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.

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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.

In Memory of Mandela

mandela

During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Nelson Mandela, in the last words of a statement he read in his defense when he was on trial in 1964 for opposing the apartheid government of South Africa.

A Psalm for Peace

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.

Barada River Damascus, Syria

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
Be still [Stop making war] and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Welcoming Hope [Romans 15:13]

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13

As I meditated on this verse, one phrase kept jumping out at me: “as you trust in Him.” I thought about it a bit more and it seemed to beg the question: “for what? What is the goal, the end, the vision that Paul is wanting the church at Rome to trust in God for?”

I started thinking about the whole letter of Romans to put this verse into context. Among the many theological nuances and levels of thought weaved into this letter, Paul is, on the whole, addressing a situation of deep disunity and distrust among Jews and Gentiles trying to be God’s people in Rome. The first 9 chapters lay the theological foundation for the new community in Christ that he envisions in chapters 12-15. However, this is not just any community but the “body of Christ”:

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

Romans 12:4-5

This is the vision Paul has been developing when we arrive at Romans 15. In this chapter, Paul is really driving his message home loud and clear. Verses 5-7 really capture, for me, the main reason he has written this letter:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.[Welcome] one another, then, just as Christ [welcomed] you, in order to bring praise to God.

Romans 15:5-7

So, what is Paul instructing the church at Rome to “trust in God” for? Becoming one mind and one voice, having the same attitude of Christ towards each other, knowing and experiencing God’s gracious welcome and then welcoming others in the same way. This, I think, is what Paul is asking us to trust God for: unity that is experienced in community, the specific, unique – even holy – community of the body of Christ.

So, we’re trusting God for community in Christ, but how is that related to hope? It’s interesting to me how Paul asks “the God of hope” to fill his readers with joy and peace – not with hope. Paul wants them to overflow with hope, but he doesn’t ask for hope directly. Why not? Why ask for joy and peace if he wants the church at Rome to be filled with hope?

As Christians, what is the source and ground of our hope? The simple answer, for me, is Easter: the empty tomb, the risen, resurrected, reigning King, the Lord, Jesus Christ. When Paul asks for joy and peace, I think he’s trying to remind his readers of their only real source of hope in the one who has defeated death and overcome evil. Jesus is alive and Jesus is our hope. But here’s the key: Jesus isn’t just up in heaven somewhere. Jesus is alive and well yesterday, today, and tomorrow. How? Through God’s people, “the BODY of Christ,” the community of men, women, and children that welcomes one another as Christ has welcomed them. This community is – by and only by the power of the Holy Spirit – the resurrected body of Christ!

We welcome hope when we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. Our hope is found in the community enlivened by the Spirit to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ to us. Our hope is real because we know it by name, we can touch it, be hugged by it, and hear its voice.

Paul’s prayer in Romans 15:13 reminds the Romans that they need God’s joy because community is can sometimes be discouraging. It can be confusing and even upsetting, so we need God’s peace. As we trust in God for this provision, we experience the Holy Spirit’s power to “stay at the table” with each other and welcome one another even in the midst of our pain, confusion, and imperfect attempts to love one another. Then, I think, one day, we’ll be able to step back and say, “Here is my hope. In these people, in this place, as we come together and trust in God to fill us with joy and peace by the power of the Spirit; I have hope because I’ve known Jesus, I’ve felt his touch and heard his voice. He’s alive.”

Of course, this hope is experienced incompletely, inadequately and in ways we can’t plan or control. These experiences and moments of hope may be fleeting. The phrase “trial and error” comes to mind. “Community” does not “equal” hope and not just any “community” can claim to be “the body of Christ.” So, we move forward humbly always taking time to discern the Spirit – because, without the Spirit, we’re as good as dead.

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:

Slide3Slide4Slide5

 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]

Slide6

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?

Slide7

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?”

Slide8

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.

Slide9

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.

Slide10

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?

Slide11

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.

Slide12

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:

Slide13

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.