Just Give Up: Brief Thoughts on Christian Community from Philippians 2:5-11

5Y’all have this way of thinking, feeling, and acting in and among yourselves which also [is the way of thinking, feeling, and acting] in Christ Jesus, 6who – while existing as essentially God – he himself considered equality to God [as] not something to be grasped, 7BUT [RATHER] he became powerless, taking the essence of a slave, being born in the likeness of humanity; and, being found in appearance as a man, 8he took the lowest place and experienced humiliation [by] becoming obedient to the point of death – the DEATH of the cross; 9Therefore also God exalted him as high as God could imagine, and graciously grants to him the name above all names, 10in order that at the name of Jesus every knee of heaven, and of earth, and of under the earth should bend, 11and every tongue should agree that the Lord [is] Jesus Christ to the glory of Father God.

Philippians 2:5-11, personal translation (I wouldn’t quote this if I were you)

 

Last Wednesday, a man in Tampa, FL got stuck in an elevator at an assisted living home along with an elderly woman. She told him that she couldn’t stand for long periods of time. What did he do? He got down on all fours and offered his back as her chair and she sat for 30 minutes while the elevator was repaired! A picture was taken and, of course, it went viral over social media. A random act of kindness. Doing a good deed. Serving others. Is this the kind of thing Paul is asking us to consider in this passage?

Sort of. Now, don’t get me wrong. This was a very kind, considerate act. He had to really sacrifice something. He literally had to “humble himself” and take a lower position!

But afterwards he walked away more or less the same person – maybe just a bit more famous. And I’m sure he got to know this lady a little bit. But now that it’s over, the chances are slim that they’ll stay in touch. Life will continue virtually the same as it was.

Now imagine: how would this story be different if this man was her grandson and, instead of living at an assisted living home, she lived at home with him and his family? Instead of offering his back as a chair on a stuck elevator, he just takes care of her – keeping her healthy, enjoying time with her, cooking for her, cleaning up after her – day after day. What if this was not just a once-and-done random act of kindness from one stranger to another but was rather a story of everyday service simply overflowing from a deep, caring relationship based in mutual trust and submission? Would it still go viral?

Imitating Christ rarely does. Igiveupkitty

You see, Jesus didn’t just show up for a photo-op. Jesus was God, God’s equal, the same stuff as God. But Jesus became human, he became powerless, emptying himself of the divine status that would keep him from fully relating to weak, fragile people like you and me. That’s just not what a god was supposed to do. He wanted to be like us, to speak to us, to break bread with us, hold our hands, and wash our feet. And He didn’t come to be one of our powerful friends-in-high-places. No, He was like the lowest among us as our servant; like people we usually ignore – the gas station clerk, the migrant laborer, the man selling flowers at the traffic light. Jesus, God’s equal, became like us so he could know us and share in our struggles and give his life to save us.

If we want to be a Christian faith community, this is the story we must tell with our lives together. Whose struggle are you sharing? What does each of us need to give up to get down in the mud and muck of life with one another? Are we willing to trust each other, to commit to serving one another? You won’t go viral. No one may even notice. It will probably be slow and boring. What matters is that we think, act, feel, and pattern our lives together in the downward way of Christ. God will see us. One day God will raise us up.

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.

Church in the Image of the Cross

Ascending by GilbertCantu

Ascending by GilbertCantu

Because Jesus is fully human, the church is called to affirm humanity, reaching out in attentive, vulnerable love to the whole human family, but especially to those who are poor and hurting. In Christ’s identification with suffering humanity – with a humanity ground under the wheels of the powers and principalities – the church receives its own orientation as those who are called to be with and for the victims of this present age. Bonhoeffer writes, “Christians can and ought to act like Christ: they ought to bear the burdens and sufferings of the neighbor… It must come to the point that the weaknesses, needs, and sins of my neighbor afflict me as if they were my own, in the same way as Christ was afflicted by our sin.” That this bearing of burdens is not simply “religious talk” but refers to concrete action is made clear when Bonhoeffer notes: “The hungry person needs bread, the homeless person needs shelter, the one deprived of rights needs justice, the lonely person needs community, the undisciplined one needs order, and the slave needs freedom. It would be blasphemy against God and our neighbor to leave the hungry unfed while saying that God is closest to those in deepest need.” The bearing of the sins and burdens of others to which Jesus calls the church is nothing less than a concrete imitation of Jesus’s own life, a cruciform life, one that was fundamentally disruptive and that cannot be contained in the categories of religion.

…The church’s identification with those who suffer unveils the fact that the current age, in which the few are on top while the many suffer below, has met its end in Jesus Christ… Christians solidarity with the suffering is a search for Jesus who is hidden in their midst.

…Bonhoeffer is not merely interested in the church being in solidarity with the suffering, but calls the church to actively seek to eliminate the suffering of the poor through an ethics of responsibility with two practices of prophetic ministry: unceasing prayer and action for justice.

…The practices of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution are constitutive of [John] Perkins’s vision of the church. The church is that community marked by witness to the gospel, the whole gospel. The church’s most appropriate social location then is among the poor in the abandoned places of empire, a location that places the body of Christ in the ideal situation to witness to the whole gospel, which meets the whole needs of the whole person. The prophetic church, as Perkins’s envisions it, is a space in which all people, black and white, poor and rich, can gather and grow from an economy of grace.

Peter Goodwin Heltzel and Christian T. Collins Winn, “Religionless Ecclesiology and the Missional Church,” in Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Lived Theology of John M. Perkins, 108-122.

