The grain of the universe and the shape of the church

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April 22, 2013 by jmar198013

John Howard Yoder once wrote that, “the people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.” (1) For Christians, this must be true, because we are a people claimed by a peculiar logic about how our world was formed and how our world is redeemed. Being the people known as church means we have apprehended that the world is made and mended through creative, self-giving, self-emptying love. The form of love that is capable of redeeming violent chaos–especially the violent chaos we experience as sin–is revealed most concretely in the person of Jesus Christ, particularly in his Cross and Resurrection. Christians know this about our world not because we are so smart, but because it has been revealed to us. Being the church requires the grace to bear the gift of knowing that the cosmos is shaped by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.

How do we know that those “who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe”? Because it has been given to us in words God spoke to our ancestors. It has been spoken most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Word. The church ever inherits the gift of remembering that:

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
    and without the Word
    nothing came into being.

What came into being
    through the Word was life,
    and the life was the light for all people.

The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
    glory like that of a father’s only son,
        full of grace and truth. (John 1.1-4, 14 CEB)

And again, we receive this gift:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. (Heb. 1.1-3 NRSV)

My friend Warren Greene is fond of rendering the truth of John 1.1-14 thusly: “in the beginning was the Text, and the Text became textile and interwove itself into the lives of men.” Being the church means inheriting the gift of knowing that the Word through which the universe was spoken into being, the Word that animates all living, came to inhabit the world it spoke into life. The form of life taken by the life-giving, animating Word is Son. As the only son bears his father’s likeness uniquely, so does this Son uniquely bear God’s image.

The church knows that God made humans to bear his image faithfully in his world. For we share with our ancestor Israel this common account of human vocation:

Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”

God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them. (Gen. 1.26-27 CEB)

We also share with Israel the gift of a common story that tells us how the fabric of our world was torn by sin. It was when we believed the lie of the serpent, who told us that when we ate the forbidden fruit: you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3.4 CEB). The serpent tricked our ancestors into forgetting that they were already like God, for they bore his image and likeness. Sin names that quality of forgetfulness that causes us to confuse the graceful vocation of imaging God for being God ourselves. This forgetfulness tells us that we can decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil. To this day, our world is gagging on the fruit of Eden.

When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, it was to remind humans of their vocation. Jesus came to us to give us the form of life required to live with the grain of the universe. He came to image God for humans so that humans in the forgetfulness that is sin might see what it means to live in the image and likeness of God. Being the church means being able to bear the gift of learning from Christ’s form of life how to live in God’s image. This is why it is written by Paul of us: For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Eph. 2.10 NRSV)

Elsewhere, Paul not only writes of this, he sings it:

The Son is the image of the invisible God,
        the one who is first over all creation,

Because all things were created by him:
        both in the heavens and on the earth,
        the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
            Whether they are thrones or powers,
            or rulers or authorities,
        all things were created through him and for him.

He existed before all things,
        and all things are held together in him.

He is the head of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
        the one who is firstborn from among the dead
        so that he might occupy the first place in everything.

Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
        and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
        whether things on earth or in the heavens.
            He brought peace through the blood of his cross. (Col. 1.15-20)

That Jesus “brought peace through the blood of his cross” is not a talisman we Christians carry with us to soothe our restless souls. Rather, it is the consequence of a life lived fully imaging God. This life is the life he preached in Matt. 5-7, commonly known to us as the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is not a compendium of bullet-point propositions. Rather, it is the Word become flesh become word again for our remembering. It is the life Jesus lived in God’s image that we might learn what life in God’s image looks like in the flesh. We are told in the Sermon, for instance, that when we are in conflict with a brother, we should seek to be reconciled to him rather than seeking to destroy him (Matt. 5.21-26). This is because that is what God does for us, something he reveals through Christ by inviting us to make peace through his cross. This is why Jesus admonishes that, Whoever doesn’t carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14.27 CEB). Because to follow Jesus means to live in the image of God in a world of people who believe that they are gods, knowing good and evil. To so live means that the cross is inevitable for those who follow Jesus, for false gods are prone to fits of violence when their claims to power are exposed.

It might seem odd to claim that those who “bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe,” since crosses are generally the destination of those who go against the grain. Isn’t a cross, in fact, a splinter you catch for going against the grain? The answer is given us when we are told that our sin has caused the universe to forget its vocation just as it did to us. Thus Paul writes:

The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. We were saved in hope. (Rom. 8.19-24)

It is for this reason Paul had written that God reconciled all things to himself through [Christ]—whether things on earth or in the heavens
(Col. 1.19). The universe needed its bearings restored just as surely as we do, because when we fell into the forgetfulness of sin, we took the world with us. We who bear crosses–who learn to live in God’s image by following Jesus–are working with the grain of the universe God made, not the grain of of the universe subjected to chaos on account of our sin. This is why Paul said, We were saved in hope (Rom. 8.29). God sent the Word that animates all life to us, to speak to us through his life what it means to live with the grain of the universe. He has left us to remind the world and the people in it of their true vocation. God has gifted the world with the church so that in the life of the church, the world might come to itself. Our bent universe can remember with what grain it was created when we work with that grain.

