On Sacraments

communionThroughout its history, the church has often been divided over its praxis of certain sacred actions, with baptism and the Lord’s Supper forming the center of this debate. Pointing to the work of God witnessed in the Incarnation, some have chosen to call these actions “sacraments” and claim that God is present and active in one way or another when these actions are performed in worship. Others reject this claim and have instead chosen to focus on scriptural obedience to the commands of Jesus Christ by referring to these actions as “ordinances.” As a variety of faith communities have formed and re-formed over the centuries, all have sought their place on the praxeological spectrum between sacraments and ordinances. My personal journey has led me through several faith communities occupying a variety of locations on this spectrum. After being a member of Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and conservative, evangelical, non-denominational churches, I have now found my way to yet another branch of the Protestant church family: the Vineyard church. In its statement of faith, the Vineyard church affirms its belief in the two ordinances committed to the church by Jesus Christ in the New Testament: water baptism and the Lord’s Supper.[1] This paper will explore and critique the theological traditions which undergird Vineyard’s belief in these ordinances. It will conclude with a presentation of my own understanding of the sacred actions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “sacramental ordinances.”

The Vineyard Church began in the late 1970s on the west coast of the United States and came to be associated with a “Third Wave” of charismatic renewal.[2] John Wimber, who led the movement from 1982 until his death in 1997, drew from his heritage in the Quaker church to focus his mission on empowering “ordinary” believers to do the works of the Spirit.[3] Wimber’s fundamental “desire to give the ministry back to the people” along with his emphasis on personal experiences with the Holy Spirit locate the Vineyard Church comfortably in the anti-liturgical tradition of the Free Church, which gave birth to the Quakers, the Baptists, among others.[4]

According to Robert Webber, a key characteristic of the Free Church tradition was its understanding that God personally communicates saving grace in response to an individual’s choice for salvation, which rejects the notion of baptism as God’s chosen means of communicating saving grace.[5] This was a significant development because it allowed individuals to receive salvation apart from baptismal rites administered by a hierarchical church authority, which had been severely corrupt in the past. This Free Church idea originated in the thought of Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss Reformer, who “was convinced that faith came through the Holy Spirit alone apart from physical channels or external means.”[6] Subsequent Free Church traditions adopted Zwingli’s Bible-centric approach to worship, which gave value to a direct, “supremely inward” experience in the minds and hearts of individuals.[7] In this kind of worship, there was no place for any physical thing or human tradition which deigned to mediate God’s grace, like bread, wine, or water; individuals were freed to receive the grace of God for themselves.

Within this theological tradition, the sacred actions of the church were defined simply as “ordinances.” In opposition to a sacramental view which understood the communication of God’s grace in or through the sacred actions, ordinances were conceived as “emblems, symbols, or expressions of the grace already imparted through Jesus by the Spirit [emphasis added].”[8] The Vineyard Church’s statement that the ordinances are “available to all believers” highlights their belief in the presence of faith in the individual before an ordinance is ever performed. The term “ordinance” also defines why the church continues to perform its sacred actions: Jesus Christ “ordained” these actions for the church in the New Testament. The ordinances are performed out of obedience to Christ’s command. This dimension is also clearly reflected in the Vineyard Church’s statement. As an ordinance, baptism functions as the believer’s public confession of faith in Jesus Christ and as a symbolic participation in Christ’s death and resurrection.[9] The ordinance of the Lord’s Supper functions as a memorial – a “devotional act” performed by a believing worshipper who “remembers, meditates, thinks upon, and recalls God’s great act of salvation.”[10] The Vineyard Church’s praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Supper directs individual worshipers to “follow biblical commands and to remember what Jesus did on the cross.”[11] In conclusion, the impetus of the ordinances falls on the faith and action of the individual worshiper.

While it is necessary to preserve an individual’s freedom to know God’s grace and be empowered for ministry, this freedom should not form the foundation of the Vineyard Church’s praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These sacred actions invite the church into deeper life with the Triune God who exists as perfect communion. The Parent, Child, and Spirit are not individuals, but persons. The person is inconceivable apart from a mutual relationship with another in which both identities have freely chosen to affirm the absolutely unique otherness they see in each other. The life of the Trinity reveals a kind of freedom that is for another; a freedom that is “identical with love.”[12] The reality of God’s Triune life reveals a way to preserve personal integrity without compromising community through individualism. If the praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Suppers in the Vineyard Church is to be an acceptable act of worship to the Triune God, it cannot be a private, individualistic act. Rather, these acts should be performed as signs which point to all the ways in which God pours out grace through the mutual, reciprocal, loving relationships in the life of a local faith community.

