Holy Spirit, Wilderness Guide of Love #PENTECOST

An excerpt from an essay I wrote as my integrative faith statement at Palmer Theological Seminary. It’s written as a letter to my daughter, Isla, and uses an extended metaphor of faith as “walking through the wilderness” to describe who God is and who God call us to be.

Love is our Trailblazer, but Love is also our wilderness Guide. We know this Guide as the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit guided Jesus throughout his entire life in the way of Love and led him all the way through death and into new life. When Jesus left the wilderness, he said the Guide would come to invite all people to become like Jesus as they follow the way of Jesus as a caravan of Love.

Just like Jesus, the wilderness Guide is God. But unlike Jesus, the Guide was not born as a human being. The Guide is unseen. She is like our breath – we have no life apart from her. She walks within our caravan to give us power to love ourselves and others the way Jesus does. She brings us together in friendship with people who are different from us. She comforts and encourages our caravan when the trail gets tough. The Guide gives us special gifts to keep our caravan strong. She leads us back to the way of Love when we walk in sin. In fact, She’s always leading us, but we need to practice the spiritual disciplines so that we can hear her voice more clearly.

But the Spirit of Love is also working in the wilderness beyond our caravan. She gives life to the entire wilderness and protects the wilderness from harm. She is present with all who are lost and alone in the wilderness trying to show them the way of Love. She gives strength to all who must journey over hard terrain and purifies the polluted air that causes us to walk in sin. As we walk with the Guide, we join in this greater work of making the wilderness a place for all people to find a home.

I’ve experienced the Guide all throughout my wilderness journey. I felt her comforting, guiding presence when I was in the middle of a jungle in Bolivia. Even in the most remote part of the wilderness, the Guide was with me. I also felt the special presence of the Spirit when you were born, Isla. I was in awe as your mom gave birth to you and I still remember that first time I held you in my arms. It’s the Spirit who has given me the power to love you as your dad. I have also seen the Spirit at work healing hurt people and bringing very different people together as friends. I feel the Guide when I work in the garden or play at the park. The wilderness is alive with the Spirit of Love!

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Linthicum: Shalom is Our Mission

In the final analysis, we are not called to build bigger or better churches, to prepare disciples or even to win people to Jesus Christ, though these are all important and strategic elements. We as the church are to focus on working for the realization of the shalom community in our political, economic, and religious life together. That mission of proclaiming the vision and doing whatever we can to move this world toward “becoming the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ” is the essence of what we Christians are to be about.

Robert Linthicum, Transforming Power, p. 40

While I agree with most everything Linthicum writes about shalom, I think he’s at risk of breaking the eschatological tension of shalom when he calls it an “achievable” society. He doesn’t define “achievable” but he needs to. Shalom is achievable only as an eschatological reality that we experience as a gift of the Spirit in brief fits and spurts, foretastes that leave us wanting more, until the day of the Lord comes and brings all things to their fulfillment, when God will be all in all. The language of “achievement” also contradicts Linthicum’s previous statement about shalom being a gift of grace. Gifts are not achieved. Yes, we have much work to do, but all our work towards shalom is meaningless apart from the power of the Spirit who is leading all creation on the reconciling way of Christ to be at home in the boundless love of God.

Just Call Me Friend

This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.

John 15:12-15

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At the Last Supper, Christ was telling the disciples those things of greatest importance. It was His final opportunity to communicate the central values of the faith. “No longer do I call you servants,” He said, “for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Finally, Christ said you are not servants. You know the Father’s heart. You know the inside story. You are friends. Perhaps beyond the revolutionary Christian mandate of service is that final revolution, the possibility of being friends. Friends are people who know each other, who care, respect, struggle and are committed through time. Christ’s mandate o~be friends is a revolutionary idea in our serving society. Why friends rather than servants? Perhaps it is because He knew that servants could always become lords but that friends could not. Professional servants may operate on the assumption that “you will be better because I know better,” but friends believe that “we will be better because we share in each others’ lives.” Servants are people who know the mysteries that can control those to whom they give “help.” Friends, on the other hand, are free to give and receive help from each other.

