Communion vs Alienation
Brad Jersak with David Goa
Whenever I speak with our friends in the Evangelical faith or from that background, there seems to be a much stronger (even compulsive) emphasis on afterlife affairs—heaven, hell, and who goes there—than is emphasized in the biblical and apostolic tradition. The question of knowing who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ (and how) in this life thus also holds great prominence in their minds. I understand that; these are my people. And it makes all the more sense to me when I consider those concerns as their framework for interpreting Scripture. But it is most definitely a framework, and not the only (or even best) biblical / gospel-driven perspective.
In my discussions with priests and scholars in my current faith community, I can say with confidence that their framework is assuredly biblical, theological, and most definitely gospel-centered. And yet their orientation to these questions comes out differently.
For instance, as I chat with my godfather, David Goa, he reads the Scripture as focused primarily on God’s ways in this life and this world, very much in the tradition of Jesus in John’s Gospel and epistles, where words such as perishing and eternal life speak to the here and now. Similarly, the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of darkness, death, and hell are present-tense concerns for the Synoptic Gospels and in the Pauline corpus.
In 21st century context, Goa describes these same realities of the human condition with the terms “communion” and “alienation.” And under these terms, the ethical backbone of the Law, prophets, and gospel come into far clearer focus for me. They are not merely addendums to grace or the currency for post-mortem destinies. Rather, communion and alienation relate directly to the way we navigate and experience human relationships and fulfill the command to love. David says,
Wherever there is communion, there is the kingdom or commonwealth of God, in this life. We know this. Alienation, abandonment, the curse … is wherever we see destruction in relationships in this life. This much we know.
This makes complete sense of John chapter 3 (Jesus and Nicodemus), where Jesus says (in vs. 16ff) that he’s not come to threaten the world with condemnation, but to address our current dilemma—that we’re already perishing. He’s come to walk us out of perishing into eternal life, which he defines, not as heaven when you die, but knowing God now. The question is not so much about where you go when you die as, “Is there life before death?”
Goa transposes that conversation into the contemporary world where people understand the gaping difference between deathly alienation (‘living hell’) versus life-giving communion (including a sense of belonging). What is disconcerting about this way of reading the New Testament is that if the heaven/hell problem are principally lived realities each day, then the in/out question is more complex and more simple than affirming correct doctrine to secure one’s entry ticket through the pearly gates.
The complexity appears in those texts where Jesus throws into question our presumptions about the end. Some will be surprised to hear, “Depart from me,” despite their “did we not ___ in your name?” Others will be surprised to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” despite their, “When did we feed/clothe/visit you?”
The simplicity appears in the presence of love, even across faiths and on the wrong side of the tracks. It makes sense of John’s insistence that “Anyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). Even if they don’t identify with Jesus? And his next sentence is not “but you need to become a Christian.” Rather, “anyone who does not love, does not know God”(1 John 4:8). Even if I do identify with Jesus? Goa replies,
The kingdom of God was written on hearts of human beings before the foundation of the world. We as human beings all experience this—every one of us has known at least a bit of communion, just as we all have some experience of alienation.
That is, Christ IS known, even incognito, even by the ‘holy pagan,’ through participation in love and communion, because it is was in the image of love (Christ crucified and risen) that ALL of us were created. Conversely, Christ is NOT known when we participate in alienation—whenever we turn from love and fail to serve Christ in the other (Matt. 25:45). This may be perplexing for two reasons:
First, what am I to make of loving pagans and unloving Christians? At one time, I would have said, “We are saved [for heaven], not by works, but by faith in Jesus.” But the Lord Jesus, his brother James, and John the Beloved all push back. What is faith in Jesus? Is it signing a doctrinal statement and sealing it with baptism and the words “Lord, Lord?” No. See Matthew 7:21-22. Rather, living faith (authentic faith) is authenticated by love (faith expressed in love – Gal. 5:6). In other words, love IS our confession of faith in Christ, possibly even for those who don’t yet know that they know him.
