One of the blogs I follow had an interesting take on this past Sunday's emphasis on God's Work. Our Hands. I get what he is saying. Really. I do. But I find some of the theology behind the assertion a bit troubling. Let's think about these statements in particular:
And we did this all the while knowing that acts of kindness and charity are poor replacements for systemic change and activism.
Really; that’s just the plain truth. Systems don’t change because I’ve
handed a person a sandwich. Systems change when I press back against a
culture that creates the have-nots in the shadow of the haves.
God’s work would be to flatten those economies in a way that changed life for everyone.
So, God's work--His REAL work--would be to flatten our systems of power and injustice and change life for everyone. That's the underlying theology, isn't it? Handing out sandwiches is good work, but it's not quite on a par with something grander--an overhaul of the system that causes people to go hungry. Well, there is truth in that statement. It would be nice to come up with some sort of system where there were no hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or imprisoned.
But there is a two-fold problem with this theology.
Problem #1: In reality, this is a modified theology of glory; a theology which seeks the boldest and grandest; a theology which seeks a total remaking of the world and its structures; a theology which focuses on the end times promise of a new heaven and a new earth; a theology which seeks earthly comfort in the way I think it should occur. Oh, that statement will probably cause a little bit of ire, but there is little difference, at least in my book, between saying, "If I just believe and have enough faith, then I will be blessed with wealth and prosperity." and "If I just push back against a culture that creates the have-nots in the shadow of the haves, then I am really doing God's work [and systems will change so that more will have.]"
Whether we like it or not, our focus as Christians comes in the form of the God made flesh: Jesus. And Jesus wasn't exactly revealing to us the methodology of bringing about such a theology. He wasn't one to tell his followers to "do the right things and God will bless you." He wasn't one that said, "Do the right things and you will bring heaven to earth." He wasn't one going around saying, "We need to push back against this Roman invasion and those who collaborate with it to produce poor people and stomp on people." He famously spoke, "My kingdom is not of this world." And it's not.
It involves the creation of a whole new world. Why? Because it is we as humans who build the systems.
That's Problem #2: What is the system that God has built to replace that which He supposedly would/could/is tearing down? Somehow, there is an assumption built into this whole shebang that some system exists that is indeed perfect where human poverty is eradicated. Somehow, there is an assumption that some system exists which the distinction between haves and have nots is erased. Looking at the history of the world, has such a system ever been established?
I am waiting for the answer....
Again, humans build the systems of which we are a part in this world. And those systems are just like us. They have their good points. They have their bad points. They are saintly in some ways. They are sinful in others. What more can you expect out of a system put together by beings such as we?
Even the Church, in all of its myriads of expressions throughout the world does not come close to reaching perfection. It does not come close to reaching the vision of heaven as articulated by Jesus and the earliest disciples. Why? It is composed of humans. Plain and simple. In order to create a perfect system, we must achieve perfection as human beings. Anyone want to take a guess how long it will take for that to happen?
Which brings us back to God's work. What is God's work?
Perhaps it is a bit old fashioned, but let's remember what the basics of our faith tell us. You know, those things called the Creeds.
1. God is creator.
2. God is salvation bringer.
3. God is sustainer.
4. God is sanctifier.
I think it poignant to recite at this point Luther's explanation of the Third Article of the Creed:
I believe that
I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ,
my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me
by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and
kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens,
and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps
it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian
Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all
believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the
dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting
life. This is most certainly true.
What is God's work in this day and time:
Calling. Gathering. Enlightening. Sanctifying.
That sanctifying one is pretty important, you know. That's the one where God comes in and rearranges the furniture deep within us. Where He makes us holy--more Christ like. And when we start becoming more Christ like, we start doing the things He asked us to do: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, all those stop gap measures.
Why the stop gap? Why not something more? Why not something grand? Why not something transformational which blew up the imperfect systems of which we are a part?
Well, that would involve blowing us up first. That would involve eradicating all of our selfishness; all of our desire for more; all of our focus on what we want instead of what we need. Get rid of all that, and we can have a perfect system.
And that's not going to happen until the parousia--the end of times. Jesus knew this. He had the big picture, and He knew sanctification is a life-long process. He knew the grand things weren't going to happen short of remaking the world, so He taught us to see God's action in places where it hadn't been seen before--like a child and a seed and a prodigal father and a cross.
The grand remaking of the world is still to come. The trashing of all those imperfect systems is still to come. In the mean time, God's work continues. Don't sell it short.