Robert Lupton, Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor, p. 67

Costas on Christmas

Costas, OrlandoAfter the incarnation, any talk about God must have the man Christ-Jesus as a fundamental referent. It was this fact that led Karl Barth to state: “Man has become the measure of all things since God became man.” In other words, since God has become human in Jesus Christ, revealing not just his true self but the true identity of man, the fundamental issue of theology has ceased to be “who is God” and has become instead “who is the true man.” Hence we can assert that theology has become a contextual discipline since the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth

…it must also be true that Jesus Christ is today one with the outcast and oppressed of the earth. Wherever there is oppression, there is the Spirit of Christ incarnated in the experience of the oppressed; there is God contextualized in the present history of the non-persons of society

…Instead of feeling threatened, we should see in the incarnation of Christ among the destitute a reminder of the scandal of the gospel and the radical nature of conversion. The good news of salvation does not come to us via the wise and mighty, but rather by way of the ignorant and downtrodden (I Co. l:18ff). Neither is the call to conversion an invitation to sooth our guilty consciences, to reinforce our privileged status and to give us strength to continue to be part of an oppressive social system. It is rather an invitation to put our trust in the Lord and Saviour of the poor and the oppressed, to turn from our personal sins and from our alliances with the oppressive structures of this world, to join the struggle of God’s kingdom against the forces of evil — of injustice, exploitation and repression.

Orlando Costas, “Contextualization and Incarnation,” Journal of Theology for South Africa

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We are Church, We are Agents of Shalom

Over the past several weeks [in the spring semester of 2013], I participated in a creative group exercise along with two of my classmates: Clesha Staten and Edward Williams. We imagined ourselves as a church and dreamed about our life together in this community. Through much discussion, we identified our church as “agents of shalom” and described this identity in relation to the four marks of the church specified by the Nicene-Constantinople Creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.[1] We also defined our church’s mission and described the context in which our mission would be pursued. We crystallized this discussion about our corporate identity as agents of shalom into the following statement:

As agents of shalom, we are one because the shalom we seek is the very presence and action of the one and same Spirit of God who empowers us to speak and act in order to bring God’s vision to its fullness as we endeavor to ensure a welcome place at the table for all. We are holy because the Spirit has set us apart to share the good news, peace and love of God in communities suffering from the fractures of personal and structural sin.  We are called to live by example the grace, righteousness, and justice of the Triune God. We are catholic because we recognize that the same Spirit who lives and moves in us is also present and active in other churches and throughout all creation.  The operation of the Spirit within and through every agent of shalom unifies us in purpose without diminishing the diversity of each agent as a unique creation. Finally, our church is apostolic because we continue Jesus’ prophetic ministry of liberation by proclaiming, celebrating, and actualizing the message of shalom to all those who are oppressed by sin, sickness, disease, and the political, economic and social systemic evils. We walk with the same Spirit of God who was sent forth as ruah before creation, who anointed the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and who is present today and for all days to come to orient and empower creation towards the consummation of shalom in the reign of God.

The mission of our church is to be agents of shalom: the overflowing abundance of God’s presence in a community so that the entire community experiences the wholeness, fullness, and satisfaction of a holistic well-being in complete harmony with its environment. It is a comprehensive reality of peace founded on the active presence of Triune love being worked out in justice. Agents are people who actively pursue the purposes of the one by whom they are sent. Because we are sent by the God who is communion, we are sent to pursue shalom as a community of love, forgiveness, and grace, which is extended to the oppressed and marginalized members of our community. This may require us to actively and non-violently resist systems of evil that oppress and marginalize. At the same time, our church is called by the life-giving Spirit to be agents of personal healing, deliverance, and restoration towards all people in our community.

Our church is called to contexts where the extreme suffering caused by a prolonged loss of shalom is being ignored or denied. These are the places “outside the gate” inhabited by people who have been silenced, forgotten, and deemed unworthy, unnecessary, and uninteresting by the powers and principalities of anti-shalom. We desire to join the Spirit’s work in and through the people with whom we live in these places so that a true, contextual shalom might be realized within our diverse community. As a local embodiment of shalom develops, we will remain open to being led by the Spirit to bring forth shalom in new contexts while remaining steadfast in our commitment to our current community.

