Newbigin on the Open Secret of Gospel Stewardship

One of the most common metaphors used in the New Testament to describe the relation of the church to the gospel is that of stewardship. The church, and especially those called to any kind of leadership in the church, are servants entrusted with that which is not their property but is the property of their Lord. That which is entrusted is something of infinite worth as compared with the low estate of the servants in whose hands it is placed. They are but mud pots; but that which is entrusted to them is the supreme treasure (II Cor. 4:7). The treasure is nothing less than “the mysteries of God” (I Cor. 4:1), “the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19), “the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and… made known to all nations… to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:25-26). It is “the mystery of his will… to unite all things in him” (Eph. 1:9-10). It is the open secret of God’s purpose, through Christ, to bring all things to their true end in the glory of the triune God. It is open in that it is announced in the gospel that is preached to all the nations; it is a secret in that it is manifest only to the eyes of faith. It is entrusted to those whom God has given the gift of faith by which the weakness and foolishness of the cross is known as the power and wisdom of God. It is entrusted to them not for themselves but for all the nations. It is Christ in them, the hope of glory.

Lesslie Newbigin. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Kindle Locations 2551-2560). Kindle Edition.

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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.

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.

The Wilderness Journey of Faith

worship is like telling stories around a campfire

scripture is like the “trail mix”

disciplines are like setting up camp

the church is like your wilderness caravan

sin is like being lost and alone in the wilderness

Jesus is like the wilderness Trailblazer

Spirit is like the wilderness Guide

Parent is like the wilderness Native

creation is like a wilderness home

salvation is like a journey in the wilderness following the Spirit on the way of Jesus toward home with the Native

consummation is like being welcomed home to a feast

God Is Love

Yes, I’m posting a blog on Valentine’s Day entitled “God is Love.” What can I say? I’m a loser with a very bad sense of humor. If you can get past that though, this is a brief “statement of faith” that I wrote for a class recently. The assignment was just to “sit down and write about what you believe in your own voice” so… that’s what I did. It’s certainly not comprehensive and probably not thought out all that well. But, what I can say is that it has very little to do with Valentine’s Day.

God is the triune Community who is Love: who created all things for love, who is present with all things in love, and who calls and wills and moves all things towards love. This Love is not an attribute of God; it is God. God is Love because God is Trinity: the three Persons – Parent, Christ, and Spirit – who are inseparably united as one in a way that does not diminish the unique otherness of each Person. This triune Community is characterized by movements of equal, mutual, reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving among, between, and within the persons of Parent, Christ and Spirit.

Because God is Love, God is relational and desires to be in relation with another. This desire gave birth to creation. God as Parent, Christ, and Spirit is the maker and sustainer of all things past, present, and future. In creation, God envisioned and then spoke into being a community whose life together would be inspired and shaped by Love in order to be a reflection of the Creator. Just as God is many and diverse, God’s creation is many and diverse. The unique character of created things is good because there could be no relationships, and therefore no love, without it. God gave one creature in particular – the man and woman – a special purpose in this creation: keeping the community, nurturing its multifaceted, interwoven connections, and preserving the diversity of each created thing in order to preserve the image of the Creator.

Because God is Love, God creates space for God’s community-keepers to reciprocate God’s love in freedom. However, the man and the woman rejected their purpose and turned away from Love towards self-reliance as if they could live apart from Love. This act of utter rebellion wounded creation at its core. Instead of Love, there was fear; instead of relation, alienation; instead of community, desecration.

Because God is Love, the Parent, Christ, and Spirit remain present and active in, with, and for creation in spite of the rebellion of God’s community-keepers. This active being of Love within and among creation is salvation. God is the saving God who comes to creation in a form it can see, and hear, and touch. Jesus the Christ is Love born to be the true community-keeper whose life, death, and resurrection made a way for all of creation’s wounds to be healed. In Jesus, Love reigns supreme.