We are thus people who bear crosses, not because bearing crosses is a redemptive end in itself, but because bearing crosses is the only way there is to quit kicking against the goads.

This is what Jesus learned and taught us in his life. Thus another writer says of him, Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered (Heb. 5.8 CEB). He has taught us that living in God’s image means that we seek to be reconciled, rather than to destroy our enemies (Matt. 5.21-26). That it means repaying evil with good (Matt. 5.38-42) and loving our enemies (Matt. 5.43-48). These are the very things God was speaking to us through Christ’s Cross. Retaliation and hatred (or worse, indifference and benign neglect) are not in the grain of the universe God created. Self-giving, self-emptying love is what constitutes the very fabric of creation, and this is what we see in Christ, and most clearly in his Cross. Paul writes that God reveals his fundamental loving stance for us in the Cross: God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5.8 CEB). God was going with the grain of the universe. Christ learned, and taught us, that this will require suffering. Being the church requires that we image the self-giving, self emptying love God taught us through Christ’s Cross. This means also that being the church requires suffering.

Of course, we balk at suffering. This is because the forgetfulness of sin hides from us the truth that we are not gods who can decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil. We want to forget that we are not gods, but made in God’s likeness. Nothing reveals to us that we are not gods quite like suffering. Obedience is required of us because we don’t know any better than to throw holy things to dogs or pearls to swine (Matt. 7.6); we do not know what is good and what is evil. We learn what is good and what is evil only by obeying the Word that is Christ’s life, and this requires suffering.

Yet our suffering obedience is not a redemptive end of itself. Rather, it clears space for us to do what Wendell Berry describes as practicing resurrection. Being the church means being a people that practices resurrection. The shape of our lives, of our lives together, is determined by Christ’s life. If we share in Christ’s life, we share in his suffering and death. But we share also in his resurrection. The church is called not just to Cross-shaped living, but to Christ-shaped living, and this includes Resurrection. This truth is another one Paul had to give us, not only by writing it, but by singing it:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2.5 CEB)

who though he existed in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.
He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross!
As a result God highly exalted him (Phil. 2.6-9 NET Bible)

Jesus’ friend Peter and brother James also state this more succinctly: Therefore, humble yourselves under God’s power so that he may raise you up in the last day (1 Pet. 5.6). Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up (James 4.10). We humble ourselves in suffering obedience not as an afterthought to atonement, but because it reaffirms our life in God’s image. It reaffirms who we were created to be. It goes with the grain of the universe God made, and thereby makes room for resurrection. This is the pattern confirmed in Christ’s life. His suffering obedience made room for resurrection.

The problem for many of us is that we perceive resurrection to be an afterthought, an escape perhaps (“this world is not my home/ I’m just a-passing through”), or a consolation for having to suffer in this world (“I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop”). In truth, it is the logic by which God redeems the world. So Paul writes:

If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else. (1 Cor. 15.16-19 CEB)

If Christ is not raised then we are still in our sins and without any hope. This is not just a propositional claim. Rather, resurrection names our hope that God is able to mend what we have made useless, that he is able to make good what we have destroyed. This power lies not in ourselves. Our hope is that just as God raised Christ when we had utterly humiliated and destroyed him, he can do the same in our lives and for our world. This is why Paul writes elsewhere, If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? (Rom. 5.10 CEB) So the church must not only practice cross-bearing, but resurrection. Whenever we forgive the unforgivable (or even the commonplace and banal), whenever we embrace a stranger, whenever we feed a hungry belly, whenever we plant a garden, we are practicing resurrection. Whenever we, as my friend Brad Montague (or maybe it was Peggy Smith) so beautifully puts it, “conspire with God to do something beautiful,” we are practicing resurrection.

The grain of the universe and the shape of the church are both determined by this story: That the Word from God that animates all life came to live in the world he made, to teach us to live again in accord with our making. This Word is light in a world engulfed by a dark fog–the forgetfulness of sin. But as it is written: The light shines in the darkness,and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light (John 1.5 CEB). That word–the light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn’t extinguish it–is Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in one poetic line. And it is a word about the grain of the universe, that says the universe that God has made and is mending is made and mended by Cross and Resurrection. Being the church means being a people whose lives, and whose life together, is shaped by that story.

(1) John Howard Yoder, “Armaments and Eschatology,” Studies In Christian Ethics 1 (1988): 58.


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