Electing to Follow Jesus: Strangers in a Strange Land
Disillusioned and losing sleep over the election? Randy Harris has some thoughts that may help you sleep, but also wake up. This post is part 4 in a series that will help us stay sane leading up to and following the election. Stay tuned for more posts each week, and find the rest of the series here.
One of the fundamental stances we take during an election year (and any year) is that of being strangers in the world. We are strangers in this nation, this culture.
Maybe you are like me and have learned to use technology, but you’d never challenge a 17-year-old to a texting contest. Texting and technology are not my native language, and I’m not going to get shown up by a teenager! On the other hand, my 85-year-old father has learned to text. Texted me the other day to say he’d scored an 87 in golf. Says he came within two shots of shooting his age. I didn’t know which was more impressive--his score or that he could text me about it!
When you use some strange new technology or enter a foreign land, you get the idea of what it means to be a stranger. It doesn’t mean you don’t understand the new context at all. It just means you’re not completely at home in that world. This is a consistent theme in Scripture: we are strangers in the world, and the Apostle Peter picks up this theme: "Dear friends, I urge you as aliens and strangers in the world to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Pet 2:11).
Keep Peter’s words in mind as we look at another theme in Revelation. The problem for some Christians in Revelation is persecution, but that wasn’t the problem for all. John also addresses the problem of accommodation. No, we’re not talking about whether or not there’s room in the inn! This kind of accommodation is to their culture. The members of the Kingdom of God have started to look much like the members of the Roman Empire. The problem isn’t that they're being persecuted. The problem is they're not being persecuted. That's a different kind of problem. What John is trying to do is to say the Roman Empire, in all its glory, will have its little day, but like all things human, it's passing away. Long after that empire is gone, the Kingdom of God will stand.
So, pick a team. And don't be stupid.
I think that's what Revelation is doing. There is this fundamental point being made that we are out of sorts with the world in which we find ourselves. Now, I want to be careful not to say that we are out of sorts with the physical world. Rather, Christianity is always, to some degree, subversive of the culture in which it finds itself. We're never entirely at home. This is sometimes described as counterculture, but I don't like that term because that implies culture's over there and I'm standing over here throwing rocks at it, which is ridiculous. I am deeply embedded in this culture and there's no way I can not be.
It is possible for me to be a stranger here, to be an alien, to be not quite at home. So I’m going to describe three ways that Christians are fundamentally out of sorts with our culture, which are really important in an election year, or any year.
First, we are people who believe in transcendence in a world of imminence. I'm deeply indebted to Charles Taylor's A Secular Age for what I'm getting ready to do. It takes him 755 pages, but it's only going to take me a few paragraphs. You owe me for this!
What does it mean to be imminent, to live in an imminent frame as Taylor calls it? It's really pretty simple. What do you do when you're sick? You go to the doctor. Generally speaking, you do that before you call your preacher or priest because he or she's a swell person, but medically? Not so much, right? Illness is a physical problem that you generally deal with in a physical way. We live in a western culture that attempts to interpret itself in its own terms, in physical terms. If I asked you what causes lightning, some of you might jokingly say God does--kind of like my students who put Jesus if they don’t know an answer on a test because they figure I can’t count it wrong. But most of us actually think of lightning in physical, scientific terms.
In the year 1500, however, if you asked someone what caused lightning, the right answer really would have been God, or maybe the powers of darkness. Similarly, if you got sick back then, you might rely as much on a priest as on what passed for medical knowledge.
For the most part, those of us who are from the western world tend not to really believe in the spirit world too much. We may pay lip service to angels and demons, but we don't really believe in fairies and sprites and gnomes. Even people who claim to believe in those things, they are not a part of our everyday reality that we deal with. They just aren't.
Yet in the midst of this world that is imminent in its frame--that explains itself on its own terms--Christians make the claim that here we do not have a lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. There is something beyond all of this. The world's general response to this claim is, “When are you going to grow up and stop believing that stuff? You need to grow up and take responsibility for yourselves. You need to pray a little less and work a little harder. If this world is going to get any better, it’s going to be because of concerted human effort, not anything beyond this world.” In other words, transcendence is seen as a form of immaturity, an inability to let go of some old fairy tales.
