Cities and Christ’s Mission with Jacques Ellul

milwaukee-skyline-2016-1492622665How are we to understand the tension within the Christian Scriptures related to cities?The Hebrew prophets are often critical of cities and many of the destructive promises within the Scripture are aimed at cities, not just groups of people. At the same time, we cannot escape the moving words of the prophet Jeremiah calling God’s exiled people to seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29) or the call of Jesus to his disciples to go to the cities to proclaim the gospel message (Luke 10).

Jacques Ellul addresses this tension in his book The Meaning of the City. Here is an excerpt from the end of chapter two, “Thunder Over the City.”

When we understand what the city represents, we understand better both the order Jesus gave his disciples to go into the cities, and this other curious reference to the city as the center of crisis: “Go to the cities . . . . Shake the dust from your feet against the cities . . . when you are persecuted in one city . . . .” It is in and because of the city that the critical point of preaching is reached. There are of course many valid critical explanations of these texts, but they are not exhaustive. To me it does not seem sufficient to limit Christ’s words to the twelve (or to the seventy in Luke) and to speak of a temporary and exceptional mission of the apostles….

The message of the cross must be carried to the center of man’s autonomy. It must be established where man is most clearly a wild beast. Its goal is less the total umber of men, than the entity man. Christ’s sending his disciples out into the cities of Israel is their most dangerous mission, for it is directed against the heart of the world’s power and betrayal….

It is only by seeing in these texts a shaft aimed at the city that we can bring the various meanings back to one. For undeniably Jesus was here showing what would be the Christian’s attitude and position concerning the city and his work there. It is not for nothing that Christ’s unsettled status is mentioned (“The Son of man has no place to lay his head”), and that immediately afterwards he sends his disciples into the place of man’s stubborn establishment (Luke 9:57 and 10:16). It is not for nothing that he asked his disciples to go through the cities of Israel, fleeing from one to another, putting each one of them in a position of choosing, in a position of responsibility (Matt. 10:23). It is not for nothing that he showed that the departure of the disciple was most serious, that their departure, by shaking the dust from their sandals, was decisive in the order of condemnation (Matt. 10:14-15). In fact, all that we found in the Old Testament texts is here in résumé. The situation of the people of God in Babylon is the exact situation of the disciples in the city. This dialectic between staying and leaving, preserving and judging, is centered in the preaching of the Gospel of the kingdom. The entire doctrine which we have so far discovered and received is illuminated by these few brilliant words from Christ’s lips. Nothing has been changed, but what was announced is being fulfilled. What was described is being lived. And from this vantage point one can look back and understand the rest.

The disciples’ mission is outside the country, in the cities where God’s people, Israel, may be found living, in those cities where these people have entered into slavery, where they have shut themselves up in refusal and disobedience, where they have betrayed their vocation. God’s Israel has now become the church. Around her, the same battle is raging. She is bogged down in the same mud and must take up the same work, a work never finished because the city is the city. Go through all the cities of Israel, comes the command, brining judgment and forgiveness. Your work will not be done until the Son of Man returns. Even Nineveh converted is still Nineveh, and you, as ever in danger in her midst, can expect nothing other than the Lord’s lot (Matt. 10:24) – expulsion from the city.

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Mercy

As we continued our journey with the Psalms of Ascent, “Ascend,” this past weekend at Eastbrook, I opened up Psalm 130 for us. I explored the mercy of God as part of our spiritual journey with God in terms of prayer, forgiveness, waiting, and hope. In the midst of that I brought in the story of Jonah, illuminating parallel verses in Ephesians and Jude, an excerpt from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, and a reflection on the life of Viktor Frankl.

You can watch the message and follow along with the sermon outline below. You can access the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast. We also have a reading plan for this series, which you can participate with here.

 

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Listen . . . Prepare . . . Wait

This coming weekend begins the season of Advent. Advent is a preparatory season of four weeks leading up to Christmas. It is a chance for us to wait in anticipation for the coming of Christ, both as a baby at Christmas and as the victorious king at His second coming. The term ‘advent’ derives from the Latin word adventus, which means arrival.

