The Beginning/End of the Christian Journey
Forty days after his resurrection, on the day of his ascension, Jesus set forth the purpose and the destination of the Christian journey: “You will be my witnesses, from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NRSV). Throughout the previous forty days, the disciples had encountered the risen Lord. They saw Jesus before them—a resurrected being. They saw proof, a foretaste, of God’s ultimate plan for creation. Seeing the resurrected Lord, they foresaw the future; they caught a glimpse of the general resurrection, the final judgment, the redemption of creation—when Christ will be all in all. Seeing the risen Lord, they were sent forth on a journey with both purpose and direction.
A Christian’s journey begins having witnessed the end. Christians are witnesses to the resurrected Christ, not as historical fact, but as present taste of God’s promised future. In Jesus Christ, God’s ultimate reign is visible. He is today the merciful judge and lover of our souls. He is today King of creation, the one in whom we may foretaste God’s will and purpose. And he is not dead. Christians have seen, tasted, felt, somehow sensed, the eschaton in Jesus Christ. All Christian journeys begin with a particular person (Jesus), a particular event (the resurrection) and have a particular direction (the end [ho eschatos] of the earth). These universals give the Christian journey its particular character. Without them, the journey lacks purpose and direction.
Telling the Journey
Throughout Christian history believers have used the literary device of the travel narrative to talk about an encounter with the risen Lord and where it takes them. Their descriptions are echoes of the salvation narratives in the Scriptures—traveling from creation to new creation, from Ur to Canaan, from Egypt to the Promised Land, from Jerusalem to Babylon and back again. Some of these journey stories are purely metaphorical, like John Bunyan’s story of a pilgrimage through a spiritual landscape. Others are mystical like Teresa of Avila’s journey into the interior castle of the heart. Still others are literal travel journals or diaries, like those of John Wesley. The stories are rich in detail. No two are alike, though they all have in common an encounter with the one Lord and the commission he gives.
During the modern period, with its emphasis on neat classifications of empirical data, such rich descriptions have became less common. At the hands of Baconian theologians, the particular narrative details of a Christian’s journey began to fade; they became unimportant compared with soteriological “facts.” Salvation was categorized and routinized—divided into discrete experiences to be accounted. The rigorous modernism that brought us the debates over biblical inerrancy, also brought us “saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Ghost.” Although such experiences are real, modern sensibilities came to view the details of the journey as unimportant. Mile-markers along the journey became the journey itself. The complexity of the ladder of divine ascent was condensed into an ability to name a date and, perhaps, exhibit an appropriate sign. Everybody’s “journey” was the same.
Such a neglect of the particular details of a Christian’s encounter with the risen Lord and the life in mission which follows needed correction. The “facts” do not tell the whole story. God has chosen and chooses human beings to be witnesses. Salvation journeys must be shaped, to some degree, by the one who encounters the One who is the journey’s end. In the miracle of the incarnation, the divine has stooped to us in our situation and station. That we are fishermen, unmarried young girls, tax collectors, or merchants of purple cloth, is not merely incidental. Encountering the living Christ means encountering ourselves at our very core, with all the complexity of our fallen perfection.
The Scriptures are full of detail, often seemingly needless detail, about the circumstances of those who are on this journey. Bible stories are full of the specifics of place (by the oaks of Mamre), people (Sarah), and culture (the rules of ritual hospitality). In telling the grand narrative of God’s mission to save creation, the Scripture writers seem convinced that the universal God is mindful of the particularities of, and personalities within his creation. God’s salvific work does not obliterate the dazzling diversity of creation with a “golden chain” of uniform saving events. Rather, God is mindful of the number of hairs on each head.
The “Postmodern” Journey
The enlightenment emphasis on the classification of empirical knowledge tended to eradicate the diversity and creativity with which Christians previously detailed their encounters with Jesus and with the age to come. This was in need of critique. In the latter half of the twentieth century, as enlightenment skepticism expanded to include the enlightenment project itself, the importance of detailing the journey reemerged for Western Christians. This recovery of premodern “journey language” in Christian circles has dovetailed rather easily with postmodern emphases on relativism, diversity, and particularity.