I believe this praxeological shift will require the Vineyard Church to allow for a more sacramental theological understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The current praxis, which places a heavy emphasis on a very individualistic doctrine of salvation, needs to be enriched by a restored doctrine of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the church sees that “God wills, indeed, delights in using tangible, earthy means to draw near to his [sic] image bearers.”[13] A healthy understanding of the Incarnation should remove any suspicion held towards the possibility that God’s grace could be received through physical objects like bread, wine, and water. This understanding also reminds the church of God’s communal vision for creation and of their vocation as image-bearers to “keep” the creation in a way that nurtures and protects the ability of all created things to fulfill their God given purposes and come together in mutual, life-giving relationships.

My understanding of the praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Supper leaves room for God to be present and active in the sacred action alongside the faith of the worshiper. The freedom of the worshiper is not impeded by a sacramental theology; the worshiper has no real freedom apart from the freedom they have in God, which is not an individualistic freedom from others, but a simultaneously personal and communal freedom for and with others. This freedom is found only in communion with the Triune God who is experienced in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. While I affirm the Vineyard Church’s belief in the sacred actions as ordinances, I believe these actions are more than exercises in individual piety. I believe that God is especially present and active as the church gathers to celebrate baptism and the Lord’s Supper. God is free to communicate grace through any person and any physical means. The church should be open to receive God’s grace at all times, but especially during these sacred actions. In conclusion then, I believe I hold a moderate position on the sacrament-ordinance spectrum which could be described as a belief in “sacramental ordinances.”


[1] The Vineyard Church USA states in their pamphlet of core values and beliefs: “We believe that Jesus Christ committed two ordinances to the Church: water baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both are available to all believers.” A hard copy of this statement is attached.

[2] Wonsuk Ma, “A ‘First Waver’ Looks at the ‘Third Wave’: A Pentecostal Reflection on Charles Kraft’s Power Encounter Terminology,” PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 19, no. 2 (Fall 1997): 189.

[3] Donald E. Miller, “Routinizing Charisma: The Vineyard Christian Fellowship in the Post-Wimber Era,” PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 25, no. 2 (Fall 2003): 219.

[4] Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 114.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 112.

[7] Ibid., 112, 114-115.

[8] Amos Yong, “Sacraments and Ordinances,” in Encyclopedia of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, ed. Stanley M. Burgess (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2006), 345.

[9] Ibid., 346.

[10] Webber, 245.

[11] Rev. Larry Ellis, “Baptists (Evangelical Denominations and Independent Baptist Churches),” in The Complete Library of Christian Worship: The Sacred Actions of Christian Worship, ed. Robert Webber, Vol. 6 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 8.

[12] John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38, no. 4 (1994): 358.

[13] Christopher A. Hall, Worshipping with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), loc 140, Kindle edition.

Church Renewal & Evangelism: Thoughts on Cell Church

heartcellsIn a profoundly insightful article describing the need for a renewed theology of the Trinity in the Western world, Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas reveals “a pathology built into the very roots of our existence, inherited through our birth, and that is the fear of the other.”1 This fear creates the conditions in which communion with God and one another become extremely difficult as society becomes more fractured by walls built to protect the privacy, happiness, and power of individuals and their homogenous groups. In this fear-driven, fragmented environment, the evangelistic church is given the very demanding task of creating a true community where the peace of Christ calms all fears and heals all wounds. Many churches attempt to respond to this task by creating some form of small group ministry in which its members gather in homes during the week in order to make time for building relationships, discussing matters of faith and discipleship, along with praying, worshiping and serving together. These groups are usually designed to be an additional ministry of the church; something added on to “create community” but certainly not to take the place of other, more primary ministries like the Sunday morning worship service or the mid-week Bible study. When churches design small group ministries as just another piece of the church puzzle, they fail to take full account of the fear of the other which Zizioulas identifies as a powerful, community-destroying force in Western society.

The cell church model offers a much more robust and radical response to the dire need for authentic communities which can model the love of God in a fractured world. A cell church places small groups, i.e. “cells”, at the very center of its life. Meeting with others in a small group is no longer an optional side dish on the buffet of church ministries – not belonging to a cell means not belonging to the church! As the defining feature of the church, the cell is a place where the entirety of the church’s life – its worship, praying, teaching and preaching of Scripture, service to each other and the community, and even its tithing – occur within the context of a 12-15 person small group.

