Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Kingdom and Cross

In a January 2011 speech at Bristol School of Christian Studies (Putting the Gospels Back Together: How We’ve All Misread Our Central Story) Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright makes a compelling case that modern hermeneutics often sacrifices either the kingdom (Gospels) for the cross (Epistles) or else the atonement (Epistles) for social engagement (Gospels). He maintains that these two – kingdom and cross – must never be divorced nor even held in tension, but rather seen as necessary complements: What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

The kingdom of God, which is nothing less than the reign of Christ over all creation, was inaugurated in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and reached its climax in the cross (and its aftermath of resurrection and ascension). Bishop Wright notes, in paraphrase, that the cross is the cutting edge of the sword of the kingdom. It is perhaps apt to consider the cross the means of accomplishing the goal of making present the kingdom. Redemption, while personal, is never private; it always has a corporate, kingdom dimension.

I suspect that, with this hermeneutic in place, we will catch glimpses – and more than glimpses – of the kingdom-cross union throughout scripture. As one small case in point, I offer the account of the healing of the paralytic in Luke 5:17-26.

17 Now it happened on a certain day, as He was teaching, that there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, who had come out of every town of Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was present to heal them. 18 Then behold, men brought on a bed a man who was paralyzed, whom they sought to bring in and lay before Him. 19 And when they could not find how they might bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the housetop and let him down with his bed through the tiling into the midst before Jesus. 20 When He saw their faith, He said to him, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, He answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise up and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” 25 Immediately he rose up before them, took up what he had been lying on, and departed to his own house, glorifying God. 26 And they were all amazed, and they glorified God and were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen strange things today” (Lk 5:17-26, NKJV)!

The healing ministry of Jesus is an in-breaking of the kingdom; of this there is ample witness in scripture, not least in Mt 11. Thus, any healing must be seen in a kingdom context. But, the narrative structure of this healing account links it strongly with cross, as well. The visual imagery is perhaps the first key. There is, at the center of the story, a paralytic – confined to bed or pallet, unable to come to Jesus on his own. He is carried by friends, who metaphorically – and perhaps literally – dig through a roof to lower the man and pallet into Jesus’ presence. Can we see here a dead man, carried on a bier, and lowered into a tomb – not without hope – but dead nonetheless? And the cause of the man’s “death”? Sin, the condition which Jesus first addresses: “’Man, your sins are forgiven you.’” And with the forgiveness of sins comes resurrection and new life: “Immediately he rose up before them, took up what he had been lying on, and departed to his own house, glorifying God.” It is not a stretch to see this account as a textual icon of the harrowing of hell: Jesus in the midst of sin-bound and dead humanity – by his own death – reaching out to take Adam by the hand, lifting him up to life again. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Thus, what begins as a kingdom story of healing becomes a cruciform story of forgiveness and resurrection. The kingdom comes, this story proclaims, precisely through death, burial, and resurrection and precisely for the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the cosmos. Kingdom and cross belong together.

The purpose of this is not just to promote a more faithful and integrated reading of scripture – though that is no small thing – but a more faithful and integrated life in Christ. Some among us evangelize to save the soul but leave the body poor and hungry and naked and homeless; these must embrace Jesus’ kingdom vision – a kingdom that is already (Christ has begun his reign) but not yet (Christ’s reign in not yet universally acknowledged). Some among us pour out our lives in social ministry in the name of compassion and human dignity but not in the name of Christ crucified; these must embrace Jesus’ cross – a cross that is the very essence of compassion and human dignity.

Wright is right: kingdom and cross belong together – in our hermeneutics, in our proclamation, in our lives.

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