mission in a postmodern world?
Let me recapitulate what I said at the beginning. We have had our noses rubbed in the fact that reality is not all it was cracked up to be. What we thought were hard facts have turned out to be somebody’s propaganda. We have been startled to discover that the autonomous self, so highly prized from eighteenth to the twentieth centuries within the Western world, not least in some versions of Christianity, has been deconstructed into a puzzling turmoil of various forces and drives. We have watched as the postmodern world has torn down the controlling stories by which modernity, including Christian modernity, ordered its world. All we are left with is the great postmodern virtual smorgasbord, where you can pick or choose what you want.
How are you to address this world with the gospel of Jesus? You cannot just hurl true doctrine at it. You will either crush people or drive them away. That’s actually no bad thing, because mission and evangelism were never actually a matter of throwing doctrine at people’s heads. They work in far more holistic ways by praxis, symbol, and story, as well as by what we in a somewhat modernist way think of as “straightforward” exposition of “truth.” I am reminded of Saint Francis’s instructions to his followers as he sent them out: “Preach the gospel by all means possible,” he said, “and if it’s really necessary, you could even use words.” I am reminded, too, of the power of symbolic praxis to go beyond words when I think of one of the greatest ballerinas of all time. After one of her great performances, somebody had the temerity to ask her what the dance meant. Her reply was simple, and it speaks volumes to us as we consider mission in the postmodern world. “If I could have said it,” she said, “I wouldn’t have had to dance it.”
I am suggesting, in fact, that if postmodernism functions as the death of modernist culture, many of us will find selves somewhat like the disciples on the road to Emmaus. We as Western Christians have for the most part rather too heavily bought into modernism, and we are shocked to discover that it has been dying for some time—indeed, that by now it is more or less completely dead. In this state of shock, we need to listen for the hidden stranger on the road who will explain to us how it was that these things had to happen, and how it is that there is a whole new world out there waiting to be born, for which we are called to be midwives. The answer to the challenge of postmodernism is not to run back screaming into the arms of modernism, even if that were possible—it is not. The answer to the challenge of postmodernism is to hear in postmodernity God’s judgment on the follies and failings, the sheer selfish arrogance of modernity and to look and pray and work for the resurrection into God’s new world out beyond. We live at a great cultural turning point. Christian mission in the postmodern world is a matter of the church grasping the initiative (perhaps particularly in planning for the millennium celebrations) and helping our world to turn the corner in the right direction.
We must get used, therefore, to a mission that includes living the true Christian praxis. Christian praxis consists in the love of God in Christ being poured out in us and through us. If this is truly happening, it cannot be damaged by the postmodern critique, hermeneutics of suspicion, or anything else. We must get used to telling the story of God, Israel, Jesus, and the world as the true metanarrative, the story of healing and self-giving love. We must get used to living as those who have truly died and risen with Christ so that our self, having been thoroughly deconstructed, can be put back together, not by the agendas that the world presses upon us, but by God’s spirit.
Those who find themselves caught up in the story, who learn to reorder their lives according to the symbols, are summoned again and again. The summoning is a part of the truth. Again and again, we understand God (insofar as we ever do) only when the story, the symbol, and the praxis come together in our own lives: when we in turn go though Psalms 42 and 43, from despair to worship, when we in turn walk sorrowfully on the road to Emmaus only to find our hearts burning within us at the opening of scripture, our eyes opened to the presence of God in Christ m the breaking of the bread, and our feet suddenly energized to go and tell the Good News to others.
My judgment, therefore, is that the present cultural crisis in the Western world is not to be wished away as a silly and transient phenomenon. Postmodernity often may be expressed in silly and ephemeral ways, but the basic critique of modernist arrogance, including Christian modernist arrogance, is right on target. What we must not do, I believe, is pretend that it has not really happened; that would be like the two disciples trying to pretend that Jesus had not really been crucified, that he was still around somewhere, and that everything was really all right. It might have been pleasant for them to hold on to their earlier dreams, but they would have been living a lie, not the truth. To admit that the world really did kill Jesus was not to connive with the world’s evil, to sup with the devil; it was simply to recognize the truth.
But nor can we construct a Christian worldview from within postmodernity itself. Our task is to discover in practice what the equivalent of the resurrection might be within our culture and for our times. There is no way back to the easy certainties of modernism, not even a “Christian” modernism. The only way is forward, forward into God’s freshly storied world, forward with the symbols that speak of death and resurrection, forward with the humble praxis of the gospel, and forward in that multilayered context with fresh thoughts, fresh arguments, and fresh intellectual understanding. Foolish ones, slow of heart to understand what God was up to! Was it not necessary that modernist versions of Christianity would die in order that truth might be freshly glimpsed, not as a set of doctrines or theories but as a person, and as persons indwelt by that person?
