09 April 2010

Thoughts on Bonhoeffer: The Church and the Reign of God

We watched the documentary "Bonhoeffer" tonight for our Campus Ministry Movie Night for April. As we discussed the life of this remarkable saint, I remembered a paper I'd written for a seminary class on the Holy Spirit, which drew deeply from Bonhoeffer. Thought it'd be an appropriate thing to share. If you like seminary papers, that is. If not, this may be a good day to go elsewhere, and fear no ill will on my part - seminary papers are not for everyone.


"[The Spirit] will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

The Gospel According to John, 16th Chapter, verses 14 & 15

This, according to David K. Rensberger, is "The Work of the Spirit."[1] The Spirit takes that which belongs to Christ and declares it to those who hear the voice of Christ. One can easily argue that this implies that the Spirit is declaring Jesus Christ himself for the good of the world – the picture of Christ's ministry is one of self-sacrifice and redemption in the name of God's own Son ransoming the world. But limiting the work of the Spirit to a declaration of Christ for the world ignores a significant question unanswered: when will the need for declaration cease, and what is the world's status while it lives between incarnation and parousia? If the world waits with longing, even groaning in anticipation for the world to come[2], why would the Creator of this world hesitate or delay the coming of Christ and the end of this world?

The answer is found in the work of the Holy Spirit, which is the avenue through which the reciprocity of Christ and the world is revealed. Not only is Christ given for the world, but the world is given for Christ: within Christ, the world finds its existence, and within the world, Christ lives wherever the Spirit causes God to be glorified in Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen savior of the world. Here the Spirit of Christ, that which reveals Christ to the world, works God's eternal life into temporal reality, not as a far-off goal or a delayed hope, but in an already/not yet reality that creates faith in the full reality of God's future promise.

In John 17.3, Jesus describes eternal life in this way: "…this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Traditionally, eternal life has been pictured as an unrealized future promise; life in temporality has always been seen as the 'first life,' the one which must end before eternal life may begin. Note here that there is no requirement for delay in this word from the gospel of John: Jesus simply states that eternal life begins with the knowledge of the Creator and Jesus Christ. If the work of the Spirit includes the revelation of Christ for the world, then eternal life, through the work of that same Holy Spirit, has already begun!

Is this possible? Most certainly; one may know God the Creator and Jesus Christ the Redeemer within the world. Jesus was, after all, a real human being, and when Christ is known, the Creator is known: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also." (John 14.6-7a). But Christ was not and is not known solely in his particular, incarnate human body; through the continuing work of the Spirit, Christ is known in the present as well.

Why would this be done now? Because the world, as the continuing creation of God, is glorious and exists for God's present revelation, not only for a future promise. This present revelation is, of course, the inbreaking of the future promise, but as the world groans with anticipation for God's future, as the Spirit works in the world to make the Creator and the Christ known, the glory of it all is such that the angels watch as they are able:

It was revealed to [the prophets of grace before Jesus' time] that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things that have now been announced to you through those who brought you good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven - things into which angels long to look! (I Peter 1.12, emphasis mine)

If the angels long to look at the Holy Spirit bringing good news in the present the world, one would think this means that there's something in the world worth watching! The work of the Word, whether the Word/Christ or the Word/Holy Spirit, is still creating all things. The world still belongs to God, and what belongs to God is declared by God the Holy Spirit. But what causes the angels to stop and stare is this: where that declaration is heard, where God is glorified and Jesus Christ is revealed as Immanuel, God-with-us, the crucified and risen Son of God, new creation happens – the Spirit creating faith in believers in this world.

One by one, as this faith is created in believers, the new creation is gathered and formed into the church, created by the Holy Spirit for the further revelation of God's new creation in the world. In this church the Holy Spirit continues the work of new creation through preaching and the Sacraments. Baptism gives the believer a moment in time whereby the beginning of this new creation might be remembered; Preaching and Proclamation point out the new creation in its contextual richness and create it through a reaffirmation of God's promises to the world; the Lord's Supper maintains the new creation by giving it a tangible promise from God to which it may return and upon which it may depend. But the church is not a community closed in upon itself, withdrawing from the world; rather, as Christ was given for the world, and the world given for Christ's revelation, the church is given to the world as the primary work of the Spirit within it, and the world given to the church so that through its witness the Holy Spirit might continue the work of new creation:

It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. What is above this world is, in the gospel, intended to exist for this world; I mean that, not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystic, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the Biblical sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.[3]

The church, as the new creation of the Holy Spirit, is given not just for its own good, but also to participate in the reign of God, both now and in the future hope of the eschaton. The world does not want this new creation, because the world refuses to acknowledge its createdness in the first place: "…the world came into being through Him, yet the world did not know him."[4] So the Spirit calls the church into being to be one with Christ, to unite with Christ in the glory of the Creator so that the world may know God in Christ and the love of Christ in the Sprit's work of new creation.