Because God is Love, God creates anew by the power of the Spirit. Just as Jesus was compelled by Love to heal creation’s wounded, fearful heart, the Spirit was poured out over all creation to unite all things together again in Love. The Spirit is open-handed Love who reconciles relationships broken by fear, tears down the dividing walls of alienation, and restores all created things to their place in the embrace of Love. In the Spirit, Love brings new life.

Because God is Love, I am. God loves me and empowers me to love God, myself, others, and all creation. Through Jesus Christ and the Spirit, God has invited me and empowered me to play a small part in a fellowship of community-keepers who embody and enact and reveal the healing and new life Love desires for all creation. This fellowship liberates and embraces those who are suffering from the violence of fear, alienation, and desecration and gives it life for the transformation of this violence into peace and justice. They welcome others into their body of unity-in-diversity and are sent out as witnesses to the Love they have seen, felt, and known in order to make their community more complete.

Because God is Love, there is no reason to fear. Creation has hope because God is gathering all things into Love. The perfect communion of God and creation will be made complete.

Church Renewal & Evangelism: Proclaiming Peace

As I consider the relationship between church renewal and evangelism, the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians come to mind: “[Christ Jesus] proclaimed peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near.”1

In the Ephesian context, those who were “far off” were the Gentiles; the “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”2 The world today is full of “Gentile” people who are estranged from God, God’s story, and God’s people.

For Paul, those who were “near” were the Jews; the chosen, covenanted children of Abraham. Many of the Jews did not listen to the testimony of Paul concerning the saving work of God in Christ Jesus, but some, along with many Gentiles, heard this testimony and believed. The communities they formed became the foundation for the vast, diverse network of communities and institutions known today as the church.

By the Spirit’s power, Christ Jesus still comes today and announces peace to all people in all times and in all places. This universal work of peace provides a framework for understanding the relation between church renewal and evangelism: church renewal is what happens when the peace of Christ comes by the Spirit to those who are “near” and evangelism is what happens when this same peace comes by this same Spirit to those who are far off. In either case, the purpose and goal is for all people to be “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” in order to “gather up all things in [Christ].”3

While Paul’s words in Ephesians highlight the unity between church renewal and evangelism, they should not be used to obscure the differences between these two works of God’s saving grace. “Church” renewal implies the existence of a church: a community which has responded to God’s call to be God’s people on God’s mission for God’s world. This group of people is constituted by their corporate and individual response – a conversion – to God’s gracious presence. However, this response is not a singular event. It is an ongoing journey through history which God’s people must walk together with “fear and trembling” as God gives them power to do so.4 This power is none other than the presence of the Spirit who continually evangelizes the church as it struggles to live out its identity as God’s people for God’s world. The church is renewed by its continual conversion to the peacemaking, reconciling ways of Christ who confronts all of its idolatrous tendencies to seek its own good and ignore others.

This process of renewal is one by which God invites God’s own wayward people back into God’s mission in order to bring greater healing and wholeness to them and to the world. It must be noted that church renewal, while originating in God and coming only as a gift of God’s grace, is a set of practices which continually prepare the church to receive its renewal and enter more deeply into the reign of God. Through practices such as hospitality, Sabbath, thanksgiving, forgiveness, Eucharist, spiritual discernment, public worship, prayer, and evangelism the church makes space for the Spirit to come and bring new life.

Evangelism, on the other hand, is a practice of the church whereby God’s people help others say yes to God’s invitation and become active participants with God’s people on God’s mission for God’s world. Through evangelism, the church announces the good news of God’s reign to all people: the peace and love for which the world groans has come to life in Jesus Christ and is real today through the abiding presence of the Spirit who calls and empowers all people to restore and renew all creation.

This announcement is both verbal and embodied; the church’s life is shaped by the story it tells. In fact, the church should be a living demonstration of that story. While this announcement is universal, it must also be particular. The church does not exist in abstract but in specific times and places formed by unique histories and guided by differing values. In order to proclaim peace, the church must know its place and how that place uniquely suffers from a lack of peace. This dynamic process of becoming “all things to all people” is essential to the church’s work of evangelism.5 It is one way – a vital way – that the church fulfills its identity as God’s people who participate in God’s mission for God’s world. Without evangelism, there would be no church to renew.

