28 February 2009

Lenten Devotional: Concrete Theology

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ Matthew 9.10-13

We've been reading A Christianity Worth Believing by Doug Pagitt of Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis in our Theology for Lunch group at University Lutheran Center. Today's chapters were "Up and Out" and "Down and In," the first a description of God the author finds problematic, the second a far more fruitful image of God for the author. The problem with the first, insists Pagitt, is that God often winds up a captive of the chasm of sin that separates humanity from God - and how can the Creator of all that is be powerless to bridge the gap? So we spent a very fruitful half hour talking about sin, mercy and forgiveness, as well as God's wrath and its true source.

As I read in preparation for the group's meeting, I realized Pagitt was unconsciously treading where my theology professor Gerhard Forde once wrote. The problem with a God who remains distant and must be either appeased or rescued by the cross lies in the abstraction of the real problem: we are a people who refuse, time and again, the unconditional mercy and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. As Forde put it,

Why could God not just up and forgive? Let us start there. If
we look at the narrative about Jesus, the actual acts themselves, the "brute
facts" as they have come down to us, the answer is quite simple. He
did! Jesus came preaching repentance and forgiveness, declaring the bounty
and mercy of his "Father." The problem, however, is that we could not buy
that. And so we killed him. And just so we are caught in the
act. Every mouth is stopped once and for all. All the pious talk
about our yearning and desire for reconciliation and forgiveness, etc., all our
complaint against god is simply shut up. He came to forgive and we killed
him for it; we would not have it. It is as simple as that...

God's "problem" is not that he can't be merciful until he has been
satisfied but rather that he won't be satisfied until he succeeds in actually
having mercy on whom he will have mercy. God, that is, won't be satisfied
until he succeeds in actually giving the concrete, unconditional forgiving he
intends. As we can see from Jesus, God's problem is how actually to have
mercy on a world which will not have it...

When faith is created, when we actually believe God's unconditional
forgiveness; then God can say, "Now I am satisfied!" God's wrath ends
actually when we believe him, not abstractly because of a payment to
God "once upon a time." Christ's work, therefore, "satisfies" the wrath of
God because it alone creates believers, new beings who are no longer "under"
wrath. Christ actualizes the will of God to have mercy unconditionally in
the concrete and thereby "placates" God. When, that is, we are caught in
the act so that we are caught by the act. God reaches his goal.

From Word and World 3/1, (c) 1983 by Word &
, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN

Even now, almost ten years after the first time I read those words, I'm swept up by the power and passion of the God in whom Forde believed. These words, more than just about anything else, have shaped the course of my life over the past ten years. Because of them, I've learned to recognize genuine mercy when it happens. Because of them, I've realized that it was no "they" who put the Son of God to death: it was "WE." These words and thousands more like them have left me with a great impatience for abstraction and a great love for concrete theology: words and thoughts of God which actually seek to proclaim and present the Creator, Son and Spirit in all their "reckless, raging fury." (quoting another of my favorite theologians there - Rich Mullins)

Only a concrete, actual God who tears apart theories and equations can get to us. Only a God who intrudes on our sinfulness in wrath and refuses to leave the dead in the grave can provide hope. You want concrete? You want strong mercy? How's this: God came to earth in Jesus of Nazareth, forgiving sins and proclaiming the good news of God's mercy for all people, and Jesus would not be put off that message; not by our sarcasm, our fear, our hatred or even our violence and murderous refusal to do things our way. "God has made a decision about you," Dr. Forde always said, "whether you like it or not." "I have come for the sinners," says Jesus, "and you're one of them." Thanks be to God - mercy is on the way.

The artwork is "The One Who Had Mercy" by Christopher Koelle of 12Stone Art.

1 comment:

  1. yeah, in that particular insight for sure, Forde was my hero.