A sign of contradiction

I am beginning to wonder about a fairly fundamental orientation of the church.  The church has largely understood and accepted the role of being or bringing Christ to the world.  I do not want to rehearse the misguided ways that the church has understood this mission, namely through colonial disbursement.  It is not hard to understand how people can come to the conclusion that contemporary global capitalism is an extension of an earlier theology.  In both practices there is a message of hope that is articulated by the saved/wealthy and in both cases the message never seems to play out as being truly good news for the pagan/poor.

I came across a sort of ominous foreshadowing of this orientation to the church’s message in The Epistle to Diognetus (2nd century).  In upholding love of neighbour the author of this text states,

[H]e who takes upon himself the burden of his neighbour; he who, in whatsoever respect he may be superior, is ready to benefit another who is deficient; he who, whatsoever things he has received from God, by distributing these to the needy, becomes a god to those who receive [his benefits]: he is an imitator of God.

Now to be sure the early church was not in the same position as it was to rise to in the 4th century but the logic of disbursement is already elevated to a strong paternalistic even divine tone.  While we are uncomfortable with saying that we ‘become a god’ in this imitation, that is essentially what we are saying theologically when we talk about imitating Christ, isn’t it?

In any event, this Sunday I preached on the presentation of Jesus in the Temple in Luke 2.  This is a story of reception, of receiving the Messiah.  And how does Simeon the priest receive Jesus?

Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29     “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30     for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32     a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
A beautiful image hope and peace but then Simeon turns to Mary and says,
This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed (sign of contradiction) so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.
Here are a few excerpts from the tail end of my sermon.
So what does it mean to receive Jesus as a sign of contradiction?  I did a bit of research on this phrase and found that the Catholic Church has an entire doctrine based around it.  This doctrine holds that the church is to be a sign of contradiction; that the church in its holiness it will be rejected or opposed.  There is an element of this doctrine that I can appreciate.  I believe that to live out the vision of the Gospel will lead to contradiction and opposition in the world.  But as I understand it there is a destructive assumption at work in this expression.  The assumption is that it is the church the has the privileged knowledge of how Jesus becomes present in the world.  This doctrine assumes that it is no longer the church that needs to receive the sign of contradiction.  In trying to hold this doctrine the church itself can actually become immune to the presence of Christ.  . . . When you believe that your way of life has a privileged or even exclusive access to ultimate human truth then it will be near impossible to receive a sign of contradiction; you control the rules of the games and determine the value of those around you.
. . .

The church, and particularly the Mennonite church, has elevated the call to discipleship, the call of being like Jesus in the world.  Mennonites have fought theological wars over this matter.  When other churches focused simply on the death and resurrection of Jesus, or the centrality of Communion the Mennonites demanded that we also give attention to Jesus life, how he taught, what he did, how he treated people.  But where is the theology that asks how we might receive the presence of God precisely from outside our theology and our expression?  How does our theology and our practice prepare us to receive something that contradicts our theology and our practice?

. . .

Our tradition affirms that the church is the body of Christ and yet Christ must remain fugitive.  Already as a child in the Gospels Jesus flees to Egypt after Joseph received a vision of Herod’s plot to kill Jesus.  The French activist and philosopher Simone Weil is quoted as saying, “We must always be ready to change sides, like justice, the eternal fugitive from the camp of the victors.”  We cannot secure the place of Christ, but we can hope to receive Christ.  Our vision remains universal because there is no place we will not seek this Christ.  Our theology and practice remains fragmented because we are never so Christ-like that we cannot receive again this child, this man, this saviour, this God.  Our theology and our faith is only as healthy as it is able to receive from outside of its expression.  I am wondering if we have made a fundamental error in our basic understanding of the church’s mission.  We go out not to bring the message of Christ.  We go out to receive it, to encounter the fugitive.

I am not exactly breaking new theological ground and I am not claiming to overturn any notion of having content or a message of some sort.  I do however sense that there is still a horrendous imbalance in how churches continue to view themselves as fortresses of divine truth.  And this line of thinking has helped me to challenge a basic Mennonite goal of discipleship.  While discipleship has always been problematic I have not heard it addressed from the basic shift from giving to receiving Christ.

One comment on “A sign of contradiction

  1. Andrew Brower Latz says:

    I like this. I think there needs to be a bit of both but the imbalance has been exactly as you describe. Perhaps you could say the church preserves the conditions of possibility of that fugitive presence you mention. (I read Dula and found it helpful).

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