1 Eph. 2:17, NRSV.

2 Eph. 2:12.

3 Eph. 2:22, 1:10.

4 Phil. 2:12-13.

5 1 Cor. 9:22.

Church Renewal & Evangelism: On the Way of the Poor

What is poverty? What does concern for the poor have to do with church renewal and the church’s practice of evangelism?

Poverty is sin because poverty is death. It is the multifaceted evidence of idolatry run rampant in the world through the denial of God’s image, the ignorance of God’s revelation, the rejection of God’s mission, and the antithesis of God’s vision. Describing poverty as sin does not mean that poor people are somehow inherently sinful or idolatrous; this is not about placing blame or ascribing value. Describing poverty as sin is the only way to truthfully name the wounds we inflict on the bodies of others and ourselves when some of us live as if we are gods at the expense of others.

Because poverty is a systemic degradation of God’s wonderfully diverse creation in part and in whole, it manifests in many forms. First, poverty is experienced as a lack of material goods sufficient for sustaining a decent quality of life. Second, poverty occurs as physical weakness caused by poor health and harmful lifestyles. Third, poverty comes as an experience of isolation from the relationships, knowledge, goods, and services which could lead to a better life. Poverty can also be an experience of vulnerability in which the poor suffer from a lack of margin so that they have very few or no options to respond to life’s difficulties. The poor are those who are marginalized and ignored by others; people to whom no one cares to listen. Finally, poverty is an experience of alienation from the very sources of human identity in one’s life: family, friends, the community, and God.1

While it is possible to make some generalizations concerning these six forms of poverty, one should never assume to understand the depth of pain and suffering being experienced by those in poverty. The only way to really understand poverty is to be poor – this is the way of Christ. When God came into the world as Jesus Christ, God did not merely identify with the poor or stand on their side; in Christ, God was poor – is poor. Jesus was not the son of a ruler, a wealthy merchant, or even a priest. Rather, he was the son of a poor, simple carpenter married to a poor teenage girl. Jesus’ experience of poverty and powerlessness was deepened by his Jewish identity in a society ruled by the Roman Empire. As God, Jesus did not seek power but instead became a servant who gave his life for the sake of others. As a poor man, he was the one anointed by the Spirit to preach good news to the poor and enact holistic salvation for all who are wounded, alienated, and in need of restoration with God, themselves, and others.

If the church is to be the body whose head is Christ, it must learn to walk in the way of the poor. A majority of the church in the U.S. is akin to the rich young ruler who asked Jesus how he could secure eternal life. Jesus’ response is one we need to hear if we want to follow Jesus into the reign of God: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”2 Following the way of the poor means, on the one hand, rejecting the dominant, sinful narratives shaping our society which value money, pleasure, and power for the individual above all else. On the other hand, it means affirming God’s vision of peaceful, just, and loving community in which all are set free by the Spirit of Christ to recognize, honor, and celebrate the goodness of their relationships with God, one another, and creation. The church is alive and renewed to the extent that it experiences the resurrection life of the Spirit who accompanies, guides, and empowers those who seek the self-emptying way of the poor Christ for the sake of the world in all its poverty.

A church on the way of the poor will be freed to rediscover its true purpose in the proclamation and embodiment of the good news of God’s reign for all people. Evangelism is then directed towards the establishment of peace, restoration, and well-being for entire communities and their environments because God desires more than poverty alleviation – God desires shalom for all creation. This kind of evangelism also recognizes the systemic nature of poverty and the interconnectedness of creation which means that poverty degrades all people. Because all are called to the abundant life of God in community, the church should be a place where all people – no matter how rich or poor they are – have a place to know and be known as they participate in God’s mission for the world.

1 Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 67.

2 Mk. 10:21.