The Beauty of the Gospel

The marvel of Christ is that, in a world where power, riches, and violence seduce hearts and compel assent, he persuades and prevails not as a tyrant, an armed assailant, or a man of wealth, but simply as a teacher of God and his love.

     – Origen, third-century theologian

* This is the first installment of a blog-along through Brian Zahnd’s Beauty Will Save the World.

In his opening chapter, Zahnd presents a basic argument: beauty stands at the heart of the Gospel and has (and will) prevail over the ugliness of Caesar and the world. It is a compelling argument that draws on biblical writings such as Romans 1, which declares the gospel to be foolishness to the world. The cruciform image is one that Zahnd employs often in the chapter, not only representing the ultimate beauty of the God’s work in the world but also the most profound demonstration of faithfulness to God. It denounces Caesar’s approach of militarism, power, and efficiency, and instead focuses on obedience to a way of love that is deeply unsettling to the status quo of nation-states and their rulers.

I want to briefly draw out two important points that connect with worship and faith formation from Zahnd’s first chapter.

Beauty is love incarnate, a politics unto itself. The cruciform image, with Christ’s arms extended on the cross in a display of welcome and embrace, defies the logic of beauty according to Zahnd. Roman executions were designed to be displays of utter vulgarity and brutality, the worst form of humiliation and torture to demonstrate Rome’s ultimate authority over its enemies. And yet Jesus resists the allure of destructive power by using his own power for forgiveness. Among his final words on the cross were asking God to forgive those who had inflicted upon him the worst pain. In our current political climate both within and beyond the United States, I believe it possible to act in ways that openly defy Caesar’s distortion of power. Imperial power is now, as it has ever been, destructive of others toward the glorification and preservation of itself. That abuse of power is defied not in our rising up against the nation-state or terrorism or any other perceived evil to bring it down; no, it is defied in our willingness to embody a different way. The beauty of the Gospel is that Jesus was more willing to give up his own life than to take the life of someone else.

In worship, the Eucharist represents this remarkable self-giving. We receive from God the demonstrative proof that sacrifice doesn’t mean an end, because we practice a ritual of a religious movement that has endured two thousand years after the brutal death of its founder. The Eucharist is proof that the love-in-flesh, given to us in bread and cup, is a gift to all people. It is a pledge of solidarity and a realization of the ultimate hope of shalom for the world.

But if our practice of the gospel does not lead us to actions of sacrifice, or if it denies us the opportunity to liturgically rehearse these actions, it is neither beautiful nor is it the Gospel of Jesus. I recently finished pastoring a congregation that had an opportunity to display sacrificial beauty by selling its unmanageable building and giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars to those in need (and still staying together as a congregation!); instead, they chose the road of self-glorification by keeping the building that displayed their worldly success. As a result, countless will go untouched by the beauty of the gospel in that area. I can attest that such an act is a politic that is ugly to its core.

Beauty is liturgy and liturgy is beauty. Beyond the Eucharist, the entirety of our liturgical practice should demonstrate the beauty of the Gospel. In reading Zahnd’s opening chapter I was reminded of Marva Dawn’s wonderful treatise, A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World. I first read the book in college and it forever changed my view of worship and the church. Liturgy, in its truest and most faithful sense, is an absolute waste in the eyes of the world because it accomplishes nothing of worldly value. We sing, we pray, we recite creeds, we hear words and the Word proclaimed, we receive a sign of nourishment at the table, we sorrow and rejoice and commune. In that time nothing tangible happens. But, as Dawn argues (and I think Zahnd would agree), it becomes the life-giving origination of all subsequent action of the church in the world.

We sing because Christ sings over and with us, and that song of hope resonates into our mouths as we offer hope to a sorrowing neighbor. We pray because we believe God listens to us, and that listening spirit opens our ears to hear the cries of the marginalized in our cities. We recite creeds and hear the Word proclaimed because it is our story, and that story propels our minds and hearts to give allegiance to Christ and his border-less and merciful kingdom alone. We receive a sign of nourishment at the table because God is love, and the opening of our hands to receive the bread and cup makes our hands practice a posture of openness of generosity to the poor, the outcast, the stranger. Such love incarnate is the heart of the liturgy, and nothing other than beauty itself.

Or as Vatican II put it, the liturgy “is the font from which [all the church’s] power flows.” That is a power that is beautiful.

* * * * *

What were your thoughts on Zahnd’s first chapter? How do you see the beauty of the Gospel playing out in your life, in your church, in the world?

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