Thus the church exists as the body of Christ in the world for the good of the world. Jesus prays for the good of the world through the church:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17.20-21)

The church is created by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the reign of God through the glory of Christ. But what does this glory entail? When the hour of Christ comes, when Christ glorifies the Creator and the Creator glorifies Christ, what happens? Betrayal happens (John 18.4-5). Denial happens (John 18.17, 25-27). Abuse happens (John 19.1-3). Death happens (John 19.30). BUT resurrection also happens (John 20.18), and it is in this resurrection that the glory of being united by the Spirit with the Creator and Jesus Christ completes the work of new creation in the church. The world resists this aspect of the church, because of the world's rejection of its creaturely nature, and so, as Christ must die for the sake of the world, so must the church die to itself, to its ambitions to be anything other than the body of Christ, so that the Spirit might make it into a new creation, raised to new life to become one with Christ for the sake of the world.

The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope is that the former sends people back to their life on earth in a wholly new way…Christians, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, have no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself, … they must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in their doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with them, and they crucified and risen with Christ. This world must not be prematurely written off.[5]

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. (John 17.14-15 (emphasis mine))

The church, in the reign of God, is called to participate deeply in the world God has created, not to escape it to live comfortably nestled away, safe from the world that threatens. For God is at work in the world that threatens, and where God has chosen to be at work, there the church is created by the Spirit of the Creator to participate in that work. The world belongs to God. The church belongs to God. The church, then, does not belong to the world, though in time the church exists in the world, and not by accident. This deep calling into this world is a purposeful calling at the command of Christ himself. As the church declares the glory of Christ by the Holy Spirit's creative work, the salvation of the world is taking place. It is for this reason that the world must not be prematurely written off: Jesus Christ came to save the world, and the Holy Spirit continues that saving work through the church in the present time. The church would do well to remember that its proclamation creates new creation now as it promises the fulfillment of all of God's future plans for new creation – the Word is always doing what it says.

Finally, the Spirit is breaking eternity into time in its work in the reign of God, the 'hour' of the glorification of God writ large. The Spirit works the past into the present by the performative proclamation of Jesus Christ, who was born, walked, taught, was crucified, and rose again in temporal actuality. Jesus Christ was an actual human being, and though all of history is created through him, in particularity he lived in a very brief period of time. But where the Spirit causes two or more to gather in the name of Christ, Christ is there with them – this is the Spirit working past performative promise into present perception, to the glory of itself along with Christ and God the Creator. In the present, the Spirit is at work in the world, creating the church and bringing it through continual death and resurrection, working a new creation, and through this new creation forming the body of Christ for the good of the world. The future hour of God's final glory is also under the auspices of the Spirit, and the Spirit is creating that hour in the body of Christ through the preaching of God's promised future, the drowning of the old and new creation of justification in Baptism, and the nourishment of the testament of Christ through the Lord's Supper. These means of grace belong to the church for the good of the world: through them, the Spirit is bringing the eschaton to the present and creating faith in the promise that Christ will come again and the reign of God will be complete.

Until the reign of God comes in fullness, however, the Spirit continues to create the church, the body of Christ for the good of the world. But unlike so many other spirits at work in the world, this Spirit makes no promises save one: to be a Christian is to become one with God the creator through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ:

It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one's own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event…There is nothing of the religious method here. The "religious act" is always something partial; "faith" is something whole, involving the whole of one's life. Jesus calls people, not to a new religion, but to life.[6]

God has given the world for the good of the Spirit, that life might come through the calling of Christ through the Spirit's proclamation. We as the body of Christ have the privilege of participating in that calling, in that gathering, in that living to which God is calling the world. That participation is also the completion that the Spirit works in us: when we are gathered into the body of Christ and sent into the world, the reign of God is established in us as well. Where the Spirit is calling us into the way of Christ, a new creation is brought to life – that life is the reign of God, and it lives where we live, in Christ, for the sake of the world.

[1] Scriptural subheading from Harper-Collins Study Bible, NRSV. Copyright 1989, Wayne A. Meeks, ed. p. 2044.

[2] Romans 8.22

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter to Eberhard Bethge, 5 May 1944. Excerpted from A Testament To Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Geffrey B. Kelly & F. Burton Nelson, ed. Copyright 1995, HarperSanFransisco, pub. p. 504.

[4] John 1.10 (NRSV)

[5] Bonhoeffer, to Bethge, 27 June 1944. ATTF, pp. 507-508. (emphasis mine)

[6] Bonhoeffer, to Bethge, 18 July 1944. ATTF, p. 509.

The image is "Creation" from the Saint John's Bible Project.

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