The Future has Happened

I wonder if you’ve ever hear of Moore’s Law. Gordon Moore was one of the co-founders of Intel. In 1965 he observed that each new generation of memory integrated circuits, think of the memory on your computer, had roughly twice as much capacity as the previous one. So, as I understand it, Moore’s ‘law’ is that every 18-24 months chips double their number of circuits and their memory capacity.

Moore's Law, PC World
Moore’s Law, PC World

This means that computing power has risen on a steady exponential trajectory for years, giving the tech industry some sense of what to expect as they develop new gadgets and systems.

I’ll stop with this Moore’s Law stuff before it becomes clear that I don’t know what I’m talking about—I don’t. I mention Moore’s Law simply as a way to describe how we moderns see the world. We think things get better with time. In short, we believe in progress—we expect each year to be a bit better than the one before. We presume that new movements and technologies will make things better for our society as a whole. We believe in an exponentially rising line of goodness. We assume that technology, education or the language of universal human rights will keep us on this upward trajectory.

Paul didn’t believe in this. He believed in apocalypse. Paul believed in world-shattering, cosmos-re-arranging, assumption-melting apocalypse. But not a future apocalypse, Paul believed that one had already happened. Listen to this key line pulled from Galatians 3: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In his important commentary on Galatians the New Testament scholar J. Louis Martyn tells us that this passage presents a traditional table of opposites: Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female. martyn galatiansThinkers of Paul’s day would have considered these types of pairs as the thing that gave “the cosmos its dependable structure.” They would have added to such a list; but, nevertheless, when Paul says these dualities no longer exist he is announcing “nothing less than the end of the cosmos” (LM, 376). “The end of the cosmos,” that’s Martyn’s description. Think about that, the foundational building blocks of the whole thing being taken down! But, again, we can’t forget that this isn’t something Paul is predicting for the future.

Usually when we want to criticize our modern progress myth, that ever-rising line of goodness, we talk about it tumbling down in the future. You might know that I appreciate some of Margaret Atwood’s stories. I’ll say more about that someday, but now I just want to point to her book Oryx and Crake. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel that reminds readers a bit of Mad Max or Blade Runner. In Oryx and Crake Atwood shows readers a picture of the future. It’s a future where nature is essentially gone, where nobody experiences the natural world directly. It’s a future completely run by multi-national corporations unrestrained by law. It’s a future where the world we know crashes to the ground with only a few twitches of ‘civilization’ surviving. Beyond just telling an interesting story, Atwood is offering an indictment of the present. And this is how apocalyptic novels and films usually work: show us a terrible future, show us how the line of exponential growth crashes . . . so we will get serious now.

Paul does the opposite. In his mind the building blocks of the cosmos aren’t knocked over in the future because of things we’re doing now. They were knocked over in the past because of what God did. The future has happened, and not because we’re geniuses but because God is loving and faithful. Here’s one of those places where we see a huge difference between our view of things and that of the Bible.

Paul believes that though we were imprisoned by the law, through the faithfulness of Christ we are no longer subject to it. Because of Christ’s faith we are God’s children. If you were baptized in Christ, you have clothed yourself with Christ. You’ve put him on like a shirt. Notice how those key events are past. They are facts on the ground, as Paul sees things. Notice too that he sees a very specific and concrete reason for unity. For Paul it isn’t a romantic notion or the result of some new ‘awareness’. It’s the result of baptism.

Many ancient Christian communities would baptize people by asking them to remove their old clothes, enter the water and then come out to be re-clothed in a white robe. This wasn’t voyeurism, it was sacrament—a physical experience of God’s grace. You would have taken off your old self, probably with some hesitation. You would have felt the refreshing coolness of the cleansing water as you heard the triune name. You would have acted out your solidarity with the death and resurrection of Jesus. You would have put on your new self , probably with some struggle as anyone who has ever tried to put pjs on a wet child knows.

Galatians 3:23-29 is part of a larger section that begins in 3.6 and runs through 4.7. In 3:6 Paul says that those who believe are true descendants of Abraham. They are the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless the world through him and Sarah. In 4.7 Paul says that because we are children of God the Spirit teaches us to identify God as our loving parent. We are not slaves but children, we are heirs of the creator of the cosmos.

At the core of this section are the verses 26-29. These verses parallel passages from other Pauline letters, specifically I Cor. 12:13 and Col. 3:9-11. The reason is probably that Paul is drawing on an ancient baptismal formula. In many of his letters Paul interprets and applies the scriptures of ancient Israel. Here he is interpreting and applying a part of the church’s liturgy. It must have been the case that those ancient words of baptism emphasized all believers are nourished by one Spirit, are all one person in Christ and therefore the fact that the old social distinctions that held up the world are now obsolete.

I imagine that the significance of this might be one of the reasons nakedness during baptism wasn’t such a big deal. They would have been transfixed not by bodies on display but by the impact of God’s abiding faithfulness. baptismBefore their very eyes God was binding up the wounds of a fractured human race! I imagine one saying to another, “Who cares that they’re naked, look what God is doing. That wild, wilderness-loving prophet, that baptizer John, he was right. God is up to something with Jesus. The new age is happening right in front of us.”

Now, in emphasizing the dramatic fallout of the apocalypse—the future that had happened in Jesus—Paul isn’t saying that there is now no moral law. By undoing the long-held distinction of slaves and free, women and men, gentiles and Jews Paul isn’t turning us loose in the pasture of our unshaped desires. There is still a law: the law of Christ. What God has already done has made it so.

Throughout the New Testament, especially the gospels and the letters of Paul, there is a tension between an ethic that looks back to creation and one that looks forward to new creation. We see it in Jesus. In Mark 10 he refers to Genesis in relationship to divorce. We shouldn’t separate what God has joined. That’s an argument based on creation. However, in Mark 3 Jesus emphasizes the new-creation family. He’s speaking to a crowd, and someone points out that his mother and brothers are there. He replies that it is those gathered around him, learning from him who are his true family. Jesus dismisses a natural social arrangement for one determined by the Spirit’s work.

There’s a similar dynamic going on in Paul’s writing. In the opening chapter of Romans Paul relies on a creational structure to speak about sexuality. However, here in Galatians Paul works exclusively with categories of new creation. The implication is that what his readers thought they knew about creation didn’t apply in the new creation community. These two lines of thought—an ethic based on original creation verses one based on new-creation—that are at the core of some of our modern debates about sexuality. Are we bound by the apparent structure of creation or what appears to be new workings of God’s Spirit?

We can’t explore all the implications of these two biblical forms of moral logic here. In closing, though, I want to draw us back to what this text is telling us about putting on Christ today. When we put on Christ we are drawn together. Maybe not drawn by an internal desire, but we are drawn by the cosmos-altering power of what God did among us in Jesus. We do not regard each other as our culture might have us, but based on what God has done. We assist those who are vulnerable, not because our culture tells us to—sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t—but because we have put on Christ.

In light of what Paul says here in Galatians, we need no concluding thought other than this, an encouragement received by many an ancient Christian: simply, remember your baptism.

One thought on “The Future has Happened

  1. Excellent teaching. Sunday, SUDBURY had 7 churches baptize 77 people in lake Ramsey downtown. Would they heard your sermon in preparation.

    Like

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