This small group context removes the option of anonymity from the church’s practices and makes interaction and participation with others a necessity; there is nowhere to hide from the fear of the other in a cell church. This feature is the primary strength of cell churches in Western society, but it can also be their greatest weakness. Some people are not ready to confront their fear of others and are unwilling to make the kind of long-term commitment that is necessary for establishing an authentic relationship. The barrier to entry is just too high. These people may need the sense of anonymity offered in non-cell churches in order to come to place where they are ready to commit to deeper relationships where they can know and be known. However, cell churches do typically provide a place for newcomers or outsiders to “test the waters.” On a regular basis, all the various cells gather for a “celebration” service which is more akin to a non-cell church’s Sunday morning worship service. Cell churches must be intentional about the way they structure and present these celebration services so as to remain open and welcoming to all kinds of people who want to explore the cell church community.

Another key strength of the cell church model is the emphasis it places on the practice of spiritual gifts. The cell provides the relational context necessary for discerning the gifts of its members, while also being flexible enough to make a place for its members to practice their gifts. In a cell group, everyone gets to play. In this way, the cell church models a true dependence on the Spirit who empowers the church with gifts for its common good and the mission of God. Again, however, this strength can become a weakness, especially at the cell’s outset. Cell leaders may feel pressured to “delegate” leadership responsibilities to others who are supposedly “gifted” for these roles in order to relieve their own leadership burden or to encourage the growth of new cells. If this sharing of responsibility happens too quickly or if too little time is given to discern the gifting of group members, the life of the cell could be put at risk. This weakness highlights the need for regular pastoral oversight for all cell group leaders. It also suggests the need for establishing a cell leadership team before a cell begins which can help distribute the stress of launching a new cell. When these considerations are made, a cell is given a much greater chance of becoming a place where each member can operate in the power of the Spirit’s gifting as they serve one another and the community.

A final strength of the cell church model is its expectation for multiplication. When a cell reaches a size of 18-24 members, it is encouraged to split into two cells. However, preparation for this multiplication begins with the start of each new cell. One of the first responsibilities of cell leaders is to identify, recruit, and train apprentice leaders from within their cell membership. These multiplicative practices give the cell church model an evangelistic character. In many cases, those who have never been to a church are more willing to join a small group of people where they can sit across a kitchen table, drink a cup of coffee, and have meaningful conversations. Again, this strength reveals a weakness: it easy for cells to close themselves off and get too comfortable. In this case, the cell becomes a clique and therefore unwelcoming towards “outsiders.” This kind of cell will most likely resist being split in order to preserve their comfort. This possibility reveals the necessity of instilling the cell with a missional vision from its outset. Each cell should be partnered with a local community organization where they can “get outside themselves” on a regular basis and practice a life of service. In many cases, this will require the assistance and coordination of an outside pastoral team. However, a cell church whose cells remain outwardly focused will be poised to welcome people of all kinds who can see and hear God’s story brought to life.

1 John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38, no. 4 (1994): 350.

Trinity: A Credo

I believe that God is Trinity; the Parent, Child, and Spirit who exist as communion because they exist as persons. A person is an absolutely unique identity who cannot exist apart from relation to an-other person. Therefore, persons live as community because they are oriented towards distinct others who they freely celebrate, embrace, and love. This Triune community is characterized by movements of equal, mutual, reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving among, between, and within the persons of Parent, Child and Spirit. Because God is Triune, God is relational and God is reaching out to be in relation with that which is not-God. Parent, Child, and Spirit are reaching out through creation, redemption, and consummation in order to gather all creatures together to share in the mystery of their perfect communion. Trinity means that God is Love eternal and unending; that God is none other than the God who has created us in love, who has come to redeem us in the grace of Jesus Christ, and who continues to reach out for us and draw us closer to Godself and each other by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

I believe that this story of Triune persons who live as saving communion is the story that comes before, mingles within, and goes beyond  all human stories and the story in which all other stories find their origin and meaning; that salvation is the comprehensive, holistic process of creatures being incorporated into and participating with the Parent, Child, and Spirit which brings healing, restoration, and transformation; that persons who participate with Trinity are liberating and embracing those who are suffering from evil and sin which divides, desecrates, and destroys that which belongs to the life of the Parent, Child, and Spirit. Trinity creates communities of “disciples” who welcome into their body of unity-in-diversity; who provide a place of refuge, peace, and healing that becomes a place of teaching, wisdom, and power as they gather to worship the Triune God; who are sent out as witnesses to this Love they have seen, felt, and known in order to make their community more complete; who are a community of hope in a world of despair because of their participation with the Parent, Child, and Spirit who together constitute life itself.