Second, this framework of the kingdom of God as communion throws into question my own previous means of assuring my salvation. I can no longer say, “I am in for all time because I prayed the right prayer on a particular date.” Doubtless, that was an important waypoint (it absolutely was for me), but the stubborn fact is that my turning to and turning from love seem to fluctuate. I’m frequently in and out of active communion (even though God is not). But then how can I be sure I’m okay? The problem rests in that mistaken question. The better question is, “Will I live in the grace of today? Or, Will l surrender myself to the care of God for this day?” Or, “Will I stay under the waterfall of mercy today?” I’m speaking here of my existential path, the way of my being, my actual life with God.
In that light, statements such as “choose you this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:14-15) or “now is that accepted time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2) are no longer urgent one-off altar calls, but the invitation to a daily practice of trust in the mercy of God. The invitation will be just as true again tomorrow. And the next day… Good thing there’s fresh mercy every day.
So, believers and ‘non-believers’ alike share genuine experiences of communion. But as David points out, “We Christians are delighted with our theology, our secondary reflection, our revelation about that experience.” And I truly am. I see a direct correlation in my real experience between communion with Christ and the eternal life of knowing God and opening my heart to love. As an evangelist, I encourage and facilitate those encounters with the alienated (Christian or not) whenever I’m able. We call this the gospel. My godfather puts it this way:
The Gospel is that God is love. Where there is that communion of love, you are in the kingdom.
That was Jesus’ message. That’s good news. And it makes a beautiful invitation, to myself as much as to anyone.
Earlier I cited David referring to the “commonwealth” of God as a synonym for the “kingdom of God.” I was drawn to his choice of words because, first of all, as a Canadian, I recognized the term “commonwealth” as a post-colonial international community with roots in what used to be the British Empire. Those nations that didn’t secede from Her Majesty’s empire via revolution discovered a path to autonomy within a network of political relations with ‘the Crown,’ but where Great Britain could no longer relate to us as a hegemony (defined by the accumulation of capital to centers of power), demanding taxes or stripping the colonies of their resources.
While the old empire and its colonizing history deserves its share of condemnation, I sensed that David’s use of the “commonwealth” as a synonym for “kingdom” (also a problematic term) might be helpful. I asked why he chose that term. He replied,
Because it emphasizes two aspects of the kingdom of Christ:
a. that a commonwealth is something given, it is gratuitous, and not something we created.
b. that a commonwealth speaks literally of our ‘shared riches.’
In both cases, commonwealth clarifies that the kingdom of God is not like a worldly hegemony. Sadly, whenever the church has fancied itself as God’s kingdom here on earth, it has tended to mirror capitalistic greed (figuratively and literally) rather than kenotic (self-giving) love. Indeed, the Jesus Way of being, giving, and serving, when applied to public faith, has long been mislabelled ‘socialist’ or ‘Marxist’ (as a pejorative) rather than understood as firmly rooted within the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition.
I will follow up on this point at some point with a reflective review of Howard Thurman’s classic work, Jesus and the Disinherited, but for now, for those unfamiliar with the term “commonweal,” I’d like to define it with respect to Jesus’ agenda for the kingdom of God in this world, where a life in communion with siblings, neighbors, and strangers is signified by the banqueting table of God:
Commonweal refers to the health, peace, and safety of an entire community or nation. That Christians in political power or serving as lobbyists would actually oppose such a goal, especially where it would lift up the least, lost, and the last of the oppressed and afflicted on the margins, is evidence of how far the religion called Christianity has strayed from the Christ of the Scriptures. In that sense, we can weigh Christianity as a movement on the scales of mercy AND justice, communion OR alienation, heaven OR hell, and ask ourselves, “What good news we might both bring and be? How might we preach the “commonwealth of heaven” as Jesus did? For now IS the accepted time. Now IS the day of salvation.