This statement expresses an ecclesiology: a way of understanding the theological, historical, and eschatological nature of the origin, identity, and purpose of “a community that understands itself to be called into being by God through faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.”[2] However, the ecclesiology expressed in this group statement differs remarkably from the implicit ecclesiology I have experienced through church participation in the past. In this essay, I hope to progress from a critique of the church I have experienced towards a more faithful, holistic understanding of church by contrasting the marks, mission, and context of my embedded ecclesiology with this new understanding of church as agents of shalom.

The unity of the church as agents of shalom is founded on the presence and action of the God whose unity-in-diversity is hospitably opened towards the other. In opposition to this Triune unity, my past experience in culturally, racially, and socio-economically homogenous churches reveals a unity defined by uniformity. This kind of unity ignores “the Spirit’s unifying power [which] enables the integrity of each one amidst the many” and therefore does not participate in the “unity of the Spirit that includes reconciliation and healing in the same Spirit.”[3] The church is to be one because the salvation of the Triune God which it proclaims is an ever-expanding communion amidst the diversity of creation.

A similar discrepancy arises in my past experience of holiness in church and the holiness which characterizes agents of shalom. While past church experience defined holiness as an individual goal of maintaining purity, those who pursue shalom identify holiness as “the authentic presence and activity of the Spirit of God directed toward the eschatological kingdom.”[4] This holiness is neither a possession of the church nor of an individual church member. Rather, the church is being made holy so that its “relationship of righteousness and justice with God… [will extend] far beyond the church itself” into the lives of those “on the margins of society.”[5] Holiness is put on display when the church’s presence and activity in the world matches the church’s inner reality of its participation in the life of Trinity.

As a member of primarily congregational or independent churches, my understanding of the church’s catholicity was very weak. Instead of being instructed to discern and partner with the Spirit’s work in other churches and throughout creation, my experience of church taught me to be suspicious of other churches and to devalue the life of non-human creation. However, agents of shalom recognize catholicity by affirming the Spirit’s power to inspire indigenous expressions of faith in Christ, which preserve the uniqueness of created life and culture.[6] However, contextualization was given little significance in my previous experience of church and therefore my church’s traditional theology – with a little room for disagreement – was the true understanding for all people in all times and places.

My past church experience held a very narrow understanding of apostolicity. The majority of churches I have participated in were representatives of the Free Church tradition where “the New Testament and early church [have] a normative significance.”[7] Therefore, apostolicity was implicitly defined as believing and teaching “sound doctrine” in line with a specific, literal interpretation of Scripture. In opposition to this narrow, disembodied expression of apostolicity, the church as agents of shalom seeks to embody authentically “the apostolic message and witness… in [its] ecclesial life and faith as directed toward the impending kingdom of God.”[8] Apostolicity is a sign of the whole person and ministry of Jesus Christ and his earliest followers which requires full, embodied participation by the Holy Spirit in the mission of Jesus.

In the past, the primary mission of the church I knew was understood as the fulfillment of Jesus’ last words to his followers as recorded by the gospel of Matthew: “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them.”[9] The interpretation of this command led to a mission defined primarily in terms of kerygma – “the proclamation of the Gospel” – which was sometimes supported by acts of leitourgia – “prayer and praise, the waters of baptism and the bread of the supper.”[10] I agree with Gabriel Fackre that this kind of church may be “valid” but it “is not yet a faithful Church” because it does not include a healthy practice of diakonia ­– “a serving of the neighbor in need” – and koinonia – “a sharing and caring life together.”[11] While some of the churches I have experienced in the past have incorporated a practice of diakonia and koinonia in very meaningful ways, the expression of church with which I am most familiar is dominated by its kerygma with leitourgia in a secondary, supporting role.

In contrast to the identity and mission of the church in my past, the church as agents of shalom provides a more holistic and faithful ecclesiology. At the heart of this ecclesiology is the belief that the church’s “existence is not ‘for itself,’ but rather ‘for others.’”[12] More specifically, this church exists for the pursuit of shalom and therefore “outside of the action of the Spirit which leads the universe and history towards its fullness in Christ, [this church] is nothing.”[13] According to Avery Dulles, this vision of church would be categorized as the “servant” model in which the church takes up the diakonia of Christ and “seeks to serve the world by fostering the brotherhood [sic] of all men [sic].”[14] However, this diaconal model is incomplete if it excludes kerygma, leitourgia, and koinonia.