Boff on the Image of Trinity in Human Persons

12-03-08-leonardo-boff-novSeeing people as image and likeness of the Trinity implies always setting them in open relationship with others; it is only through being with others, understanding themselves as others see them, being through others, that they can build their own identities. Personal incommunicability exists only so as to allow communion with other people. In the light of the Trinity, being a person in the image and likeness of the divine Persons means acting as a permanently active web of relationships: relating backwards and upwards to one’s origin in the unfathomable mystery of the Father, relating outwards to one’s fellow human beings by revealing oneself to them and welcoming the revelation of them in the mystery of the Son, relating inwards to the depths of one’s own personality in the mystery of the Spirit… Personalization through communion must not lead to a personalism alienated from the conflicts and processes of social change, but must seek to establish new, more participatory and humanizing relationships… the community has to place itself within a greater whole, since it cannot exist as a closed and reconciled little world of its own.

I AM Peace

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Over the past several weeks we’ve been exploring the lives of some major “peeps” in God’s story: Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. We’ve seen a lot and hopefully we’ve learned a few things too, but there is still so much to see, so much we’ve had to skip over for another day.

This morning we’re taking a little leap forward in the story; over the Exodus, through the journey in the wilderness, and just past the entrance into the promised land. We come to an in between time, like twilight, a time of transition that looks more like a stalemate, like a truck stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels but not moving forward, no traction, sinking deeper. A time of “is this what it’s supposed to be like God because I thought I heard something about a promised land, milk and honey, wide, spacious, freedom, security? Are we back in Egypt? Did we go the wrong way?” This is the “period of the judges”: after Moses, after Joshua, and now Israel is asking: “Who’s our leader? Where’s God? Are the promises still true?”

Enter the judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah & Barak, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jepthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and – last, but certainly not least – Samson. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Today we only have time for one: Gideon. Actually, we only have time for the first episode in Gideon’s story, but we’ll hear a little more about him next week. For now, let’s listen to God’s “recruitment” of Gideon:

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 On Thursday I got a very excited email from pastor Jason. It was a message forwarded from the Vineyard Church USA office with 6:8’s OFFICIAL, signed letter of adoption into the Vineyard Church USA! We’re now “Vineyard” approved and you can even find our church on the Vineyard USA online church locator! While we’ve been a Vineyard church for a while now, it feels good to be official. One of the Vineyard’s core values, and ours as well, is living in light of of God’s Kingdom: “a dynamic reality that is the future reign of God breaking into the present through the life and ministry of Jesus [in the power of the Holy Spirit].”[2]

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We say that the Kingdom is “now-but-not-yet”; it has arrived but it’s still arriving. You might even say it’s an in between time, like twilight, a time of transition from the “now” to the “not yet” that looks more like a stalemate. The “not-yet” of the Kingdom seems to be much louder and more real than the “now.” It’s easier to imagine God’s Kingdom way off in the future, up in the clouds, but right now, in this mess? When we look around at our lives and our world, it seems like we’re in a truck stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels but not moving forward, no traction, sinking deeper.

Watch the news and you’ll probably hear about Syria: 100k dead, 4.2 million internally displaced, 1.7 million refugees. You heard about the royal baby, but probably didn’t hear of the 13 children born that same day, and every day since, to Syrian refugees in a Jordanian camp where over 120k people eke out a life in the desert. The future doesn’t seem much brighter; I saw an article on Friday about the expected 50% increase in global violence due to climate change. It hit home for me because I have friends in Liberia who suffered through 14yrs of civil war where the rising price of rice bred anxiety, fear, and manipulation; leading them to war. When food prices spike due to shortages caused by irregular climates or the need for more “bio-fuel”, i.e. corn ethanol, to “combat” climate change, my friends in Liberia are once again put at risk.

But all of that’s on the other side of the world, right? Surely things are better back home? The AP released a study this week reporting that 4/5 – 80% – of American adults “struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.”[3] Last week I heard that the Philadelphia public schools re-hired 290 of the nearly 4000 employees they laid off at the beginning of the summer due to hundreds of millions of dollars in budget shortfalls.

And that’s just what makes the news. We all know there’s more. This “not yet” of the Kingdom hits even closer to home; it’s right here in the seats this morning. It’s here because we brought it here, it’s inside us; we can’t avoid it. The turmoil we see outside is just a mirror of the pain, fear, uncertainty, bitterness, and anger that we feel inside. Maybe you feel it, maybe you’re ignoring it, or hiding from it, or just completely oblivious. At some point though we all experience the not-yet: the incompleteness and inadequacy; the lack and the lies. Where are we going? Where is the Promised Land, the Kingdom? Where are we?

