Costas on Christmas

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

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

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

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

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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: 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.

Alison on Re-Imagining Substitutionary Atonement

if you have a theory of atonement – something grasped – you have something that people can “get right”, and then be on the inside of the good guys. “We’re the people who are covered by the blood; we’re the ones who are okay, the ones who are good; and then there are those others who aren’t.” In other words, rather than undergoing atonement, we’re people who grasp onto the idea of the atonement. But the whole purpose of the Christian understanding is that we shouldn’t identify too soon with the good guys. On the contrary, we are people who are constantly undergoing “I AM” – that is to say, God – coming towards us [as] one who is offering forgiveness from the victim [Jesus Christ crucified]. And we are learning how to look at each other as people who are saying, “Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in.” Which means that we are the “other” in this package; that we are the “other” who are being turned into a “we”, in the degree to which we find our similarity with our brother and sister on either side of us; rather than: we are the people who, because we’ve grasped the theory have become part of “I AM”, and therefore the “other” is some “them”. If you are undergoing atonement it means that you are constantly in the process of being approached by someone who is forgiving you. That, it seems to me, is the challenge for us in terms of imagination when it comes to imagining and re-imagining atonement.

…it’s because we are undergoing being forgiven that we can forgive; and we need to forgive in order to continue undergoing being forgiven. But remember: it’s because we are approached by our victim, that we start to be undone. Or in Paul’s language: “even though you were dead in your sins he has made you alive together in Christ.” Someone was approaching you even when you didn’t realize there was a problem, so that you begin to discover, “Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in.”

…What Jesus was doing was opening up the Creator’s vision, which knows not death, so that we can live as though death were not. In other words, we’re being given a bigger heart. That is what being forgiven is all about. It’s not, “I need to sort out this moral problem you have.” It’s, “Unless I come towards you, and enable you [to] undergo a breaking of heart, you’re going to live in too small a universe, you’re not going to enjoy yourselves and be free. How the hell do I get through to you! Well, the only way is by coming amongst you as your victim. That’s the only place in which you can be undone. That’s the place you’re so frightened of being that you’ll do anything to get away from it. So if I can occupy that space, and return to you and say, “Yes, you did this thing to me. But don’t worry! I’m not here to accuse you. I’m here to play with you! To make a bigger space for you. And for you to do it with me.” And of course the way he acted this out before his death was setting up the last supper, in which he would give himself to us so that we would become him.

…We can imagine retaliation, we can imagine protection; but we find it awfully difficult to imagine someone we despised, and were awfully glad not to be like – whom we would rather cast out so as to keep ourselves going – we find it awfully difficult to imagine that person generously irrupting into our midst so as to set us free to enable something quite new to open for us. But that’s what atonement is about; and that is what we are asked to live liturgically as Christians.

excerpts from “Some Thoughts on the Atonement” by James Alison.

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?