As a child, my family took the season of Advent seriously. Each evening, we would gather around an advent wreath to sing songs and read a brief devotional about preparation. Although I was more excited about lighting or snuffing the candles than the substance of the time, the way we stepped outside of our normal hurried lives to focus on Jesus’ coming made an impact on me.

This weekend, our family worked on decorating for Christmas. It’s always interesting to unpack the boxes of decorations and supplies that you only see once a year. “I forgot about this one!”, one of our kids said as they held a memorable ornament in their hands. Another of our boys laughed at a particularly interesting crèche set we have from another country. The anticipation is growing.Read More »

The Pilgrim Way

pilgrim way.jpgAn old spiritual offers the following description of our life as Christians:

I am a pilgrim and a stranger, traveling through this wearisome land,
I’ve got a home in that yonder city, good Lord, and it’s not…not made by hand.

An overused theme of life is that it is a journey. The reason this idea is overused, even cliché, is that it is true. We are, as the Apostle Peter writes: “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). Day after day, year after year, we are moving along the way of our lives until we reach some sort of destination. Of course, many of us have different sense of the destination, but the author of the letter to the Hebrews says that people of faith “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth….seeking a homeland….they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13-16).

This has been a returning theme of our series, Ascend: A Study of the Psalms of Ascent.  In particular, the first weekend, “Peace,” I made reference to the concept of pilgrimage, around which the grouping of the psalms of Ascent is structured as a response to God’s call to His people in Deuteronomy 16:16-17:

Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed.  Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you.

Pilgrimage is something woven throughout the faith life of the Hebrew people. It is something Jesus Himself participated in with his family and neighbors, traveling to Jerusalem at least twice in his early life that are recorded in Scripture (Luke 2:22-38, 41-51), but likely more often than that.

Yet, pilgrimage is a concept that is foreign to most of us in North America. While we give a lot of attention to vacations, the idea of taking a religious journey is not something we think of too often. However, the concept of pilgrimage is not only current within other faith traditions, but woven into the history of Christianity as well. The Camino do Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, a well-worn pilgrimage route through Europe has become an increasingly well-known in North America, perhaps in part due to the movie “The Way” featuring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.

In his book, The Way is Made by WalkingArthur Paul Boers relates his own journey on the Camino, offering insights about how this physical pilgrimage taught him about the spiritual pilgrimage of our life with God in Christ. Here is an excerpt that gives the feel of why we need to recovery pilgrimage as a guiding metaphor for our spiritual lives:

Pilgrimage in its truest sense is religiously motivated travel for the purpose of meeting and experiencing God with hopes of being shaped and changed by that encounter. Pilgrimages are often concretely physical – journeying to a particular place, perhaps with some extraordinary expense and exertion – and spiritual – one hopes to meet God in this travel.

An irony – indeed a danger – of pilgrimage is that we try to settle in a final destination, considering only that particular place holy and forgetting the call to be faithfully on the move for God. Think of Peter wanting to remain on the mountain where he, John and James (Santiago) experienced the transfiguration: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” His suggestion is dismissed: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mark 9:5-6). Christian pilgrimage always calls us to further growth. As Origen wrote: “Travelers on the road to God’s wisdom find that the further they go, the more the road opens out, until it stretches to infinity.”

Pilgrimage sites are not merely an end in themselves. They are not strictly speaking even necessary. They richly symbolize the fact that our lives are to be a journey with and to God. Even if not all of us can afford or are able to go to famous places for prayer, every time we venture to church for worship we make a small pilgrimage to deepen our faithfulness. The Greek word paroikia means “sojourn” and is “also the root of English word ‘parish’, meaning a congregation of pilgrims.”

I love that phrase at the beginning of the last paragraph: “our lives are to be a journey with and to God.” So, wherever we are today, let’s lift our legs for one more step, lift our hearts to our God, and fix our eyes on the eternal kingdom, which is just around the next bend in the road.