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We’ve arrived at “the period of the judges.” Much like us, the nation of Israel is in a tough place. Judges 2 spells out the situation clearly: God delivered Israel from Egypt and gave them the Promised Land, God was faithful to the covenant and expected the same from Israel. Israel was unfaithful, they abandoned God, worshipped the gods of people living in the Promised Land, and so God gave them over to be ruled by these foreigners. When Israel cried out to God, a judge – a deliverer, a savior, a mini-Moses – was raised up and God would be with the judge, who would set the people free and bring peace and rest to the land. Then the judge would die and the people would abandon God once more… and the cycle would begin all over again. Stuck in the mud, wheels spinning.

But each time the cycle repeated, things got a little worse. The first judge, Othniel, turns out ok; the last judge, Samson, is another story. He’s driven by lust and demands to be married to a foreigner, an idol-worshiper. He goes down in a flame of glory fighting a personal battle that does little for the people of Israel. Then the story gets even worse. The last few chapters of Judges end with a civil war between the tribes of Israel; anarchy takes over. The last verse of the book sums it up: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”[4] It sounds eerily similar to Adam and Eve in the garden, with the serpent whispering, “Did God really say… What seems right to you Eve? Adam?”

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This is the story we jump into when we find Gideon hiding in the wine press threshing out wheat in Judges 6. Israel has turned from God once again and has done “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” – idolatry of some sort.[5] As a result, God gives them over to the Midianites who plunder their land. “Thus Israel was greatly impoverished because of Midian” reads verse 6 and so they cry out to God. God hears and sends a prophet to chastise them for their unfaithfulness. In verse 10, God speaks an ominous word through the prophet: “But you [Israel] have not given heed to my voice.” You’re not listening, you’re deaf.

Enter Gideon! Things have gotten so bad that God needs to send a special messenger – an angel – in addition to a prophet just to get through to these people. So the angel appears to Gideon and says “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior”! Gideon looks up, rolls his eyes, “puh-lease… have you been living in a wine press? Don’t you see what’s happening? And you say God is with us?” Now, when most people in the Bible encounter an angel, they have a different reaction: shock, awe, silence. Gideon, he’s totally oblivious. Just like the prophet said, he’s deaf to God’s voice. He responds in bitterness, arrogance even: “What has God done for us lately? You’re wrong dude – God’s not here. It’s us and the Midianites. We’re on our own.”

Now, I’m pretty sure you can be forgiven for not realizing that you’re speaking to an angel… but look at what happens in verse 14: “Then THE LORD turned to him and said…”[6] This is God speaking directly to Gideon, completely ignoring his “Why is all this happening?”, and telling him “Go! Deliver Israel. I’m sending you. Vamoose!” Surely Gideon catches on, right? Wrong. He just has more questions, more excuses, more doubts. Gideon has ignored God’s voice through the prophet; otherwise he would know why Israel was facing so much distress.  Gideon doesn’t hear God’s voice through the angel either; he can’t imagine how God could be with him. Gideon doesn’t even hear God; he’d rather hide out in a wine press than get involved in some rescue mission with this strange man who just showed up out of the blue.

First, Gideon responds in arrogance and bitterness. Then, he gives excuses and doubts. The fact that God is still in the conversation at this point is testament enough to God’s patience and grace. In verse 16, God responds: “But I will be with you.” It’s a direct quote of Exodus 3:12, when God re-assured Moses at the burning bush. It triggers something in Gideon’s memory, the ice is beginning to melt in his brain. He’s curious now because this person – he still doesn’t realize who he’s talking to – also just assured him of total victory over Midian. He’s interested, so he asks: “How bout you give me a sign to back up this claim you’re making?” He’s timid, cautious, taking it slow, playing it safe. He politely tells God: “Hey bro, wait right here just a sec while I go cook something up for us. Just chill.” The Creator of the universe says, perhaps biting his tongue, “Ok, sure Gideon, I’ll wait.”

Preparing a meal for a stranger was an expected act of hospitality that Gideon follows in hopes that he can maybe get a little more info on the identity of this person who claims that God is with him and that he’ll defeat Midian. Of course, God hasn’t come to chit chat. As ridiculous and slightly humorous the situation may be at this point, it’s no laughing matter to be deaf to God’s voice. Israel, God’s chosen, beloved people are “greatly impoverished” and crying out for relief from the calamity they’ve brought on themselves. God is longing to bring them peace, but Gideon wants to have an interview. When the food is brought out, the angel takes over. No more wasting time. He immediately instructs Gideon to place the food on a rock and pour out the broth. Gideon says, “Well, wait just a minute. I prepared this fine meal for us to enjoy together and don’t you know food is kinda tight right now so why would I just waste it?” Gideon doesn’t say that, although that’s what we would expect from him at this point. He doesn’t question, doesn’t doubt, no excuses – he just follows direction. Then, as we like to say, God SHOWS UP.

