Some Thoughts on Radicalism: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 21 November 2010

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 21 November 2010 (26th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C)

Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Luke 1:68-79Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Psalm 46Colossians 1:11-20Luke 23:33-43

I’ve thought for some time that the conventional distinction between the “Magisterial Reformation” and the “Radical Reformation” could be more precise categorically.  After all, Luther’s very project was to articulate the root (Latin radix) of the gospel in terms of saving grace, and Calvin’s Institutes dedicates its entire third book to cutting the structure of Church back to its roots.  The designator “magisterial” makes some sense, since Lutheran and Calvinist traditions tend to be more cozy with the civil magistrates than do Anabaptists, but both seem, in historical terms, fairly radical moves within the history of the Church.

This week’s reading from Jeremiah leads me back to a question of Church-historiography that has troubled me for some years, namely the prophetic tradition of radical reform.  Jeremiah, of course, shares the image of the “bad shepherds” with a number of the prophets and with Jesus in the gospel of John, and the imagery has less to do with modern connotations of “pastor” (which tends to be a position without the authority of imperium) and more to do with the ancient imagery of the king as shepherd and the subjects as his sheep.  In Israel’s case, of course, because the monarchy can claim divine origins and mandate just as much as the priesthood, today’s oracle from Jeremiah frames the impending Babylonian invasion in terms also familiar to the prophets: God is using the Babylonian empire as a tool for extracting the bad shepherds, throwing them down by the might of Nebuchadnezzar (but always for the ends of YHWH), and when the remnant returns (this “remnant” passage is less famous than Isaiah’s), YHWH will raise up new shepherds, those who will be faithful to the roots of the mission of Israel.

The question, of course, is the extent to which such radical reforms are possible in the Christian era, and in our own time, the conventional modern connotation of “pastor” begins to make more sense.  Some traditions, notably the Catholic and Reformation streams, would hold that what appears to be radical reform is mere schism, the imposition of one’s generation’s ambition and whim upon the generations that came before.  Others hold as central the slogan semper reformanda.  And predictably, English teachers like myself can see the appeal of both sorts of claims.  If in fact the work of Christ is final, and if the gathering of Christ (which often goes by the word Church) does indeed stand undefeated by the gates of Hades, then one ought to be reluctant to point to large swaths of centuries and declare, “Not Church.”  On the other hand, if in fact the last five hundred years or so of Protestant happenings (not to mention the last thousand years, in which both Catholics and Orthodox have been on the earth), I tend to be reluctant to point to large swaths of centuries and declare, “Church here.  No Church there.”  And on a third hand still (that one’s for you, David), I don’t want to point to the German Christians of the 1930’s or the People’s Temple of Jim Jones and say “Church here.”

My solution, and I don’t claim that it’s without its problems, is to go with the call to radical reform as an always-present historical possibility, to hold that the noun ekklesia in the statement “The Church of Christ Jesus shall prevail over the gates of Hades” has the conceptual and lexical flexibility to name an ecumenical spectrum of phenomena, limited by the root content of Christian doctrine but to allow the possibility of genuine and meaningful difference within those confines.  Such would neither negate the possibility of genuine heresy or schism nor hold that there can be only one form of Christian community that stands as Church but subject all of Christian history to the rigorous theological examination that the term Church History entails.

When Paul sets forth the grand Christ-hymn in the opening of Colossians, he does so not simply for atomized individual piety, and certainly not in the name of “art for art’s sake,” but in order to remind a community that its constitution is in the person of Christ, one who beckons for all to follow.  May our gatherings of followers show both the grace and the shrewdness of the One whom we follow.

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