The E-Word and the Cross

The apostle Paul, arguably one of the first great evangelists, begins his first letter to the church at Corinth by affirming his calling: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel.”1 The gospel Paul preaches to the Jews and Gentile Greeks in Corinth is “the message about the cross… the power of God.”2 However, this was a message neither group wanted to hear. Even though Paul knew how the “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” he remained faithful to his evangelistic calling: “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”3 Evangelism according to Paul is a distinctly cruciform practice. The cross of Christ is its sole content and no one – neither Jews nor Gentiles, neither Americans nor Iranians, neither black nor white, neither male nor female, neither rich nor poor – wants to hear about the cross because the cross confronts; it is a matter of life and death.

At the church in which I was raised, the cross held a central place in the practice of evangelism. One could hardly imagine explaining the Christian faith without mentioning the cross. It was used as the prime evidence to demonstrate both humanity’s utter depravity and God’s unconditional love. While the cross was essential to the logic of evangelism, it was hardly a characteristic of the lives – both individual and social – of the evangelists. The message of the cross was preached from positions of cultural, political, religious and economic privilege. Church members were the upright citizens, the hardest workers, the trendsetters, and the decision makers. The cross no longer confronted their lives; it had completed its work the moment they “accepted Jesus” as their “personal Lord and Savior.” It was now an abstract, verbal tool they could use to wield divine power over others. Evangelism was a campaign speech, a T.V. commercial thinly veiled in the language of “cross”, “sin,” “God’s love,” and “salvation.” Its goal was an individual decision, sealed by a quick recitation of words, which made Jesus the new “King of your life” but led to very few real changes beyond the rejection of individual vices like drinking, smoking, and casual sex. Evangelism preached the cross but refused to live under its power.

As Bryan Stone notes in Evangelism after Christendom, this kind of evangelism is “neither welcomed nor warranted” in the new post-Christian reality of mainstream American culture.4 The “e-word” has become a “barrier to mutual respect, careful listening, open sharing, and cooperation” arising from “an attitude of intolerance and superiority toward others” which leads to “a belligerent and one-sided attempt to convert others to our way of seeing things.”5 It is the “blessing” of Christendom which has allowed the church in America to preach the cross without becoming a people of the cross. As this reality fades away, some in the church turn to more creative, more relevant techniques to communicate the gospel more effectively; others look to philosophy to shore up the gospel’s intellectual bona fides; still others commend the benefits of a gospel lifestyle – anything but the cross. Stone diagnoses the situation clearly: “what the gospel needs most is not intellectual brokers or cultural diplomats but rather saints who have taken up the way of the cross and in whose lives the gospel is visible, palpable, and true.”6 Evangelism in post-Christendom America which preaches the cross without the social witness of a people who live together under the cross is vacuous and vain.

The apostle Paul rejected any other foundation for his evangelism and relied completely on “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”7 The power of the cross is seen not in its violence but in the resurrecting power of the Spirit it unleashes which creates the possibility of a new creation kind of people. This is a people who are being “formed imaginatively by the Holy Spirit through core practices such as worship, forgiveness, hospitality, and economic sharing into a distinctive people in the world, a new social option, the body of Christ.”8 In order to preach Christ crucified today, the verbal proclamation of evangelism must be accompanied – if not replaced by – a “visible and embodied offer made by a Christ-shaped social body” which invites “participation in a community rather than a mere assent to a set of ideas.”9 Because the cross confronts all cultures, this kind of evangelism is seen as a practice of foolishness, weakness, and shame: “but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”10

Evangelism is an invitation into the story of God’s reign coming to the world and turning it upside down. In the midst of a pluralist, violent, individualist, wealth-seeking culture, it is the work of a people whose individual and social lives have been and are continually being shaped by the story of the God who brings home the outcast, restores the marginalized, and resurrects the crucified.

1 1 Cor. 1:17.

2 1 Cor. 1:18.

3 1 Cor. 1:22-23.

4 Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 10.

5 Stone, 10.

6 Stone, 12.

7 1 Cor. 2:4,5.

8 Stone, 15.

9 Stone, 249.

10 1 Cor. 1:27-29.

Donovan on the Christian Solution to Evil

There will always be a cross somewhere in the midst of the Christian solution to evil, a cross of the pain involved in not returning blow for blow; a cross of the natural, human bitterness felt in the experiencing of hatred and returning love in its place, or receiving evil and doing good; a cross reflected  in the near impossibility of counting oneself blessed in the midst of persecution, or of hungering and thirsting for justice, or in being merciful and peace makers in a world which understands neither. Between us and fulfillment, between us and everlasting justice, between us and the salvation of this suffering world, there will always stand the paradox of the cross, a cross not for others, but for us. “The Jews are looking for miracles and the pagans for wisdom. And here we are preaching a crucified Christ, to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the pagans madness” (1 Cor. 1:22-23)

Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai

I usually don’t comment when I post “great quotes” but I can’t post this quote without a brief aside. I’ll get straight to the point: Donovan’s quote struck me deeply because I live a life that places crosses on others. I agree with Donovan’s quote to the extent that I, and all people, are bearing their crosses for the sake of God’s reign. However, we have to remember that Jesus laid down his life on his own accord (John 10:18). No one took his life from him. The cross “in the midst of the Christian solution to evil” is sometimes the cross we have placed on others; a cross that is taking the life of another. As with most everything, context is key. What is the source of the cross? Was it chosen or was it forced?