Newbigin on the Open Secret of Gospel Stewardship

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

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

A KY Farmer on What It Means to Be Human

During my days as a student pastor in rural Kentucky, I learned a great deal of theology that I did not find in the books I was reading at school. My teacher was an elderly deacon who had spent his life working the soil, loving people, and being a faithful church member. Often he would lead in prayer in morning worship, and we knew to expect one phrase, in particular. He would always ask God to help us “remember where we came from,” “how much we’ve got to do,” and “how much we need one another to do it.” I think his prayer offers a good summary of what it means to be human.

Molly T. Marshall, What It Means to Be Human

Holy Spirit, Wilderness Guide of Love #PENTECOST

An excerpt from an essay I wrote as my integrative faith statement at Palmer Theological Seminary. It’s written as a letter to my daughter, Isla, and uses an extended metaphor of faith as “walking through the wilderness” to describe who God is and who God call us to be.

Love is our Trailblazer, but Love is also our wilderness Guide. We know this Guide as the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit guided Jesus throughout his entire life in the way of Love and led him all the way through death and into new life. When Jesus left the wilderness, he said the Guide would come to invite all people to become like Jesus as they follow the way of Jesus as a caravan of Love.

Just like Jesus, the wilderness Guide is God. But unlike Jesus, the Guide was not born as a human being. The Guide is unseen. She is like our breath – we have no life apart from her. She walks within our caravan to give us power to love ourselves and others the way Jesus does. She brings us together in friendship with people who are different from us. She comforts and encourages our caravan when the trail gets tough. The Guide gives us special gifts to keep our caravan strong. She leads us back to the way of Love when we walk in sin. In fact, She’s always leading us, but we need to practice the spiritual disciplines so that we can hear her voice more clearly.

But the Spirit of Love is also working in the wilderness beyond our caravan. She gives life to the entire wilderness and protects the wilderness from harm. She is present with all who are lost and alone in the wilderness trying to show them the way of Love. She gives strength to all who must journey over hard terrain and purifies the polluted air that causes us to walk in sin. As we walk with the Guide, we join in this greater work of making the wilderness a place for all people to find a home.

I’ve experienced the Guide all throughout my wilderness journey. I felt her comforting, guiding presence when I was in the middle of a jungle in Bolivia. Even in the most remote part of the wilderness, the Guide was with me. I also felt the special presence of the Spirit when you were born, Isla. I was in awe as your mom gave birth to you and I still remember that first time I held you in my arms. It’s the Spirit who has given me the power to love you as your dad. I have also seen the Spirit at work healing hurt people and bringing very different people together as friends. I feel the Guide when I work in the garden or play at the park. The wilderness is alive with the Spirit of Love!

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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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We are Church, We are Agents of Shalom

Over the past several weeks [in the spring semester of 2013], I participated in a creative group exercise along with two of my classmates: Clesha Staten and Edward Williams. We imagined ourselves as a church and dreamed about our life together in this community. Through much discussion, we identified our church as “agents of shalom” and described this identity in relation to the four marks of the church specified by the Nicene-Constantinople Creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.[1] We also defined our church’s mission and described the context in which our mission would be pursued. We crystallized this discussion about our corporate identity as agents of shalom into the following statement:

As agents of shalom, we are one because the shalom we seek is the very presence and action of the one and same Spirit of God who empowers us to speak and act in order to bring God’s vision to its fullness as we endeavor to ensure a welcome place at the table for all. We are holy because the Spirit has set us apart to share the good news, peace and love of God in communities suffering from the fractures of personal and structural sin.  We are called to live by example the grace, righteousness, and justice of the Triune God. We are catholic because we recognize that the same Spirit who lives and moves in us is also present and active in other churches and throughout all creation.  The operation of the Spirit within and through every agent of shalom unifies us in purpose without diminishing the diversity of each agent as a unique creation. Finally, our church is apostolic because we continue Jesus’ prophetic ministry of liberation by proclaiming, celebrating, and actualizing the message of shalom to all those who are oppressed by sin, sickness, disease, and the political, economic and social systemic evils. We walk with the same Spirit of God who was sent forth as ruah before creation, who anointed the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and who is present today and for all days to come to orient and empower creation towards the consummation of shalom in the reign of God.

The mission of our church is to be agents of shalom: the overflowing abundance of God’s presence in a community so that the entire community experiences the wholeness, fullness, and satisfaction of a holistic well-being in complete harmony with its environment. It is a comprehensive reality of peace founded on the active presence of Triune love being worked out in justice. Agents are people who actively pursue the purposes of the one by whom they are sent. Because we are sent by the God who is communion, we are sent to pursue shalom as a community of love, forgiveness, and grace, which is extended to the oppressed and marginalized members of our community. This may require us to actively and non-violently resist systems of evil that oppress and marginalize. At the same time, our church is called by the life-giving Spirit to be agents of personal healing, deliverance, and restoration towards all people in our community.

Our church is called to contexts where the extreme suffering caused by a prolonged loss of shalom is being ignored or denied. These are the places “outside the gate” inhabited by people who have been silenced, forgotten, and deemed unworthy, unnecessary, and uninteresting by the powers and principalities of anti-shalom. We desire to join the Spirit’s work in and through the people with whom we live in these places so that a true, contextual shalom might be realized within our diverse community. As a local embodiment of shalom develops, we will remain open to being led by the Spirit to bring forth shalom in new contexts while remaining steadfast in our commitment to our current community.

This statement expresses an ecclesiology: a way of understanding the theological, historical, and eschatological nature of the origin, identity, and purpose of “a community that understands itself to be called into being by God through faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.”[2] However, the ecclesiology expressed in this group statement differs remarkably from the implicit ecclesiology I have experienced through church participation in the past. In this essay, I hope to progress from a critique of the church I have experienced towards a more faithful, holistic understanding of church by contrasting the marks, mission, and context of my embedded ecclesiology with this new understanding of church as agents of shalom.

