Friday, August 11, 2006

The end of grace I

The end is a free gift for humanityPrologue: from garden to garden city
The Bible ends with a vision of a city: a glorious picture of human relationships and interdependence, of action and rest, of productive peace between difference, of 'healing for the nations'. A huge city filled with life. This is not a city that relies upon exploiting the surrounding countryside, pushing the land to produce more than it is able to sustain: this city exports life-giving fruit twelve months a year. This is not a city that needs to huddle together for fear of the extremes of nature, nor one threatened by invasion. It is not fractured with internal division, nor oppressed by monotonal uniformity.

Is this the original utopia? No, because this end is 'of grace' - not that grace comes to an end, but that this end is the result of God's free gift. Just as Jesus was 'of Nazareth' and Saul was 'of Tarsus', so this end is 'of grace'. This city is not built with human hands, is not a realised utopian vision of human progress. It comes down from heaven, signifying the divine origin of its establishment and the source of its life.

There is another famous city at the other end of the Bible: Babel. In it human hubris reaches for the heights. Its skyscraping was not for maximising office space, but for forging a link between earth and the heavens from the human side upwards. Ever since, urban development has been an ambivalent achievement: drawing people together, increasing possibilities, maximising human creative and productive potential; yet also dislocating communities, atomising individuals, disintegrating ecosystems. The cities of the world are at once humanity's greatest achievements and our most painful failures.

John's vision of the end is all about grace. It is achieved not by human effort but is a gift from the riches of divine love. It does not come with the achievements of the powerful, nor will it be hindered by the failures of the weak. It is an environment for humans, and for a large and complex human society. For it is the fulfilment of the central thread and hope of the biblical narrative: the divine promise 'I will be with you.' The city is a picture of the final result of God's action: not that we depart to live with him, but that he comes to dwell with us, in our kind of space, though one that he himself has supplied.

This is the start of the end of grace. There is more to come...
Ten points for picking the location from which this pic was taken.
Series: I; II; III; IV.

22 comments:

Cyberpastor said...

The goal of grace then?

Puts a completely different spin on the "ends justify the means" ethic of most goal orientated programmes.

byron said...

I guess I'm playing around with different meanings of 'end' as well as different ways 'of' can function. By referring to 'the end of grace' in this post, I wanted to highlight the fact that the end is entirely dependent upon grace, it is 'the end that comes from grace': technically, a genitive of origin.

There will be more to say about this gracious end. Because not only is grace its origin, but grace continues to be the mode of operation for existence in this 'end' (which is actually a new beginning).

byron said...

Or: which is actually a new beginning. And also especially here.

matheson said...

It occurs to me Byron, that these posts of yours are about informing our 'hope' - engaging our imagination towards the future. And this can only help reorient us to the present in our discipleship, as does all exposition of the gospel of Christ (in its past, present and future). But, of course, even our hoping is itself a gift of grace... God's gracious work from start to finish.

Please continue posting!

byron said...

Great thought Matt - I'm intended this to become a short series on grace and eschatology and had been thinking about the links back to the present for a final post: I think you've just articulated some! Thanks, I'll use that in a few days.

To telegraph my present plans, I will then move on to another, slightly longer series on heaven before a summarising little series on the Christian hope itself (which may then serve as nucleus for range of spin-offs). I'm afraid I haven't got a clear 21-point plan like Ben yet thought.

Cyberpastor said...

Here's another thought. Whatever you do, make sure Grace remains an adjective and not a substantive. The Western Church has been dogged since Augustine with a view of grace that makes it a substance that we receive rather than a description of the actions of a person!

Liquidoxology said...

So, do you imply to argue that the scientific worldview reflects the City of Babel?

Enjoying your blog!

Mark said...

I'd be curious too on your understanding of the relationship of hope to time. Is Christian hope only forward looking, ie. toward the end? Or is it rooted in the past (in Christ) and experienced in the present (in the Spirit) as well?

byron said...

Mark, hope is (by definition) forward-looking, even if it arises from faith-filled relationship to God's past actions in Christ. And of course, it can only be exercised in the present by the power of the Spirit. The very fact that Christian hope exists is itself a taste of the future, and in that sense, the Spirit does indeed make hope present for us now. But this is a taste of what is come, and is also nothing else than the future of the past! If I can confuse things any more, let me know. What I mean is that the gospel events of the first century themselves projected a future: things weren't over when Christ rose from the dead, but if one is raised, then the resurrection has begun and these firstfruits will not lack a harvest. Thus, the first century events create an expectation, a hope, that continues today through the action of the Spirit in giving us a taste of the very future that the first Christians also hoped for.

byron said...