And how long must it be before we learn that our task as Christians is to be in the front row of constructing the post-postmodern world? The individual existential angst of the 1960s has become the corporate and cultural angst of the 1990s. What is the Christian answer to it?
The Christian answer is the love of God, which goes through death and out the other side. What is missing from the postmodern equation is, of course, love.
The radical hermeneutic of suspicion that characterizes postmodernity is essentially nihilistic, denying the very possibility of creative or healing love. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus we find the answer: the God who made the world is revealed in terms of a self-giving love that no hermeneutic of suspicion can ever touch; in a Self that found itself by giving itself away, in a Story that was never manipulative, but always healing and recreating; and in a Reality that can truly be known, a Reality that, being known, reveals a new dimension of knowledge, the dimension of loving and being loved.
We have a chance, as this century draws to a close, to announce this message to the world that so badly needs it. I believe we have this as our vocation: to tell the story, to live by the symbols, to act out the praxis, and to answer the questions in such a way as to become, in ourselves and our mission in God’s world, the answer to the prayer that now rises, not just from one puzzled psalmist, but from the whole human race and indeed the whole of God’s creation: O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. And when we ourselves are grasped by that light and that truth by the strange glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, we, from within the crisis of truth in the contemporary world, can say to those parts of our world that are still dismayed: Why are you cast down? Why so disquieted? Was it not necessary that these things should happen? Hope in God; for we shall again praise him, our help and our God.
Let me end with a parable, returning one more time to the story of the two on the road to Emmaus. To understand this parable, you need to know Matthew Arnold s poem “Dover Beach.” In it Arnold describes—from within his mid-nineteenth century perspective—the way in which what he calls “the sea of faith” has emptied. Once, it was
. . . at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d;
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind down the vase edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.3
Two serious-minded unbelievers are walking home together, trying to make sense of the world of the mid-1990s. The dream of progress and enlightenment has run out of steam. Critical postmodernity has blown the whistle on the world as we knew it.
Our two unbelievers walk along the road toward Dover Beach. They are discussing, animatedly, how these things can be. How can the stories by which so many have lived have let us down? How shall we replace our deeply ambiguous cultural symbols? What should we be doing in our world now that every dream of progress is stamped with the word “Babel”?
Into this conversation comes Jesus, incognito. (It is just as well that they do not recognize him, since modernism taught them to disbelieve in all religions, and now postmodernism has rehabilitated so many that Jesus is just one guru among dozens.) “What are you talking about?” he asks. They stand there, looking sad. Then one of them says, “You must be about the only person in town who doesn’t know what a traumatic time the twentieth century has been. Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx were quite right. We had a war to end wars, and we’ve had nothing but wars since. We had a sexual revolution, and now we have AIDS and more family-less people than ever before. We pursued wealth, but we had inexplicable recessions and ended up with half the world in crippling debt. We can do what we like, but we’ve all forgotten why we liked it. Our dreams have gone sour, and we don’t even know who ‘we’ are any more. And now even the church has let us down, corrupting its spiritual message with talk of cosmic and political liberation.”
“Foolish ones,” replies Jesus. “How slow of heart you are to believe all that the Creator God has said. Did you never hear that God created the world wisely? And that he has now acted within his world to create a truly human people? And that from within this people he came to live as a truly human person? And that in his own death he dealt with evil once and for all? And that he is even now at work, by his own Spirit, to create a new human family in which repentance and forgiveness of sins are the order of the day, and so to challenge and overturn the rule of war, sex, money, and power?” And then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, and now also the apostles and prophets of the New Testament, Jesus interpreted to them in all of the scriptures the things concerning himself.
The three arrived together at Dover Beach. The sea of faith, having retreated with the outgoing tide of modernism, was full again as the incoming tide of postmodernism proved the truth of Chesterton’s dictum that when people stop believing in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything. On the shore there stood a vast, hungry crowd. They had cast their bread upon the retreating waters of modernism, and now they discover that the incoming tide of postmodernism is bringing them bricks and centipedes instead.
The two travelers began wearily to open a small picnic basket, totally inadequate for the task of feeding so many. Gently Jesus took it from them, and then in what seemed like moments he had gone to and fro on the beach until everyone had been fed. Then the eyes of them all were opened, and they realized who he was, and he vanished from their sight.
Then the two travelers said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us on the road, as he told us the story of the creator and his world, and his victory over evil?” And they rushed back to tell their friends of what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known in the breaking of the bread.
Actually, that is not a story. It is a play, a real-life drama. And the part of Jesus is to be played by you and me. This is Christian mission in a postmodern world. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.'
1 It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
--William Ernest Henley, Echoes, 1888
2 E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke (London and Edinburgh: Nelson, 1966), 192.
3 Mathew Arnold, “Dover Beach,” 1867.