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- Creative Transformation
October 14, 2007
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
2 Timothy 2:8-15
One problem faced by serious believers in every generation is how to relate to the social and cultural context in which we find ourselves. Sometimes our inclination is to separate ourselves from it; sometimes, to attack it; sometimes, to adapt to it; and sometimes, to embrace it. The issue goes back a long way. Sometimes we feel like Pilgrims passing through an alien world; sometimes like settlers who transform the world into what they want; sometimes like part of the dominant culture or, at least, of what we judge best in it.
This issue took a particular form for the exiles from Jerusalem who were living in Babylon. They continued to identify themselves in terms of Israel. Apparently some who claimed to speak in the name of the God of Israel were urging them to remain separate from their context and to avoid putting down roots. God would soon bring them back to Jerusalem. They should, therefore, not establish any ties to their new context.
Jeremiah wrote them with very different advice. When they were in Jerusalem he had spoken against the prophets who assured the people that God would not allow Jerusalem to fall. Now he warned against the prophets who promised quick deliverance. He urged the Jews in Babylon to settle there, to build homes, to raise children, and to look forward to grandchildren as well. Eventually, he thought, Jerusalem would be rebuilt and Judah reestablished, but not soon.
He did not mean, of course, that Jews should adopt Babylonian beliefs and religious practices. They should remain faithful to their God. But they could do so in Babylon. As it turned out the Jews did establish in Babylon a community that remained for centuries a major center of Jewish thought and life. After Babylon fell to Persia, some leaders of the Jewish community returned to Palestine and rebuilt Jerusalem. Jeremiah was right about that, too.
Jeremiah’s strategy was adopted by Jews not only then and there but also through subsequent centuries, and throughout much of the world, when Jerusalem was destroyed again. For millennia, until our own time, Jews have lived in alien contexts in many countries. They have retained their distinctiveness in their family life and synagogues, while putting down roots and functioning as a part of the wider society. Despite horrendous persecution, especially in Christian countries, overall they have flourished.
For us the question is whether there is anything in this strategy from which we can learn. The dominant situation for Christians has never been very similar to the one I have described for Jews. There was never a Christian city or country that was conquered, with its leaders carried off into exile. Nevertheless, there are analogies. How far should we press them?
One analogy can be found in the early, predominantly Gentile, church, which resulted in large part from Paul’s teaching and missionary activity. In Paul’s letters we find him struggling with this question. He was deeply concerned with the quality of life in these new communities. He himself suffered frequent persecution for his work in establishing them. He knew that, along with the Jewish communities of the time, they were threatened by persecution because they would not worship, or give ultimate loyalty to, the emperor. Jesus had been crucified because he called for people to live from the basileia theou, what I like to call the “ divine Commonwealth” rather than from the values of the Roman Empire. Paul’s new communities of believers similarly threatened the imperial order. But Paul wanted to keep this external tension to a minimum. The life within these communities should be profoundly different from the world outside. But insofar as dealings with the outside world were concerned, believers should be model citizens.
Paul’s teaching differed from that of Jeremiah in that the emphasis was more like that of those Jeremiah considered false prophets. Paul expected a great transformation soon. Accordingly, his teaching for believers and their communities did not emphasize settling down for the long haul. His emphasis was on what is involved in faithfulness here and now.
However, the dramatic events of the end-time did not take place. Paul’s disciples had to adjust to this new situation. They did not give up the hope for future resurrection, but the sense of its imminence faded. Much of Paul’s teaching was preserved, but the apocalyptic tone disappeared. The church settled down for the long haul. The letters addressed to Timothy reflect this situation. The passage included in our lectionary readings reflects a certain simplification in comparison with Paul. The gospel is that Jesus Christ, a descendant of David, was raised from the dead. Vs. 11 has deep resonance with Paul’s powerful statement in the first verses of Romans 6. If we have participated in Jesus’ suffering and death, we will also participate in his resurrection. But the rich nuances of Paul’s thought have largely been lost.
