Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Tension of Christianity

By Christopher Saxton

I remember when I was a child, I loved to play on the swing set. The thing I loved most of all was to begin to swing to see how high I could go and then launch myself into space at the top of the arc. I would lean back in the swing and stretch out, then pull myself upright increasing the arc and then swing backwards, and then lean back again stretching out with my toes to reach the sky and get to the top of the arc and swing backwards. Each cycle of stretching my toes to the sky and relaxing backwards would increase the arc and I would swing a little higher each time. Once I had reached the terminal point where I couldn’t swing any higher…when I reached the place where there would be that moment where the swing chain would slacken and then catch again, I would prepare to let go. I would take one final swing, and then at the top of the arc, with toes pointed to the sky, I would force myself to let go. I would have an eternity of terror as I let go of the security of the swing and would hang for a moment between the two forces: the force of the swing carrying me up and forward and the force of gravity pulling me down. I would be suspended between two worlds.

To me, this is the hard question of being a Christian. Are we of this world or not? Do we keep our eyes only heavenward or do we engage with the world? And this is the tension that Jesus speaks of in John’s gospel, in his final prayer for his disciples before going to the cross...This tension of being suspended between two possibilities.

One of the most difficult aspects of this is the issue of "the world." Jesus makes several points about relationship to "the world" which we might keep in mind. From the perspective of the biblical text, the world signifies the origin of the disciples. They did not come from outside of society but from inside of it, from the everyday people. However, in belonging to Jesus, the disciples have been separated from the world. Still, they must continue to do ministry in it. As must all baptized Christians…we are caught at the top of the arc of the swing and are in the air… in the tension of being of, and yet not of the world.

This is one of the greatest tensions of Christianity: “they are not of the world as I am not of the world,” says Jesus in his prayer. But he also says earlier “yet they themselves are in the world.” How do we deal with this contradiction? One view of this conundrum is that held by some, that this world is some sort of necessary evil that we must pass through as untouched as possible in order to go to eternal glory in the bosom of our creator. The idea here is to try to keep ourselves as separate from the prevailing culture as possible. That society is of this earth and we (Christians) are separate from it. We seek a moral purity that comes from a “rising” above the world. Are we to rise above the mire of society convinced that we are not of the world?

If our eyes are too firmly pointed towards heaven how can we see the light of Christ in those around us, or those half a world away? A couple of years ago an ELCA bishop sadly and wisely commented: "I don't know if our people understand the radicality of the Gospel in terms of how counter-cultural it is.” Or in the words of a tweet about the “#occupywallst” movement: do we remember that the one who died on the cross must be remembered as a “wrongfully executed socialist?” In our desire as Christians to be not of this world have we forgotten the truly radical message of Jesus Christ that we must love our neighbours as ourselves?

So, does Jesus call us to muck in…to be in, and of this world, in messy and concrete ways…to get dirty and uncomfortable to seek to transform this world? It is so much easier to follow the call to be not of this world. But I believe that Christianity is a social religion concerned, at its core, with the quality of human relations on this earth. A hundred years ago, Canadian social gospel leader J.S. Woodsworth preached, "You can't separate a man from his surroundings and deal separately with each…Christianity is not merely individualistic, it is socialistic…the work of the church is not merely to save men; it is to redeem, to transform society.” Are we in, or not in this world?

How often I wish that God would give me the resources to take people “out of their world”: out of homelessness, jails, nursing facilities, cycles of abuse or addiction. And yet, he doesn’t. Instead, he tells me to go into their world and be present through the despair. You and I are called to bind hopelessness and offer all that we have: two eyes, two ears and often, too little time. We are rarely called to show up with solutions, but we are called to show up. Nothing seems to keep away evil more than the friend who consistently “shows up,” who stands in witness. And we stand in witness. We do what is possible and turn to God for the impossible; but above all else…We show up.

And this is not easy. It is terrifying. It is radical. It is counter-cultural. It is against the world. We Christians are not of this world. Everything we claim to believe is at its core in opposition to what the society surrounding us espouses. We love our neighbor whether we know them or not, whether they are like us or not, knowing that our neighbor is also our stranger. Our successes, our failures are judged by standards not of this world…they are counted in terms of love, in terms of justice, in terms of sacrifice, in terms of standing in witness. We do not count financial success as success. We don’t count our sheep, instead Jesus asks us to feed them.

Tension? You bet! As Christians, are we on the swing or rooted to the earth? Well yes, we are both, and...

Being the disciples that Jesus prays us to be, requires us to hold perhaps the most subtle and yet most difficult tension of all: the tension between reality and possibility. Hanging like Jesus on the cross we are called to that terrible tension of being in this world, and of living in it by different rules. Called to engage with the world, and seek to transform it as our love of neighbor calls us to do.

When I was on that swing, getting closer to letting go, I would feel my throat close and my heart pound. My mouth would dry up and my stomach clench. I knew that there was danger approaching…that I could crash and burn…break bones…bloody my nose. My hand would clench the chains and I would be unwilling to let go, unable to take the leap. There was danger and terror and excitement and the unknown. And then there would come a second when I would trust…when I would let go. And then there was a glorious moment that lasted for an instant, and forever, and I would hang suspended between the swing and the earth. No longer in either world, the worlds of the swing or the earth but hanging suspended. In both worlds…and in neither. The tension we are all in as Christians, the tension of taking the leap, the tension of showing up, the tension of following the one we love, and the terrible, the wonderful, tension of the cross…Hanging in that terrible tension, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are both of, and not of this world.

Chris Saxton is in his final as an year MDiv student at Trinity College, Canada's oldest centre for theological study in the Anglican Church of Canada. Like the college he is liberal and catholic in his views, and also rather old coming to Divinity after a long career as a sommelier, and a wine educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @ckwsaxton.

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