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Gideon got the sign he was looking for and a little extra too. All of a sudden the mighty warrior is on his knees, crying out to God: Oh LORD GOD, help me, have mercy, spare my life. God hasn’t come to kill Gideon; He’s come to bring peace: “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die.”[7] When Gideon finally sees, when he finally hears God’s voice, what does he do? He worships: “Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord, and called it, The Lord is peace.” The Lord is peace. Finally, some good news.

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God answers Gideon’s “why?” with “Go!” It’s not that God doesn’t care – why would God still be involved with a guy like Gideon if God didn’t care deeply? God does care about our “why’s”; God hears; God listens. God didn’t answer Gideon’s question, but I think God does something even better: God calls Gideon out of hiding to join God in the work of peace. Gideon wants justice but God calls him to be a judge. Not the answer we expect.

God answers Gideon’s “but how?” with “I AM”! Gideon protests, “How can I save Israel?” God says, “YOU CAN’T! But I can and I will. You’re asking the wrong questions Gideon. This isn’t just about you and your family and your personal peace. It’s about me and my people, my promise, my Kingdom. You’re included but the victory is mine.” Apparently, Gideon knew of how God delivered Israel from Egypt through Moses, but he obviously forgot the song Moses sang after that deliverance: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.”[8] Gideon wants the credentials, the status, the power but all God can offer is God’s self. Isn’t that enough?

God answers Gideon’s uncertainty and ambivalence with “I’ll wait.” God is willing to wait with us through our bitterness, our arrogance, and our anger. God is willing to bear our insecurity and our doubts, all the times we fail to hear God’s voice, even when we’re talking face to face. God waits because God “cannot help but be gracious.”[9] There’s a time for waiting, but there’s also a time for action.  Gideon wants to interrogate but God interrupts. Is it time for us to be quiet so God can move us towards peace?

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God answers Gideon’s fear with “Peace.” This word that’s translated as “peace” is the Hebrew word shalom. It’s not the kind of I-got-a-peaceful-easy-feeling kind of peace. It’s so much bigger, deeper, and longer lasting than that. Shalom is 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 every created thing. It is what community looks like when God is at the center of every heart, every relationship, and every system. It’s what God desires for all people and all creation from the very center of our broken hearts to the broken schools in Philadelphia, throughout the broken homes in our country, and straight across our aching world groaning in the pains of childbirth for its renewal. Gideon wants this peace and God says “I AM PEACE.” Will we join in Gideon’s worship?

Gideon had to encounter and submit himself to, and worship the God who is Peace before he could join God’s work for Israel’s peace, for his own peace. I think, down deep, we all want this peace, this community of love being worked out in justice, healed hearts, shalom – the “now” of the Kingdom. But we’re all a little like Gideon; hard of hearing, wanting to be cautious and have all our questions answered so we don’t have to take any risks. But God is the same today as God was with Gideon. God can wait with us, can take our questions, our complaints, our anger, and then tell us the same thing Gideon heard: “Shalom to you.” What will we do? We want peace but are we willing to worship the God who is peace with our whole selves, not just this morning, but every day, in every moment?

Now you may say, “Well, God came to Gideon and spoke to him and showed him a miraculous sign. I’d worship God too if God would do that for me! Gideon had it easy.” You’re right. As far as I know, God hasn’t called out fire from any rocks around here… not yet at least. I haven’t heard of any angels coming down lately either. Of course, why would God send an angel when God has already come to us as a living, breathing human being who walked and talked, who died and rose again? Why would God call fire from a rock when God descended like tongues of fire as the Holy Spirit was poured out over all flesh? God has come. God is here.

And, you know, God realizes we’re forgetful, so Jesus gave us a sign, a way to remember what God is up to.

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He took bread, gave thanks, and broke it. He took wine, gave thanks, and poured it. He said, “This is my body. This is my blood. DO THIS IN REMEMBERANCE OF ME.” Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutierrez describes the celebration of communion as “a memorial of Christ which presupposes an ever-renewed acceptance of the meaning of his life – a total giving to others. It is a thanksgiving for the love of God which is revealed in these events.”[10] In this sign, we see, and feel, and taste the truth of Paul’s words in Ephesians:

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You may be asking God “Why?” this morning? Maybe you’re not even on speaking terms. You may be giving God excuses, delay tactics, avoidance measures. You may have all kinds of questions about who God is and who you are and what God is doing in the world and in you. You may just be completely oblivious. I don’t have all the answers for your questions or all the solutions to bring shalom to the world. But, if I’ve learned anything from Gideon this morning, it’s this: the first step, the foundational step towards shalom is to worship the God is who Shalom. I can’t answer you’re why, but I can answer you’re where: right here in front of you in this broken bread and this poured out juice, in the God you meet here, the God who has set this table and welcomed us all; right here in the community that gathers around this table. God has called us beloved children, has offered all of God’s self, can we be quiet and hear God’s voice today? Can we be still and worship the God who is Peace?