Now I know that response is not true. At every place and every part of American culture, I would argue that imminence is an accurate depiction of elitist American culture. So believing in transcendence is going to make you a stranger, because in an election year, you're going to wind up saying something like, "Kingdoms come and kingdoms go, but the Kingdom of God remains." People are going to think, “What? This is the most important election in the history of the world!” Like we were the first people who ever said that. Whenever my students try that on me, I say, "Chester Arthur." They say, "Who's that?" I say, "Exactly." He's another American president you haven't heard of.
We are strangers in that we are the ones who believe that there is something beyond this imminent world.
Second, we are strangers in this world because we believe in a human flourishing that is beyond human flourishing. I'm going to follow Taylor again. Our culture is all about human flourishing, right? We want to flourish, to be the best we can be, to have the best life that we can. As it turns out, Scripture is very interested in human flourishing. You may remember that little passage from John where Jesus says, "I've come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” So there's this flourishing life that Scripture is interested in.
My point is that Christians are people who believe there is a human flourishing beyond what we generally understand as human flourishing. Francis of Assisi provides a great illustration of this belief. Francis was this rich, privileged guy who decided to give it all up and become a tramp for Jesus. This is a romantic idea, but it had its drawbacks. Like hunger and festering sores which he likened to Jesus’s wounds on the cross. He went everywhere preaching the gospel to anybody who would listen, including some animals, who, by the way, responded very positively!
Do you believe that Francis, after his conversion, experienced a kind of flourishing that was beyond the flourishing that he had previously experienced? How a person reacts to that question actually says a whole lot about imminence and transcendence. If you believe there is a flourishing beyond what we normally think of as human flourishing, that is going to make you strange in this world.
Taylor sometimes uses the word fullness, which I really like, although it has certain problems. Is there a possibility for a fullness of life that is beyond what we normally think of as ordinary human flourishing? That is, what you might have to do is to give up much of your quest for happiness if you want to really be happy. You have to give up the quest for ultimate satisfaction if you want to be ultimately satisfied.
I have to come to think about this as IT--capital I, capital T. We're always after IT. We go after IT in a variety of ways and there are all sorts of things that promise IT, but when we get IT, it is never able to deliver what it promised. Guess what we do then? Off to look for IT again. Christians are going to say that this is a fool's errand because this IT is not anything in this world. To put it in theological language, it is going to be a result of grace. It is something that can be given to you, but that you cannot relentlessly chase down.
As Christians, we are are strangers because we have this deeper conviction that there is a flourishing beyond IT, a flourishing beyond human flourishing.
Finally, we are strangers in this world because our primary identity marker is our membership in the Kingdom of God. That identity marker overrides all other identity markers. Now, we live in a world where identity markers are very important. Sometimes we choose a national identity marker or political party identity marker or racial identity or sexual orientation or a particular profession, social class, or job. Christians are the people who say all of those kinds of identity markers are secondary.
Paul says it this way: "In Christ there is neither rich nor poor, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female. They are all one in Christ Jesus." You don't cease to have those identities, but those identities become secondary to your primary identity in Jesus Christ.
Every year at ACU’s opening chapel, we march in the flags of all the states and nations where our students are from, and it is way cool. But I’ve always wondered what would happen if we marched in all of those flags but we also had this huge cross and everybody laid their flags at the foot of the cross.
In a world that tries to press all sorts of identity markers on us as having greater priority, the foot of the cross is not an easy place to remain. We go there to receive forgiveness, but we don’t often want to remain there for our identity. It’s an extraordinarily difficult space to occupy, but it’s exactly the identity marker we Christians must claim. Not nation. Not class. Not gender. Not race. Not moral affinity. Our kindred citizenship in the Kingdom of God whose king is a crucified and resurrected Messiah.
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