“For us Christians, Saints and the supernatural are the things that make history…and it is all the rest that we should be inclined to regard as legendary.” Charles Peguy
The life of Jesus Christ as the ‘true human’ represents a life of perfect freedom. The radical freedom of Christ is not the consumerist, sexualized, autonomous freedom that we value; on the contrary, it is a life that is free to love the other. Rather than being constrained, conditioned, boxed in by the lies of the Powers, the life of Christ is able to step outside this matrix of the kingdoms of this world. As we see in the gospel stories, the life of the God-man is the presence of the Kingdom, bringing liberation and new life to a subjugated humanity. In his integrity to be-who-he-will-be (Ex. 3:14), Christ, the God for us, in the abundance of his freedom, makes the Kingdom present, and draws his followers into this freedom. Christ proclaims of himself: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (Jn. 14:6) The path he calls his followers on is the path of liberation, it is the way that is firm and true. Amidst the vicissitudes of time, in a world that struggles for finite resources, the disciple is able to find the life of the Kingdom.
The free life of Christ brought him, “as any genuinely human existence will bring anyone, to the cross.”(Yoder, 145) The cross represents the inevitable clash between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God; the way of life and the way of death; the truth of God and the lies of the powers. Here we come to the striking account of the exchange between Christ and Pilate as recounted in the gospel of John. Christ famously tells Pilate that, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” (Jn. 18:36) He does not, as is often supposed, mean by this that his is an ethereal, otherworldly Kingdom which is content to leave Caesar with his own sphere. Rather, as the other half of his statement makes clear—“if my Kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.”(Jn. 18:36)—he means that his Kingdom is not caught up in the logic of the world: “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” Christ’s Kingdom rises above this and introduces a new logic of forgiveness. Those caught up into the Kingdom of God do not “belong to this world, but [are] free from the fatality of the world that is moving towards death, and, as a result of this liberation by grace, can fight against the spiritual realities of this world.” (Ellul, 8) Christ has come into this world, under the domain and bondage of the Powers and their untruth in order to be, speak, and manifest the truth of another order: “for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (Jn.18:37) Pilate, as the mouthpiece of the false, tyrannical order of this world, voices the nihilistic question: “what is truth”? (Jn. 18:38)
The answer to this question—what is truth?—is given in the Resurrection. In the bursting forth from the tomb, breaking through the finality of death, Christ’s Kingdom of peace is established as the only sure ground, as the Truth. The authority, legitimacy, judgement, and ‘truth’ of the world, the “I have written what I have written” of Pilate, all this is undermined, exposed, and rendered futile. The greatest weapon of the empire—the power of death—is shown to be illusory. God has broken through the final ‘No!’ and with his great ‘Yes!’ has opened up a path for those who walk the true way of love. The lies, threats and inevitable trajectories of the powers are revealed and overcome for those who want to be free of their illusions. “Previously they were accepted as the most basic and ultimate realities, as the ‘gods of the world’, but in the light of Resurrection morning, they are exposed for what they are.” (Yoder, 146)
As Kierkegaard noted, there is a hiddenness to the incarnation: “The infinite, eternal God is standing before you now with greasy hair and a bit of fish in his beard, bidding you who are weary to come to him and he will give you rest.” (Backhouse) He does not come with unanswerable proofs, impeachable authority or anything the world values. Instead, with his strange way he comes inconspicuously: “And when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.” (Is. 53:2) Likewise, there is also a hiddenness to the Resurrection. It is interesting to note that the resurrected Christ does not come before Pilate or Caiaphas to gloat about his victory—indeed, they deny his message and tell an alternative history about what has occurred—but he only shows himself to that hapless band of followers that have, in faith, gathered around his message. The Resurrection represents the inauguration of a new age, a new order, in the midst of the old. Those who are deeply invested in the old age, the custodians of the old order, they cannot see, nor accept what has occurred. To accept the Resurrection as the Truth, would mean the dissolution of their truth; to acknowledge Christ as the way, would annul their ways of power and violence; to accept the new life of the Kingdom, would mean death to the old order. Thus, for those who are content in the old aeon, the Truth of Christ and the Resurrection is foolishness, but for those caught in the net of the Kingdom, it is the secret wisdom of God:
“Yet among the mature we do not speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers who are doomed to perish. But we speak of God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.” (1 Cor. 6-8)
The Church then, as the eschatological community born of the Resurrection, stands amidst the history of this age, testifying to a Truth that the world cannot comprehend. While those who continue to be enraptured by the common sense of the powerful tell a history of the rise and fall of empires; the Church, in its fleeting and fallen way, tells the different history of the Resurrection in the hidden lives of the Saints.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples observe a rich man who goes to the temple and deposits a large bag of gold coins into the temple treasury. Closely behind him, comes a destitute widow who deposits a single copper coin. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus remarks, “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.” The Kingdom of God is not made up of great armies or heaps of gold; It is made up of small gestures, gazes of recognition, humble generosity, genuine presence, strange friendships, and the wonderful way of peace. In the light of the final judgement, the real movers and shakers of history are not Mussolini or Putin; but instead, the ‘foolish of this age’: the disabled, the poor in spirit, the meek, the nameless ones without a face. The meaning of history is found in those hidden lives who live in the freedom of eternity and make up the hidden body of Christ in time. This hidden history of the presence of the kingdom amongst God’s people is “the one story that is perfectly true… the one that one that we must learn to see, hidden within every epoch of the world.” (Hart, 244)
