Yoder, Darwin, and Machiavelli

This is interesting (to me at least). Darwin, Machiavelli, and Yoder all seem to be highlighting the same thing here (which must be some kind of miracle, right?). “Same thing” is probably overstating it quite a bit, but read these passages and see if you see the common thread that I do. I would love to get some comments on this.

“A tribe including many members who, from possessing in high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” Charles Darwin The Descent of Man, 1871

“Machiavelli praises Florentine patriots who dared to defy the Pope, showing thus ‘how much higher they placed their city than their souls.’ He then applies the same expression to himself at the end of his life, writing to his friend Vettori: ‘I love my native city more than my own soul.’ The expression was no cliché but meant literally that one was prepared to forfeit an everlasting life or to risk the punishments of hell for the sake of one’s city. The question, as Machiavelli saw it, was not whether one loved God more than the world, but whether one was capable of loving the world more than one’s own self. Most of Machiavelli’s arguments against religion are directed against those who love themselves, namely their own salvation, more than the world; they are not directed against those who really love God more than they love either the world or themselves.” Hannah Arendt On Revolution, 1963

“Our experience has taught us to assume that the assent of others, or at least their respect, or at least our submitting to their mode of validation, is a precondition to our own right to hold to what we believe. Physical claims must be validated by the experimental method, historical claims by documents, matters of high culture by the experts and of popular culture by the media marketplace. This notion of possible universal validation by common consent is the legacy of a time when either ethnic and linguistic homogeneity or the dominance of a specific elite made it possible to go on thinking that ’can we expect everyone to agree?’ is a normal way to phrase the truth question.

From the fact that in these ways the believing community distinguishes between the values which guide discipleship and those which may find effective implementation in the civil community it does not by any means follow that believers are unconcerned from the civil realm, that they have nothing to say to it or that they withdraw from it.

By definition, the members of a community thinking in ’apocalyptic’ terms do not thus count on everyone’s agreement. They have accepted their minority status and their powerlessness not only as facts but as their epistemological condition. They are unembarrassed by the fact that the ideas they hold would not convince others, for whom Christ is not sitting at the Right Hand. A remaining segment of our task in interpreting the apocalyptic mode is then to ask how ’validation’ must look when ’the consensus of all reasonable people’ may not be appealed to. Why did the first hearers or readers of the messages of Ezekiel or Daniel listen?

Why did the first readers of John’s apocalypse respect it? Because it resonated, in a literary genre different from the other apostolic writings but in an an old and familiar vocabulary, with the identity commitments which the early messianic synagogues were already most sure about. It resonated with their Jewish monotheism confessing only one ultimate mover of history; with their messianic trust that the way of the cross had ultimately to be the way for the world; and with their pentecostal conviction that the meaning of the Father and the Son would continue to be actualized in their own worship and mission. What accredits a prophetic word is not its demonstrable control of events but its coherence with the already known story.

The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the swords are not as strong as they think – true as that is: we still sing, ’O where are Kings and Empires now of old that went and came?’ It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe. One does not come to that belief by reducing social process to mechanical and statistical models, nor by winning s o m e of one’s battles for the control of one’s own corner of the fallen world. One comes to it by sharing the life of those who sing about the Resurrection of the slain Lamb.” John Howard Yoder, “Armaments and Eschatology,” Studies in Christian Ethics, 1988.

Upon this rock

I preached my first sermon as pastor of the Wake Forest Vineyard this past Sunday (podcast of it is here) and my text was the statement Jesus made in Matt. 16.18: “Upon this rock I will build my church.” (Most modern translations use “on” but for some reason I like “upon” – sounds more, I don’t know, more solid somehow.)

I made a couple of obvious points and one less obvious. First, the obvious:

1. I will build my… Jesus is the center of focus here, as both the subject of the verb and possessor of the object. What happens here is Jesus builds and what Jesus builds, Jesus owns.

2. I will build… Growth and development are essential to the life of church. The activity Jesus engages in is building, developing, progressing. We can (of course) get too fixated on numbers, but it seems almost self-evident that if a church is not growing, then Jesus is not building, i.e., something has gone wrong with the foundation upon which Jesus builds. I take growth/building to mean both numerical growth and growth in spiritual maturity (with neither being exclusively possible if what we have is the church Jesus is building). Also, not only is growth essential, it is guaranteed. When the foundation is there, Jesus will build.

This brings us to the less than obvious point: what in the world does “upon this rock” mean – what is the foundation on which Jesus builds? The interpretation that first became widespread was that the rock was the person of Peter, and then later his direct successors, the bishops of Rome, who became the popes. Here is an overview of the Roman Catholic argument for the primacy of Peter and here is a scriptural defense of that position. Of course, the Protestant Reformation rejected this interpretation and understood the rock to be the truth Peter uttered (“You are the Christ”), the foundation being doctrine itself, instead of the person. Here is a pretty standard expression of that position.

What I am suggesting is that both of these positions have merit, that both Peter and the content of his confession are essential to laying the foundation that Jesus builds on. Taken alone, each side misses something important, and even taken together, they do not capture the whole picture. The rock that Jesus builds on is nothing less than this entire revelation-obedience event. The Father reveals to Peter that Jesus is the Christ, Peter internalizes what is revealed, and then acts in obedience to confess what the Father told him. Revelation is essential, Peter is essential, the content and its focus on Christ are essential – the entire thing is the foundation upon which Jesus builds.

This is not limited to Peter. The revelation-obedience event recurs again and again. Paul on the Damascus Road, Cornelius sending for Peter, you nudged in the grocery line to pray for the person in front of you – over and over the followers of Jesus receive bits of revelation from the Father (through the Spirit). And those bits of revelation always come with a requirement, some form of obedience, something you have to do with the bit you get. It might be as small as changing how you think about something (small but hard), or it might be something that really puts you out there (like Peter did here), but revelation always comes with an anticipated act of obedience.

Two more things (I didn’t get to these in the sermon as much as I wanted): those acts always point to Jesus being the Messiah, the Christ, the one who comes in power and they will usually be hard or at least feel hard at the time. Peter could have been stoned to death for saying what he did. We know the whole story so well, we lose sight of how risky that moment was for Peter (none of the other eleven said anything). It will cost you something to obey. It will be totally worth it (when Jesus builds on your foundation!) but it will cost you something.

So, I know this sounds very Vineyardish and is a nice application of the radical middle approach and all, but the claim I am making here is a tad bigger. I think this is the foundation upon which the individual Christian life is built and on which the church is built. To the extent that we build on something other than widespread and ongoing revelation-obedience events, we are building something other than Jesus’ church. Only Jesus can build his church and he only builds on this foundation.

Love to read your thoughts on this.