Theological Worlds Part 2

This is the second in a series of three articles using insights from W. Paul Jones, Theological Worlds: Understanding the Alternative Rhythms of Christian Belief, for preaching.

The first article discussed the need for preaching to address a broad range of life issues from the depth of scripture. One of the “theological worlds” Jones describes is “condemnation and forgiveness,” which, in my experience, is the usual “world” from which preachers work.

But people come to church with issues other than guilt, and biblical texts can and do address issues besides sin and forgiveness.

Another theological world Jones identifies is “conflict and vindication.” Conflict is discord acted out in words and deeds, or perhaps an internal conflict. Vindication can mean deliverance, justification, confirmation, or even vengeance.

Anyone who wants to try preaching from this world has a great opportunity on the third Sunday of Lent. On this day, the Gospel is John 2:13-22, in which Jesus drives merchants and money changers out of the temple. This story works with conflict and vindication at two levels.

First, there is the conflict about how the temple is being used.

The temple is supposed to be the place where the relationship between God and God’s people is restored and celebrated. But some people are using it for “a marketplace” Instead of making nice, Jesus orders the offenders to stop. “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16). Then he makes a whip of cords and drives out the merchants and money changers. He vindicates God (who is not for sale) and the people (who were being duped and exploited). God’s will and purpose are vindicated.

The second level of the conflict begins when Jesus is asked, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (John 2:18). Jesus replies, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). It almost sounds like a line from Hollywood: “Go ahead and make my day.”

After Jesus’ dies on the cross, God raises him from the dead. It is the ultimate vindication. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are a conflict between life and death, in which God, the giver of all life, is vindicated.

Clearly, John 2:13-22 is not a good text for showing how nice and tolerant Jesus is, nor is it a text about forgiveness. Rather, it shows Jesus entering into conflict to vindicate God, and God vindicating Jesus (and us) by raising him from the dead.

Conflict and vindication might make preachers nervous, precisely because it is not about compromise or open mindedness. But there are people in our pews who live in a situation of conflict, in which they need God’s vindication. They have been cheated, oppressed, or blocked, and naturally, they feel a sense of outrage.

People who experience injustice, whether subtle or blatant, need vindication. The Gospel for them is that Jesus does battle for us in order to vindicate us as beloved children of God. And Jesus emboldens us to take our part in confronting evil, not just the evil we see around us, but also the evil within. According to Jones1,  in the theological world of conflict and vindication, love means taking our part, not being passive spectators of our own or someone else’s oppression.

Liberation theology, says Jones, often speaks the language of conflict and vindication. But he notes other places to hear this theological world, such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Bach’s “contrapuntal world of conflict and resolution.”2  It’s there in Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

God’s Word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes, who fear it.
For God himself fights by our side, with weapons of the Spirit.3

Another hymn with a conflict and vindication theme is “How Firm a Foundation.”

When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie,
my grace, all sufficient, shall be your supply.
The flames shall not hurt you; I only design
your dross to consume and your gold to refine.4

There are many variations on this theological world, says Jones, but the most important thing is that “God must be within the conflict itself.”5  Preaching that helps people see God as their vindication might be dangerous. But it can be liberating.

1W. Paul Jones, Theological Worlds, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989) 42.
2Jones, 69.
3Verse 4 of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #504.
4Verse 3 of “How Firm a Foundation,” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #796.
5Jones, 65.