However, this too needs critique. The biblical love for diversity, God’s willingness to interact with us as we are, is not the same as contemporary culture’s sweeping relativism. The hyper-individualism of postmodern consumerism (where consumer choice is always assumed to be a “good”) distorts traditional Christian understandings of the journey in all its detail. Today’s use of “spiritual journey” language, even among Christians, is often a description of aimless wanderings. However one happens to conceive of God is “where one is on one’s journey.” Every step in any direction is equally valid, equally part of the journey. No one can say where it should or should not go, or what it should look like. The “postmodern” journey is truly unique. Not only is the path as important as the destination, but the destination has become irrelevant. Far from being lost, the details have become the story. There is no concrete beginning, no encounter with a particular God to whom we are accountable, no sense of direction. All that is relevant is the teller, who ends up witnessing to him or herself.
When Abram and Sarai left Ur, they left with a promise, from a particular God, about the destination to which they were traveling. The disciples went forth after Pentecost with the promise from a particular God-made-flesh about a particular mission to the end of the earth. There was purpose and direction to the journey. Therefore there could be corrections to the course. Contemporary use of “journey language” enables the teller to escape being confronted with the universals—with the particular person who promises we will be his witnesses, and with the mile-markers and warning signs which can tell us to change direction.
The biblical journey is never one of steady progress. As the biblical narrative points out, if one is not moving in the direction of the Promised Land, then something is wrong. One may be a victim of (or a willing participant in) sin that is out of control. At times one may be in slavery in Egypt waiting for God’s deliverance. Fear and lack of faith may result in any number of years spent wandering in the desert. Disobedience may result in discipline and even exile. But if we trust the universal God who gives our journey purpose and direction, there is the possibility of correction, of return, and renewal.
In the Scriptures, all the particularities of person, place, and time are vital, but they are woven into a larger story about a journey that has a particular goal, in the form of a promise given by a particular God. That goal may be articulated as the promised land, the end of the earth, or the heavenly Jerusalem, but it and the God who gives the promise are central to the telling—not the teller. This God created all that is. And this God’s character is revealed through his Word, whose journey took him from heaven, to a stable, to a cross, to hell, and to a meeting with disciples forty days after his resurrection.
In 1736 John Wesley met August Gottlieb Spangenberg (1704-1792), the leader of the Moravians in Georgia. The journey he had made from England to America was not simply physical but spiritual. Wesley was, with his companions, on a journey “to save our souls” (Journal and Diaries, 1:137). At their second meeting, Spangenberg posed a few questions. “Do you know yourself? Have you the witness within you? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” Wesley was so surprised by the questions that he did not immediately answer. Spangenberg continued, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” to which Wesley responded, “I know He is the Savior of the world.” Spangenberg clarified, “True, but do you know He has saved you?” Wesley answered, “I hope he has died to save me.” When Spangenberg pressed him further, asking, “Do you know yourself?” Wesley said yes, but added in his journal, “I fear they were vain words” (Journal and Diaries,1:145-46.) Wesley highlighted this encounter in his journal because he recognized in this event, that, although he had become a priest—even a missionary—he had yet to encounter truly the one who is both the reason for his journey and his journey’s end.
Fundamental to the Christian journey is that it is going somewhere. A spiritual journey is a pilgrimage, not mere wandering. It is following the leading of a particular God revealed in Christ, with a specific direction glimpsed in his resurrection. That foretaste of God’s reign in Jesus provides direction and correction for the journey. When someone says, “That is just part of my journey;” the church’s faithful response ought to be, “What part, exactly?” In Georgia, Wesley was confronted with the particular universal person of Jesus Christ—not as an historical figure who “died for the sins of the world,” but as one to whom he ought to be able to bear personal witness. When we tell our story, our spiritual journey, to whom are we bearing witness? Our call is to bear witness to the resurrected Christ who encounters us at the beginning and is the end of our journey—the alpha and omega.