The beatitudes point to two kinds of people for whom the Kingdom becomes present. There are the moral ‘heroes’—those who suffer on account of righteousness, the peacemakers, the pure in heart—who enter into the Kingdom by force. Then there are those who have fallen through the cracks, those who have nothing left to lose—the poor, the sorrowful, the hungry and thirsty—to these, the Kingdom of God is near. Thrown out of the kingdoms of this world, excluded by the economy of judgement; they find that strange freedom that glides through the bars of prison doors and sings the sweet tune of eternity. “Where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor. 3:17)
Part of the liberation that the Christian life entails, is to have our perception of reality cleansed. As Paul says, “do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2) Rather than seeing the world through the gaze of mammon, through the lenses of status and power; we learn to see Christ in a thousand places: “What you do to the least of these, you do to Christ.” (Mat. 25:40) This renewed gaze is able to see and participate in the real meaning of history. In seeing Christ in the face of the other, we glimpse the Kingdom of God at work in this world, and by this gaze of Truth, we plant the seeds of the Kingdom. As Christ showed the disciples of Emmaus through the broken bread, the secret of our broken history is revealed in Christ’s broken body. For those with the eyes to see, the Resurrection’s subterranean history continues its assault on our fallen time. Christ, hidden in the broken bodies of the refuse of history, continues to be present where we do not bother to look. Thus, through the eyes of faith, we are able to glimpse a small, quiet undercurrent amidst the turmoil and violence of history:
“The Christian narrative should be a constant and subversive counter-narrative, a ceaseless interruption and riposte. To know how to tell it, and to frame it theologically, is like learning to discern a picture cunningly concealed within another picture, a puzzle or hidden pattern, the true history of the Kingdom, which none can see except those who know to look for it. And, when it is told aright, God is there as well, among his people the poor; Christ is there, always risen and present, passing through the ages in the company of the forgotten and outcast.” (Hart, 244)
A history of Christianity then, will not be the triumphant history of Christendom. The story of Constantine and Chamberlain, the great victory over the Turks, the expansion of the Christian empire and the glorious rise of the Church-State: all this is a history of paganism. It is a history of surface-level common sense, power and glory, but it is not the history of the cross, the Resurrection or the Kingdom of God. It is the exchange of Christ’s “I am the way, the truth and the life” for Pilate’s “what is truth?” and thus, they exchanged the Truth of God for a lie and became futile in their thinking. (Rom. 1) In Christendom, the eschatological witness of the first Christians, gives way to Christianity as just another movement in history, just another institution, just another thing of finitude fighting over limited resources:
When Christianity’s initial moment of apocalyptic liberty from the affairs of nation and empire faded, and the church entered fully into worldly history again, its historical consciousness was subdued. Its memory was no longer obsessively preoccupied with that impossible invasion of time by eternity but began to become instead just another institutional and cultural repository of nostalgia, triumphalism, lamentation, resentment, and fantasy. Its history became, once again, the history of the great, of kingdoms and empires, of a church little distinguishable in structure and governance from kingdoms and empires, of tribes and peoples, of traditions somehow always already betrayed and in need of revival, or of offences against the faith never entirely forgiven. And it also became again the narrative of the mighty, of those whose names endure because they had the power to move nations and kill enemies and destroy heretics. (Hart, 242)
The fatal mistake of much of Christian thinking about history is to assume that the growth of the Kingdom is recognizable, measurable, and quantifiable. Many of these triumphalist narratives end up measuring the Kingdom of God according to the metrics of the world. The ‘metrics’ of the Kingdom are very different. The hidden work of the Kingdom in history is likened by Christ to yeast that grows in the dough, a small seed that grows into a large tree, fish caught in a net, wheat that grows alongside weeds. The assumption underneath all of these parables is that the growth of the Kingdom is hidden (yeast in dough), that the meaning of history is only decisively revealed at the end (wheat/tares, fish in net) but also that there is in some sense a growth, ‘progress’, or unfolding: The yeast makes the dough expand, the net fills up with fish, the seed grows into a tree, the wheat and the tares grow up together. The ‘seed’/yeast/net/ of the Resurrection/Kingdom of God planted in the earth/sea/bread of history is what gives history its meaning. Without the Resurrection, time is merely a cyclical repetition—death/decay, rise/fall, success/failure—but now, time carries the seeds of its own redemption. The vocation of those who work for the Kingdom is to be the ‘light’ and ‘salt’ in the world. Rather than giving into the decay of this aeon, the task is to preserve and to live in the light of the Resurrection. (Ellul) Every gesture, gaze and act that lives in the freedom of eternity, is already a work of new creation. We do not labour in vain, but we labour with the birth pangs of new creation. And we groan and travail, looking forward to the day when all falsehood and injustice will be burned away, and the everlasting Truth will be made manifest:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. (2 Cor. 3:11-15)
The featured image is called The Road to Emmaus by Michael Torevell