Friday, July 13, 2007

Williams on church leadership

What I have been proposing is that the empty tomb tradition is, theologically speaking, part of the Church’s resource in resisting the temptation to ‘absorb’ Jesus into itself, and thus part of what its confession of the divinity of Jesus amounts to in spiritual and political practice. Jesus is not the possession of the community, not even as ‘raised into the kerygma’, because he is alive, beyond qualification or risk, he ‘lives to God’. The freedom of Jesus to act, however we unpack that deceptively simple statement, is not exhausted by what the community is doing or thinking – which allows us to say that Jesus’ role for the community continues, vitally, to be that of judge, and that those who are charged with speaking authoritatively for or in the community stand in a very peculiar and paradoxical place. The distance from the community that is built into their role has to be something other than a claim to share the kind of distance that exists between the risen Jesus and the community. They remain under the judgement of the Risen One, along with the rest of the community, and their task is to direct attention away from themselves to Jesus, to reinforce the community’s awareness of living under Jesus’ judgement.

- Rowan Williams, 'Between the Cherubim: the Empty Tomb and the Empty Throne' in On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 192-93.

This fascinating essay is sobering reading for one charged to speak in the community this Sunday. I've re-read it since I'm preaching on the tabernacle (and ark) in Exodus 25-31. Here's another quote from earlier in the essay where Williams is setting up the imagery of the 'empty throne', the space between the cherubim on the ark of the covenant, where the God of Israel is said to dwell. Williams reads it an emobodiment (or disembodiment as the case may be) of the second commandment:
The cherubim flanking the ark define a space where God would be if God were anywhere (the God of Judah is the one who sits between the cherubim or even ‘dwells’ between the cherubim); but there is no image between the cherubim. If you want to see the God of Judah, this is where he is and is not: to ‘see’ him is to look into the gap between the holy images. What is tangible and accessible, what can be carried in procession or taken to war as a palladium is not the image of God but the throne of God, the place where he is not. … YHWH is not capable of being represented definitively or indeed at all except as the one who is invisibly enthroned on the kapporeth [mercy seat] of the ark. … [There is a] non-representable, non-possessible dimension [to] the paradoxical manifestation of God to God’s people.

- Williams, 'Between the Cherubim', 187.

The prohibition against images of God is to remind the people of God's freedom, that though he might be 'on our side', he is never in our possession. He can't be put in a box, because he sits on the box!

Yet there is another dynamic here that Williams places less emphasis on: God makes his own image. Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col 1.15; Heb 1.1-3). God's transcendence and invisibility might lead us to silence about God, theology dumbfounded. But this is not the case because God himself speaks. He supplies his own icon in Jesus. This is how we are to speak and think about God. This is how we are to follow and obey him. This is what we can and must hope for. God's freedom is not an endless deferral of open potential. He decisively acts to give himself.

Nonetheless, in doing so, he does not give himself away. He remains the Lord. And this is the thrust of Williams' christological point in the first quote. We don't own Jesus. Jesus' friends can and do get him wrong.
Eight points for correctly naming this English abbey.

8 comments:

Drew said...

'he does not give himself away'

Interesting phrase. Reminds me of the 'secret' in Mt 5-6.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Lets try knee-jerk answer: Westminster Abbey?

byron said...

Drew - actually, it's a phrase I took from Barth, CD IV/1, in a very interesting passage around p. 180ish (I don't have it in front of me). It's near this bit that I posted a while ago. One of my favourite passages.

Moffitt - sorry. Someone had to try it, I guess. Your lead for July is under threat by Andrew. He's breathing down your neck...

byron said...

I should have said your lead for July...

michael jensen said...

Bath.

Deep Furrows said...

does Williams address koinonia in this context? ~Fred

byron said...

DF - not in this text, it is just an essay. I'm sure he does elsewhere.

MPJ - eight points.

Martin Kemp said...

Nice post. The distance thing is important so that we don't turn Jesus into what we want him to be. But you are right to bring Williams back from having Jesus as too distant. Otherwise it's hard to see Jesus as one who has any right to turn us into what he wants us to be.