Readings (Track 1)
Last week, looking at the Colossians reading, I said “And that’s the question for us: Jesus as the solution to my ‘spiritual’ needs, or Jesus as the victor/healer in relation to all that ails our world?” That set up Jesus’ conversation with Martha and listening carefully to Jesus.
But if we stay with Colossians, what more might it want to say about “Jesus as the victor/healer in relation to all that ails our world” now?
Of course, “Jesus as the victor/healer in relation to all that ails our world” does sounds unbelievable, which is why Abraham and Sarah pop up so frequently in the New Testament. Well past the childbearing window, the Lord says “I will make of you a great nation” and they head for that new land, and hang in until they’re changing diapers. “Sounds unbelievable” is familiar territory for us people of faith.
But back to Jesus as healer/victor. How does societal healing, or, more broadly, societal change happen?
That’s the key question for organizations like World Vision, the relief & development agency where I worked for a couple decades. How, for example, to introduce a promising agricultural innovation? What you usually need is a few farmers willing to try it. If it works, it sells itself. The neighbors have been watching, now they want it too.
This is the strategy behind God’s calling Abraham/Israel. Here’s Moses in Deuteronomy:
“See…I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’” (4:5-6)
And it remains the strategy with the renewal of the Israel project in Jesus’ followers. Here’s Paul in Ephesians: “and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:9-10). This is why the New Testament gives little attention to evangelism and a great deal of attention to the quality of life in the emerging congregations.
Quality of life. That would take a lot of unpacking. Here, let’s focus on what Paul is doing in Colossians. Last week Paul spoke of thrones, dominions, rulers and powers. He’s speaking of civil authorities, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, for he’s also speaking of the customs, institutions, mental frameworks, that pretend to rule his hearer’s lives. Adjust the vocabulary a little and it all sounds very familiar: how many dimensions of our lives get ruled by “that’s just the way things are!” Take the economy for example. No one controls it. It has its priests (the economists). Sometimes it’s healthy. Sometimes it’s sick. Sometimes it demands sacrifices. Paul: the congregation is the place where the defeat of these powers is visible. Jew and Greek? One in Christ. Slave and free? One in Christ. Male and female? One in Christ.
That’s hardly easy. As in most agricultural test plots, we’re not dealing with virgin land, but with land that’s been badly treated. So Jesus’ life-giving death and resurrection needs to play out again and again in Jesus’ followers. This is, I think, what Paul was talking about in last week’s reading: “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body.” Our baptism sets us up for this, as Paul reminds us in today’s reading: “when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
The New Testament scholar Gerhard Lohfink writes:
Sin does not just vanish in the air, even when it is forgiven, because sin does not end with the sinner. It has consequences. It always has a social dimension. Every sin embeds itself in human community, corrupts a part of the world, and creates a damaged environment.
So the consequences of sin have to be worked off, and human beings cannot do so of themselves any more than they can absolve themselves. Genuine “working off” of guilt is only possible on a basis that God himself must create. And God has created such a base in his people, and in Jesus he has renewed and perfected it.
Lohfink continues, quoting from Dag Hammarskjöld’s diary:
Easter, 1960. Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who “forgives” you—out of love—takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice.
The price you must pay for your own liberation through another’s sacrifice is that you in turn must be willing to liberate in the same way, irrespective of the consequences to yourself.
“Jesus as the victor/healer in relation to all that ails our world” now? Yes, as Jesus empowers his followers to continue his costly healing/forgiving work, to continue to show in their common life that the powers don’t get the last word.
Showing in their common life that the powers don’t get the last word: that’s a long-term project. The powers don’t get the last word; “that’s just the way it is” doesn’t get the last word. A few random examples: In the 4th Century, Basil in Caesarea established the first hospital with inpatient facilities, professional medical staff, and free care for the poor. In the Middle Ages—as I recalled last week—water and wind power took the place of forced human labor. In recent centuries Genesis’ declaration that all humanity—not just the elites—bear God’s image began to be heard in new ways, and voting rights slowly expanded. So today governments claim legitimacy based on the people’s continued consent—however flimsy that claim. Quite breathtaking, really, what Jesus has accomplished through the Church.
Our story, of course, is not one of unbroken progress. God values our freedom, so things can go forward, backward, or sideways. We now have—God help us—for-profit hospitals. So Abraham and Sarah remain crucial as pioneers in trust. And speaking of Abraham, in God’s generosity loss doesn’t get the last word. The rabbis noticed that poor ram caught in the thicket that Abraham sacrificed instead of Isaac; Rabbi Hanina ben Dossa said this:
“Nothing of this sacrifice was lost. The ashes were dispersed in the Temple’s sanctuary; the sinews David used as cords for his harp; the skin was claimed by the prophet Elijah to clothe himself; as for the two horns, the smaller one called the people together at the foot of Mount Sinai and the larger one will resound one day, announcing the coming of the Messiah.”
Our Colossians reading started with “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him.” Continue: there’s a world out there badly needing healing, badly needing transformation. What might Jesus be seeking to do through us?
 Jesus of Nazareth pp 255-256.
 Wiesel Messengers of God 101.