[1] Judges 6:11-24, NRSV.

[4] Judges 21:25.

[5] Judges 6:1.

[6] Judges 6:14.

[7] Judges 6:23.

[8] Exodus 15:2.

[9] J. Clinton McCann, Interpretation: Judges (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2002), 63.

[10] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 148.

[11] Ephesians 2:13-20.

How Does Jesus Save?

This post is a paper I wrote on Christology and soteriology for my systematic theology course this semester. As I was writing this paper, I came to the conclusion that I would not be able to say all there is to say, or even all that should be said, about who Jesus is and what Jesus does. So, this paper is just my best effort at saying something about the saving person and work of Jesus Christ.

At the age of seven, I walked down the aisle of my Southern Baptist church and gave my life to Jesus. I prayed the sinner’s prayer: admitting my sin and my need to repent and be forgiven, believing that Jesus was God’s Son who had come to save sinners, and confessing that Jesus was my Lord and Savior. As I grew older, I learned how Jesus revealed God’s love for me when he took my place on the cross and bore the punishment I deserved. God could forgive me because my sin-debt had been paid in full; I had been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. As a result, my soul was now secure for all eternity because death was conquered through Jesus’ resurrection.

This soteriology – the “study of how [Jesus] acts as soter, or Savior”[1] – holds a view of God’s justice which “requires either punishment for sin or a satisfaction for the offended honor” of God.[2] Jesus, as the perfect man, bears the required punishment because he is the only one capable, as he is also God.[3] Jesus’ crucifixion therefore becomes the means of atonement; making a way for God to be reconciled with sinful humanity.

Several features of this soteriology are highly problematic: its required use of violence to satisfy God’s justice,[4] its individualistic view of humans and sin,[5] and its nearly exclusive emphasis on Jesus’ death at the expense of his birth, ministry, and resurrection.[6] In addition, this “atonement theory” is deeply flawed because, as Robert Jenson notes, it is based on a dualistic Christology – the study of the saving person of Jesus in relation to God and humanity[7] – deriving from Pope Leo’s Tome which “posits two active ‘natures’ [in Christ] doing things to each other” in order to accomplish salvation.[8] As Jenson suggests, all “atonement theories” should be reconsidered in light of a soteriology based on an integrated Christology in which the one, whole person of Jesus “just is our reconciliation [because] what [he] is and what [he] does are the same.”[9]

This kind of integral Christology was proposed by Cyril of Alexandria and it played a major role in the deliberations of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. While he accepted the language of rival bishops in Antioch which spoke of Christ having “two natures,” Cyril insisted that Jesus Christ was “one hypostasis, or “one subject,”[10] in which “human and divine were so united” that the properties of one nature could be wholly and truly applied to the other.[11] At Chalcedon, the council appropriated Cyril’s thought to affirm Christ as “the one divine Son, who possesses at once complete deity and complete humanity.”[12] The “Definition” put forward at Chalcedon has since served as the orthodox framework for Christology by requiring one to talk simultaneously of Jesus as “God acting in our midst” and “as a human being in the ordinary sense of that term.”[13]

Jenson further develops Cyril’s Christology by describing Jesus’ two natures as “labels for communities” so that his “human nature” is his being as a participant in the historical community of creation, while his “divine nature” is his being as “one of the three whose mutuality is… God.”[14] As the only co-participant in the divine community of Trinity and the historical community of creation, Jesus Christ is the author of salvation as a “relation of communion” between the Triune God and all creation.[15] As God-who-is-communion made flesh, Jesus reveals “not just [God’s] true self but the true identity of [humanity],” so that God’s existence as Trinitarian community is revealed as the life towards which the creation community is being saved.[16] Through the incarnation, Jesus saves the “entire network of creation” from the sin of alienation and so that relations of mutual indwelling between human beings and God, others, and the natural world can come to life.[17] This saving communion “transforms all aspects of humanity so that the abundant life can be lived by all to its fullest.”[18] In this soteriology, all aspects of the incarnation event – Jesus’ birth, teachings, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension – take on a salvific purpose. Who Jesus is as the member of divine community incarnated in human community is the same as what he does in leading all creatures into holistic communion with God and each other.

