I’m teaching a summer class on Romans and gearing up for the U2 concert next week at the same time so I’m hearing layers of resonance between Paul and these peerless contemporary theologians. One of these is the inter-connections between Spirit, cross-shaped existence (cruciformity), and community life.
Paul writes to a community in crisis over the identity of the people of God. Jewish Christians are holding their heritage as God’s historic people over-against the non-Jewish Christians in an effort to regain their positions of prominence in the community. This has provoked all sorts of fleshly responses and counter-responses leading, understandably, to communal breakdown.
There’s a sense in which the factions in Rome are giving competing answers to certain questions. Who are the people of God? Among whom is the Spirit of the God of Israel present? What are the markers of the people of God?
Paul configures their situation and communal-relational strategies according to the gospel. The people of God are not marked out by those who are Jewish (or any other ethnicity), but by those who participate in the death of Christ and share together in resurrection life (Rom. 6-8). Anyone and everyone can enter and enjoy this reality, both Jews and non-Jews, through participating in the faithfulness of Jesus.
God’s Spirit inhabits and animates the cruciform community and unites them to Christ and to one another. This reality is activated and experienced by their embrace of one another (Rom. 15:7-8) just as Christ has embraced them all.
This three-part reality cannot be split apart. The Spirit of the cruciform God does not inhabit triumphalist communities, nor communities that do not welcome one another. They are inseparable—Spirit, cruciformity, and community.
This interconnected matrix is displayed beautifully by U2 in their song “Breathe.” Drawing upon the classical Christian notion of spirituality as breathing, along with the biblical identification of Spirit and God’s very own breath, U2 connect true spirituality to embodied practices of fearless love and joyful embrace.
The song begins by noting the gritty realities of this world and how they make us jaded and cynical. A door-to-door salesman shows up—ugh!
16th of June, nine 0 five, door bell rings
Man at the door says if I want to stay alive a bit longer
There’s a few things I need you to know. Three
Coming from a long line of travelling sales people on my mother’s side
I wasn’t gonna buy just anyone’s cockatoo
So why would I invite a complete stranger into my home
But then he goes on to remind himself that there’s a richer description of reality needed:
These days are better than that
These days are better than that
Then the cruciform dynamics kick in, revealing a pattern of daily dying and daily being-given-life realized through embrace of others:
Every day I die again, and again I’m reborn
Every day I have to find the courage
To walk out into the street
With arms out
Got a love you can’t defeat
Neither down or out
There’s nothing you have that I need
I can breathe
The second verse is much like the first, except it focuses on what prevents this sort of “others-engagement”—fear.
16th of June, Chinese stocks are going up
And I’m coming down with some new Asian virus
Ju Ju man, Ju Ju man
Doc says you’re fine, or dying
Nine 0 nine, St John Divine, on the line, my pulse is fine
But I’m running down the road like loose electricity
While the band in my head plays a striptease
The frenetic pace of life and the threat of bad news drive us inward toward self-protection, but we must not surrender to this temptation.
The roar that lies on the other side of silence
The forest fire that is fear so deny it
The remainder of the song is pure exhortation to get out there and love. Encounter the other and adopt postures of embrace and welcome. That’s the way we activate the cruciform, community-creating, community-sustaining Spirit, and that’s the only way we enjoy the Spirit’s presence among us.
I find that U2 captures so well the true spirit of Paul’s community-oriented vision and how the life of God is lived on earth. You can see the sort of prophetic/pastoral role they play in a particular context as they appeared on Letterman a while back. At the end of the song Bono particularizes the lyrics and exhorts New Yorkers to get out there into the snowbound streets. In fact, at the end of this version Bono explicitly mentions the Spirit breathing and empowering this vision of life. It’s powerful stuff.
Live! Breathe! And do it by welcoming and embracing one another.