Thursday, 28 August 2008

Study Notes For Rowan Williams, 'Tokens of Trust' Chapter 3


R. Williams, Tokens of Trust, Chapter 3 notes.

“What is seen in Jesus is what God is; what God is is the outpouring and returning of selfless love, which is the very essence of God’s definition, in so far as we can ever speak of a ‘definition’ of the mystery. The phrase in the Creed, ‘being of one substance with the Father’ or ‘of one being with the Father’ can sound a bit chilly and technical … Yet it ought to be one of the most exciting words in our vocabulary…” (71)

This chapter is a brilliant attempt to fill out the claim that Jesus is both human and divine by using all kinds of images, and by contrasting what the ancient Creeds say with what they are not saying. Extraordinary claims were made by his disciples very early on. These claims led inexorably to what we know as the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation. In the totality of his life, we see in Jesus a movement within God, between Father and Jesus, which is expressing what is the case always in God. And this human life is God’s life without impediment, being God’s face directed to us, but also a human response to God, prefiguring our ultimate response to the Father as individuals, a human race and a cosmos. How is it that such extraordinary claims were made of Jesus, and from the earliest strata of the tradition? It is so un-Jewish!

Williams begins with Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God, which he understood to mean living under God’s presence and rule and no one else’s. But this kingdom was personalized in Jesus, for acceptance of this kingdom coincided with saying ‘yes’ to what Jesus was saying, trusting in Jesus and what he was saying to God and humankind. Jesus did not just make this kingdom visible (but he did do this) but made it possible. This citizenship through Jesus in God’s kingdom is about our freedom from all (natural and supernatural) powers that demand our allegiance, especially when this allegiance is contrary to God’s kingdom. Such a proclamation and person had (and still does) obvious political and social import, although it cannot be captured by social action alone.

This proclamation of the kingdom was, in fact, talking about being part of God’s people, and this was the central point of debate and conflict in the Jewish world of Jesus. The many Jewish sub-groups had their own particular ideas about who was in and who out. Jesus’ claims about himself found no easy home among these groups.

Remember that the Jews understood membership in the people of God to be dependent on God’s invitation. Jesus was making an implicit claim cutting across the assumption of the day. And he seemed to be suggesting that those everyone agreed were not included in God’s people, and were never likely to be able to meet the requirements of entry, were actually received into membership by believing in Jesus! (60) And this membership meant a new relationship with God and the grace of relating to God as Jesus did. (‘Our Father in heaven…’) without the complexities and intermediaries of the different Jewish systems.

There is remarkably little about Jesus as just a teacher in the NT, even in the early tradition when you would expect it. This is easily explained if we remember that Jesus is remembered not for what he taught alone, but for what he did. In and through him a new community was formed that claimed a new intimacy with God, and this led to questions about his authority to do this. The answer was not an angelic intermediary (hence the denial of this in Hebrews 1) but that there is simply no gap between Jesus and God. (62)

“Awkwardly and slowly and with much complication and even apparent contradiction, the New Testament moves towards the extraordinary notion that the Creator of the universe is at work without interruption in the life and work of Jesus – that it is God who is doing what Jesus is doing.” (62-63)

And given this extraordinary experience and claim, it is no wonder that his followers went out into the word around to preach him and his kingdom, no matter what ‘nationality’ or language the listeners were.

“They saw Jesus as a ‘man for all seasons’, a man for all climates and languages, capable of transforming any human situation by his presence. And when you put it like that, you can see how this echoes what is said about God’s all-powerful nature, capable of transforming any situation.” (65)

But notice how the Scriptures show a Jesus, he in whom God’s action is present without impediment, who is also humble and dependent on God, not just a powerful wonderworker. Jesus receives from God, and reflects back to God. Here is the beginning of the doctrine of the Trinity! God is more than a solitary individual, but a movement of love between Father and Son. (66) But in this movement back to the Father Jesus embodies a perfect human response to God, foreshadowing our own complete response forever. This Trinitarian formulation sets Christianity apart from every other philosophy and religion. (Except those religions and philosophies that, although thoroughly saturated with our language, have claimed it for themselves.)

Williams suggests that a concerto performance is a good way of thinking of the Incarnation. The composer brings to life this music, pouring all that they are into it, yet it is the musician who is playing entirely. As Williams says, it would not be good for the musician to suddenly stop and say “Let me tell you how I feel about this.” (75) The composer and the musician coincide in the performance of the concerto. Here is the link to Jacqueline du Pre’s performance Williams cites as an example of God and humanity at work in Jesus:; “Two ‘sorts’ of life, but in practice lived in one flow of action.” (75)

And don’t miss the final section (pp. 76-77) on Mary.

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