Saturday, April 28, 2012

To Know ...

1 John 3:16-24                                                                                                                                   John 10:11-18

Reinhold Niebuhr was an early 20th-century Protestant theologian who was arguably among the most influential progressive Christians who helped to shape what we might call “liberal” today, "liberal" being somewhat relative to the context of the time.  Niebuhr was experiencing and witnessing the distress expressed by labor unions coming of age in the industrial Midwest, the labor movement that preceded the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.  From what I have gathered so far about this man, it would seem that as much as he believed in the transforming power and necessary fellowship of the Church, he was not such a fan of the "institutional", social club he believed Christianity had become in America

The disparity between blue-collar workers and the unfair labor practices used against them by the industrial "lords" of the day was as acute in the Church as it was in society and in the work place.  The "institutional" church Niebuhr seemed to disdain actually encouraged, if tacitly bless this disparity, dependent as the church had become on the benevolence of the wealthy and powerful.  Niebuhr believed the true Church had overlooked its highest calling in favor of social respectability.

So the essence of "socialism" in Niebuhr's theology was the spiritual and social ideal of the Church itself irrespective of politics.  That is, how we treat "the least among us" ultimately defines us as a people of the Church.  How we treat the "least among us" will spare us the Judgment - or - subject us to the Judgment.

"Among the many weaknesses of the Protestant movement, surely its indifference to the social substance of human existence is the most grievous one.  In an industrial civilization and in an age of nuclear terror, the renewal of the church must certainly include full awareness of the fact that we are all involved in the virtues and the vices, the guilt and the promises of our generation.  In a sense it is true that we cannot be saved unless we are all saved." 

I can only speculate as to what Niebuhr actually meant by the term "saved", but within the context I sense a collective understanding of the doctrines of justification and grace rather than an abstract, apocalyptic, or even personal one.  It is a component of the "liberation theology" that speaks to the contemporary state of political, social, and economic oppression that hurts people NOW; a theology that offers tangible hope NOW rather than later.  So within this context, Niebuhr's theology puts us all into the same doctrinal boat which is to say that if we do not work to "save" people NOW, we should not expect to be "saved" later when the Day of the Lord is upon us.

This "collectivism", this sense of communal identity and accountability must be an element of what Jesus is teaching in John's Gospel in His role as the Good Shepherd for whom there can be only "one flock" (vs 16); not several.  And this "one flock" (not several) is defined in 1 John: "we should believe in the name of ... Jesus Christ AND love one another, just as He has commanded us.  Those who obey His commandments abide in Him, and He abides in them" (vss 23-24).

So the ideal of “collectivism”, as least according to how Niebuhr saw it, is the ideal of the Church itself.  It is not the social cultural standards that are brought INTO the Church; rather it is the very high and divine standards that spring forth from the Church, the standards by which the “flock” is defined not only as individual disciples but also as the collective Church that seeks to affect and transform society.  As Niebuhr seemed to see it, it was society and the dominant culture that was adversely affecting and essentially transforming the Church!  I would respectfully suggest not much has changed since then. 

There is a commonality within the Christian community, but it might be more accurate to suggest this commonality is not as clearly defined according to its relationship with the Lord as it is according to its relationship with the dominant social structure.  Rural people attend rural churches; urban people attend urban churches.  After this, of course, is a further break-down according to race and class.  This is not the ideal, of course, but it is what it is.  And what it IS, is what we are called to overcome – to transform from within! 

These social standards, in and of themselves, are not inherently bad, but to allow these social divisions to solidify according to human social impulses will always adversely affect the external, evangelical practices that are necessarily the essence of the Church.  That is to say, if there is no element of outreach that seeks to express outwardly what comes forth from the Good Shepherd inwardly is to defy what it means to be “one flock” under the tutelage of the Good Shepherd.  It is important for us to remember that the Lord is not only protecting us but is continually teaching us by the Holy Spirit.  This is what Wesley understood as “sanctifying grace”, the means by which we are continually perfected and become more and more Christ-like. 

Clearly Jesus is making a remarkable claim I think escapes no one.  The pasture is the “abundant life” offered to those who “know His voice” and follow Him.  Jesus is the One who will invest heavily – at the expense of His own life – in the care and well-being of the flock.  It’s hard to miss His point in this.  However, we cannot undermine what is further stated relative to what He expresses; that those who gather in Him are gathered in “community”.  Jesus even refers to “others” who are outside this community, this flock; but He also expresses just as clearly that these “others” will also be gathered to Him as well.

From this, what is there for us to “know”?  That Jesus “saves”, I think, is clear enough, but I also think Jesus is talking about something that transcends a popular notion of His being reduced, in many ways, to a “personal” Savior.  Not to disparage the “personal” relationship we may have with Him especially in our prayer time, but we must also clearly see that this “personal” relationship must necessarily broaden.  It is the relationship that brings us into “community” with one another and compels us to invite the “others” in. 

It is not some vague concept of community expressed in the “priesthood of believers” by which it seems inferred that we individually become a “church” unto ourselves, go our own way, and do our own thing.  Instead Jesus is expressing the reality of what He envisions not only in the world to come but – equally importantly – the reality of the world in which we presently live.  It is a reminder of the Lord’s relationship with His “flock” – the whole “flock” – including those not yet enjoined to the “flock”. 

It is this element of the relationship you and I must never overlook or undervalue because the community that is the Church – the “flock” – is established for this very thing.  It does not mean we will all think the same or believe the same, but it is the means – the ONLY MEANS – by which we can express our love of the Lord in a tangible and evidential way; “believing in Him – AND – loving one another … just as He commanded.”  Because the one thing we can know – and must know – is that we are all in this thing, this incredible journey, together … to the very end.

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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