Therefore, agents of shalom take up the message of Jesus and proclaim the hope of God’s now-but-not-yet reign to all people. At the same time, this kerygma includes a “prophetic denunciation of every dehumanizing situation, which is contrary to fellowship, justice, and liberty.”[15] Agents of shalom also gather to celebrate the good news they proclaim through the act of worship, specifically the sharing of the Eucharistic meal around the Lord’s table. However, this practice of leitourgia “presupposes an ever-renewed acceptance of the meaning of [Jesus’] life” and therefore leads the church towards concrete action “against exploitation and alienation and for a society of solidarity and justice.”[16] Finally, shalom is a reality bound up in koinonia because it is the presence of the God whose life as communion is the divine source and model of koinonia. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom seeks a koinonia “where everyone is welcome [as] a sign of the coming feast of God’s mended creation.”[17]

As it pursues its mission through a practice of koinonia, leitourgia, kerygma, and diaconia, the church as agents of shalom must be careful not to confuse its ecclesial life and work towards shalom with the reality of shalom itself. Shalom does not belong to any church because it is the very presence and action of the Triune God in the world which God created. The church as agents of shalom remembers its call to service which “consists in its dedication to the transformation of the world into the Kingdom” of shalom.[18]

The church as agents of shalom seeks to embody and enact its mission in contexts where the destruction of shalom due to the violence of personal and structural sin is being ignored and forgotten. My past experience of church has always assumed a privileged position in society. Even though I was raised in a community where the evils of poverty and racism interlocked in a system of death, I participated in a church whose identity and mission were so affected by social privilege that the fact of this reality, especially the role of this church in its creation and maintenance, was almost entirely ignored. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom must go beyond simply locating itself in a place of anti-shalom. It must make intentional, sustained efforts towards solidarity with all in its community and join in the struggle against alienation and violence because “to know God is to work for justice.”[19] Therefore, the church should simultaneously learn to listen to the needs of its community and to discern its unique strengths and its inherent goodness. The church should also be prepared to criticize its own participation in the evils which perpetuate the destruction of shalom. With this humble posture, a true, contextual foretaste of shalom can come to life.

[1] William C. Placher, ed., “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 223.

[2] Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Ecclesiology,” Lecture, Systematic Theology and Ethics: Reign of God THLE 521, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, April 2, 2013.

[3] Amos Yong, “The Marks of the Church: A Pentecostal Re-Reading,” Evangelical Review Of Theology 26, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 50, 54.

[4] Yong, 54.

[5] Letty M. Russell, “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 245.

[6] Yong, 61.

[7] Franklin H. Littell, “The Historical Free Church Defined,” Brethren Life and Thought 50, no. 3-4 (June 1, 2005): 59.

[8] Yong, 66.

[9] Mt. 28:19, 20, NRSV.

[10] Gabriel Facrke, The Christian Story: A Narrative Interpretation of Basic Christian Doctrine, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 156, 157.

[11] Fackre, 158, 159, 161.

[12] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988), 147.

[13] Gutiérrez, 147.

[14] Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 92.

[15] Gutiérrez, 152.

[16] Gutiérrez., 150.

[17] Letty M. Russell, “Hot-House Ecclesiology: A Feminist Interpretation of the Church,” Ecumenical Review 53 (January 2001): 51.

[18] Dulles, 100.

[19] Gutiérrez, 156.

Oliver on Serving the Poor

Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those who serve the poor. Jesus didn’t come to bring good news of the Kingdom to those who serve the poor; he brought Good News to the poor. He has nothing to say to other saviors who compete with him for the position of Messiah, or Redeemer.

Jesus’ agenda only brings a message for those who recognize themselves as poor, naked, hurt, tired, overburdened, needy and hopeless. As for the rest, his agenda has little or nothing to offer.

The only way to remain with the poor is if we discover that we are the miserable ones. We remain with the poor when we recognize ourselves, even if well disguised, in him/her who is right before our eyes. When we can see our own misery and poverty in them, when we realize our own needs and our desperate need to be saved and liberated, then and only then will we meet Jesus and live life according to His agenda.

God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed. Finding out this weakness of ours leaves us in a position of having nothing to offer, serve, donate, but reveals our need to be loved, healed and restored.

Claudio Oliver, “Why I Stopped Serving the Poor”