Settling down for the long haul meant also reducing difference between the ethos of the Christian communities and the general culture. Nowhere is this clearer than in regard to the role of women. While apocalyptic fervor existed, the communities broke with established mores. Women were prominent in leadership. But by the time of the writing of 2 Timothy, the remnants of this leadership were being discouraged. One passage was inserted into 2 Corinthians to undercut Paul’s obviously different situation and stance. In Timothy the silence of women in church is taken as obviously proper. Particularly objectionable would be for women to teach men or have authority over them, a situation that occurred earlier in the church with Paul’s full approval.
The letters to Timothy are full of practical instructions about the administration of churches that are set in an ongoing society. Marriage is now expected as the norm, whereas in Paul’s more apocalyptic view, celibacy was preferred. For Paul marriage was an institution of the surrounding culture so that entering it was also to accept the patriarchy of that culture. Christians could soften that hierarchy by mutual love, but Paul was not trying to change the structures of a society that was soon destined to end. But by the time of Timothy the church was ordering its life for the long haul. In doing this it assimilated the patriarchal structure expressed in marriage in the wider society as normative for life within the church as well. In Timothy, as often in the subsequent centuries of the church’s life, Christians are good citizens of their society, who are also good churchmen, and who believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that those who are faithful will also rise.
As the church accommodated to the best in the culture, those who were most intense in their commitment found ways to withdraw from the culture, to live ascetic lives in the desert, or to serve the church and carry out its ministries of service as monks and nuns. The Reformers called for full immersion of all in the life of a society, now supposed to be Christian, maintaining in that context the tension with all cultures that is inherent in Jesus’ teaching. Many liberal Protestants thought that embodying and extending the values of the Enlightenment fulfilled this calling. Today, on the other hand, there are many calls for resistance to what the Enlightenment culture has become.
How can we be faithful to the one who taught that we cannot serve both God and wealth in a world organized in the service of wealth? How can we be faithful to one who refused all efforts to gain power over others in a world in which the quest for power shapes the lives of all nations? How can we live in service for others in a world that treats self-aggrandizement as normal and normative?
We must struggle to find answers to those questions in an ever changing society. We cannot find these answers in Jeremiah or Timothy. The Bible is not, in that sense, a book of answers. But we can profit from wrestling with their solutions in seeking our own way. And we can study the history of the church, evaluating the many responses we find there. We will learn that in history that are not perfect, no unambiguous answers, but we can also learn that there are many options that better than capitulating to the idolatries that are characteristic of human society in general.
Psalm 66 does not spell out any one way of dealing with this perennial problem. But the psalm reflects on a situation in which the people of Israel have been severely tested. Apparently, the people have remained faithful and the worst of the trials are past. The psalmist knows that this faithfulness would not have been possible apart from the support of God. Instead of boasting of the goodness of the people, the psalmist expresses gratitude to God. Today it would be hard, and I think misleading, for us to think of ourselves in just that situation. I suspect that the test of our faithfulness will grow more stringent. We may be required to pay a price for faithfulness that we have hardly thought of paying so far. The psalm gives us hope that with God’s help we will pass the test.
Luke’s story of the ten lepers addresses us more individually. God’s mercies are extended to all of us. We may not all be healed of leprosy, but God has worked healingly in our bodies, and in our hearts and minds as well. It is easy to take this for granted. If we do so, we are not likely to pass the test in the time of trials. We are more likely to accept the idolatrous values of our society. Only if we recognize the ongoing work of God in all things and in us, only if this fills us with deepest gratitude, only if we allow ourselves to be filled and strengthened by God’s work within us, are we likely to be faithful to the giver of all good.
For Luke, the Gentile, it was important that the grateful one was not a Jew. For us it may be important to see that it is sometimes those who do not profess the Christian faith who are in fact most grateful and most faithful. God’s grace is for all and in all, and we can join with all who respond in gratitude for that grace and give themselves to God’s work of saving the world.
As we do so, we hope that with the Psalmist we can praise God for having brought us through our trials and proved our faithfulness. We can hope that, with Luke’s Samaritan, we will not fail to give thanks for all that God does for us.
~John B. Cobb, Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., has held many positions including Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; and co-author with Herman Daly of For the Common Good which was co-winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He currently serves as co-director for the Center for Process Studies and also teaches a course during the Summer Institute for Process & Faith at the Claremont School of Theology.