Liquidoxology: no, not specifically with the scientific worldview. The ambivalence of cities is an ancient as well as modern phenomenon. Technology (esp massive increases in the ability to transport large amounts of food (and to a lesser extent, the ability to freeze food)) merely enabled the multiplication of urban areas to sizes previously beyond imagination. This has not only multiplied the potential for creativity and destruction previously possible, but has added some new factors. Perhaps most notably, the power to significantly impact upon the various systems that sustain the biosphere. Thus, whereas for Cain (the first city-builder), urban living was a form of safety (at least on one reading that equates his city-activities with the 'mark'), for us, urban humanity can bring a threat to our continued existence. Of this threat, more needs to be said theologically...

byron said...

David: yes, good point about grace remaining adjectival. I will endeavour to explain it to make this clear, though I admit my title didn't help.

andrewE said...

Great post Byron.

As you noted in passing, we can go even further back than Babel to Cain's city, almost at the very beginning of the Bible: a mix of good human achievement (the first musicians and artisans are Cain's descendants, Gen. 1:21-22) and sexual corruption and violence (Lamech). You're right about our cities - they're still the home of both Lamech and the lyre!

Mark said...

Thanks Byron for the comment on time + hope. Sorry that was a general thought and not really attached to your particular post. But I've just started reading CFD Moule who looks at the "Meaning of Hope" in its past, present and future tenses and so was interested in your opinion.

In terms of your specific post, it's interesting that when John envisions The New Jerusalem in Revelation, Babylon is always in the background (cf. Rev 17,18), ie. you don't have to go back to Gen 11 to see the counterpart to the heavenly city. Indeed Babylon and Jerusalem are in a dialectical relationship throughout the entire Bible as symbols of both despair and hope (= eschatological thesis + antithesis). You could say that the bookend of Eden+Babel in Genesis is matched with the bookend of Babylon(=Rome)+New Jersualem in Revelation.

Thus, even when the actual cities of Jersualem and Babylon are destroyed they remain as powerful eschatological tropes in Christian theology, figural cities divorced from the physical cities that inspired their conception. They represent both the faithless enemies of God who will be ultimately destroyed at the end, and the faithful people of God who will vindicated in the eschaton.

Thus, Augustine runs with the two cities as the vehicles of his eschatology: civitas terrena, the earthly city, and civitas dei, the city of God. To Augustine, though the two cities were antithetical in nature, they would remain intermingled in the world, until the day of judgment, when the ungodly will be judged and the elect saved.

Cyberpastor said...

I notice that you have Christ as our hope in the past and the Spirit as our hope in the present.

What space have you got for Christ as our hope in the present for the future? That is what part does the heavenly session play in the scenario? Is not the session of the resurrected Messiah the real foundation for the coming city? Our hope is not left in the immaterial but in the material reality of the resurrected Messiah and God's consumate revelation of Him, nicht wahr?

byron said...

What space have you got for Christ as our hope in the present for the future?
I have a nice little room on the side. :-)

Is not the session of the resurrected Messiah the real foundation for the coming city?
Well, yes, sort of, though isn't it more linked to the continuation of the incarnation, rather than the heavenly session per se? - As you more or less go on to say. Though this is nonetheless a good point - what is the role of the present heavenly session in the future hope? There was an issues in theology paper on this recently, though it seemed to focus more on the ongoing bodily humanity of the ascended Christ than what he does, hence my comment about the continuation of the incarnation. I must admit I need to do more work here. Would love to hear your further thoughts here David (or anyone else)!

byron said...

Thanks Mark - great points about Babylon and Jerusalem. There's a biblical theology of cities waiting to be written (though I'm sure someone's already done it and I just haven't found it... any ideas?). Interestingly, after Babel (Babel's solution? Babel's hope?) comes the nomad Abraham. But only a nomad because he was waiting for a better city (according to Heb 11).

Andrew - Lamech and the lyre: nice.

michael jensen said...

Perhaps you could add a reflection on the Heb 12 passage about the coming of the church to the heavenly city... interesting counterpoint to Jesus' crucifixion outside the city walls there. (sorry, no bible handy)

byron said...

NB points for this pic have already been claimed by Stevie T over in the comments of a more recent post.

Hugh Scriven said...

I'm intrigued by your comment that "there is a biblical theology of cities waiting to be written". I agree, but haven't found it yet - Jacques Ellul's "The Meaning of the City" is very thought provoking, but too negative to my mind. Any thoughts on other leads (I am planning a sabbatical next year, and am thinking of trying to get some thoughts together). This is my first post on your blog (or indeed on any blog!). Thank you for many helpful and thought-provoking posts.

byron smith said...

Hugh - welcome to blog-commenting and thanks for your message. Sounds like an interesting project. One article that springs to mind is:
Ford, David F. "Faith in the Cities: Corinth and the Modern City" in On Being the Church: Essays on Christian Community (eds. Colin E. Gunton and Daniel W. Hardy; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), 225-56. Yet I think this is probably still of only tangential relevance.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

IS this from on you roof top?

byron smith said...

It is, but as I mentioned three or four comments up, the points have already been claimed in a different thread (back before people realised I wanted guesses on each post, not all consolidated on the pics and points post).