Since the incarnation is a historical reality, salvation as communion is also a historical reality. According to Gustavo Gutierrez, since “God is manifested visibly in the humanity of Christ,” God is “irreversibly committed to human history.”[19] Salvation, then, is “God’s gift of definitive life to God’s children, given in a history in which [humanity] must build fellowship.”[20] This gift of life “embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ.”[21] Salvation is neither individualistic nor otherworldly; it is participation in the “fullness of love… which unites the three Persons of the Trinity; it is to love as God loves” through concrete, historical acts towards the construction of just community among all people and created things.[22]

In Jesus, God became a particular Jewish man at a particular moment in history. As a result, Jesus has “definitively, once for all, made [God] contextual.”[23] If God is contextual, and if salvation is communion with God and all creation, then salvation must also be contextual – “one size does not fit all.”[24] Creation is a vastly diverse community and God has called it good, but this diverse community is attacked by alienating sin in an equally diverse ways. A contextual salvation of communion means that the work of salvation towards the restoration of just community will be different in each particular context in order to be “saving” for that context.

As a Euro-American male living a middle-class lifestyle in the United States, God is saving me from an anxiety and guilt driven compulsion to save the world on my own terms and saving me for a life of solidarity and friendship with those who have been oppressed by the social structures of sin which support my comfortable lifestyle. As I come to terms with the enormity of injustice in the world, my first reaction is to do all I can, or give all I can, towards a “cause” for justice. However, as Miguel De La Torre notes, this kind of justice is a perversion which only preserves my privilege and its accompanying structures of injustice because it does not involve love relationships with others.[25] Salvation for me begins by following “the way of poverty, the way that Jesus himself shows us as he moves toward the cross;” the way which, as Henri Nouwen notes, refuses “success, power, influence, and celebrity” and chooses “weakness, powerlessness, compassion, and obscurity.”[26] This “way of the cross” is not a self-crucifixion, but is rather, as Costas describes, a process of kenosis: “an emptying of oneself, of [one’s] power and privileges; making oneself available to others by becoming their servant.”[27] As I am emptied of the power and privilege I have inherited from the structural sins of racism, sexism, and classism, I am saved for an active commitment to help “the poor and exploited to become aware of their situation and seek liberation from it.”[28] This active service should not only empower the liberation of others, but should be “oriented toward the formation of liberated congregations that will stand in solidarity with the poor and be thoroughly committed to God’s struggle against the scandal of poverty.”[29] I am being saved insofar as who I am and what I do contributes toward the building of just friendships among all people. As I walk this way of salvation in God’s grace, I am reminded that “the world is not mine to save.”[30] My participation in salvation as communion through kenotic service towards liberated community affirms that I am not God and the world will not be saved on my terms or by my power.

Banquet on the Bridge

Banquet on the Bridge
Phenix City, AL – Columbus, GA


[1] William C. Placher, ed., “How Does Jesus Make a Difference? The Person and Work of Jesus Christ” in Essentials of Christian Theology  (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 188.

[2] Leanne Van Dyk, “How Does Jesus Make a Difference? The Person and Work of Jesus Christ” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 213.

[3] Robert W. Jenson, “How Does Jesus Make a Difference? The Person and Work of Jesus Christ” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 204.

[4] Van Dyk, 212.

[5] Mark D. Baker and Joel B. Green, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 42.

[6] Van Dyk, 214.

[7] Richard A. Norris, ed., The Christological Controversy, Sources of Early Christian Thought Series, ed. William G. Rusch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 2.

[8] Jenson, 205.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Norris, 28.

[11] Placher, 185.

[12] Norris, 30.

[13] Ibid, 31.

[14] Jenson, 202-203.

[15] S. Mark Heim, “Salvation as Communion: Partakers of the Divine Nature,” Theology Today 61, no. 3 (October 2004): 323.

[16] Orlando E. Costas, Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1982), 26.

[17] Heim, 325, 329.

[18] Miguel De La Torre, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004), 43.

[19] 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), 109.

[20] Ibid., xxxix.

[21] Gutiérrez., 84.

[22] Ibid., 113.

[23] Costas, 25.

[24] De La Torre, 39.

[25] Ibid, 12.

[26] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living A Prayeful Life, ed. Wendy Wilson Greer (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999), 64.

[27] Orlando E. Costas, “Mission Out of Affluence,” Missiology 1, no. 4 (October 1, 1973): 413-414.

[28] Ibid., 418.

[29] Ibid., 420.

[30] Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, “A Merciful White Flash: While Despairing of Nuclear Annihilation, I Received An Irresistible Consolation,” Christianity Today 52, no. 4 (April 1, 2008): 59.