The unity of the church as agents of shalom is founded on the presence and action of the God whose unity-in-diversity is hospitably opened towards the other. In opposition to this Triune unity, my past experience in culturally, racially, and socio-economically homogenous churches reveals a unity defined by uniformity. This kind of unity ignores “the Spirit’s unifying power [which] enables the integrity of each one amidst the many” and therefore does not participate in the “unity of the Spirit that includes reconciliation and healing in the same Spirit.”[3] The church is to be one because the salvation of the Triune God which it proclaims is an ever-expanding communion amidst the diversity of creation.

A similar discrepancy arises in my past experience of holiness in church and the holiness which characterizes agents of shalom. While past church experience defined holiness as an individual goal of maintaining purity, those who pursue shalom identify holiness as “the authentic presence and activity of the Spirit of God directed toward the eschatological kingdom.”[4] This holiness is neither a possession of the church nor of an individual church member. Rather, the church is being made holy so that its “relationship of righteousness and justice with God… [will extend] far beyond the church itself” into the lives of those “on the margins of society.”[5] Holiness is put on display when the church’s presence and activity in the world matches the church’s inner reality of its participation in the life of Trinity.

As a member of primarily congregational or independent churches, my understanding of the church’s catholicity was very weak. Instead of being instructed to discern and partner with the Spirit’s work in other churches and throughout creation, my experience of church taught me to be suspicious of other churches and to devalue the life of non-human creation. However, agents of shalom recognize catholicity by affirming the Spirit’s power to inspire indigenous expressions of faith in Christ, which preserve the uniqueness of created life and culture.[6] However, contextualization was given little significance in my previous experience of church and therefore my church’s traditional theology – with a little room for disagreement – was the true understanding for all people in all times and places.

My past church experience held a very narrow understanding of apostolicity. The majority of churches I have participated in were representatives of the Free Church tradition where “the New Testament and early church [have] a normative significance.”[7] Therefore, apostolicity was implicitly defined as believing and teaching “sound doctrine” in line with a specific, literal interpretation of Scripture. In opposition to this narrow, disembodied expression of apostolicity, the church as agents of shalom seeks to embody authentically “the apostolic message and witness… in [its] ecclesial life and faith as directed toward the impending kingdom of God.”[8] Apostolicity is a sign of the whole person and ministry of Jesus Christ and his earliest followers which requires full, embodied participation by the Holy Spirit in the mission of Jesus.

In the past, the primary mission of the church I knew was understood as the fulfillment of Jesus’ last words to his followers as recorded by the gospel of Matthew: “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them.”[9] The interpretation of this command led to a mission defined primarily in terms of kerygma – “the proclamation of the Gospel” – which was sometimes supported by acts of leitourgia – “prayer and praise, the waters of baptism and the bread of the supper.”[10] I agree with Gabriel Fackre that this kind of church may be “valid” but it “is not yet a faithful Church” because it does not include a healthy practice of diakonia ­– “a serving of the neighbor in need” – and koinonia – “a sharing and caring life together.”[11] While some of the churches I have experienced in the past have incorporated a practice of diakonia and koinonia in very meaningful ways, the expression of church with which I am most familiar is dominated by its kerygma with leitourgia in a secondary, supporting role.

In contrast to the identity and mission of the church in my past, the church as agents of shalom provides a more holistic and faithful ecclesiology. At the heart of this ecclesiology is the belief that the church’s “existence is not ‘for itself,’ but rather ‘for others.’”[12] More specifically, this church exists for the pursuit of shalom and therefore “outside of the action of the Spirit which leads the universe and history towards its fullness in Christ, [this church] is nothing.”[13] According to Avery Dulles, this vision of church would be categorized as the “servant” model in which the church takes up the diakonia of Christ and “seeks to serve the world by fostering the brotherhood [sic] of all men [sic].”[14] However, this diaconal model is incomplete if it excludes kerygma, leitourgia, and koinonia.

Therefore, agents of shalom take up the message of Jesus and proclaim the hope of God’s now-but-not-yet reign to all people. At the same time, this kerygma includes a “prophetic denunciation of every dehumanizing situation, which is contrary to fellowship, justice, and liberty.”[15] Agents of shalom also gather to celebrate the good news they proclaim through the act of worship, specifically the sharing of the Eucharistic meal around the Lord’s table. However, this practice of leitourgia “presupposes an ever-renewed acceptance of the meaning of [Jesus’] life” and therefore leads the church towards concrete action “against exploitation and alienation and for a society of solidarity and justice.”[16] Finally, shalom is a reality bound up in koinonia because it is the presence of the God whose life as communion is the divine source and model of koinonia. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom seeks a koinonia “where everyone is welcome [as] a sign of the coming feast of God’s mended creation.”[17]

As it pursues its mission through a practice of koinonia, leitourgia, kerygma, and diaconia, the church as agents of shalom must be careful not to confuse its ecclesial life and work towards shalom with the reality of shalom itself. Shalom does not belong to any church because it is the very presence and action of the Triune God in the world which God created. The church as agents of shalom remembers its call to service which “consists in its dedication to the transformation of the world into the Kingdom” of shalom.[18]

The church as agents of shalom seeks to embody and enact its mission in contexts where the destruction of shalom due to the violence of personal and structural sin is being ignored and forgotten. My past experience of church has always assumed a privileged position in society. Even though I was raised in a community where the evils of poverty and racism interlocked in a system of death, I participated in a church whose identity and mission were so affected by social privilege that the fact of this reality, especially the role of this church in its creation and maintenance, was almost entirely ignored. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom must go beyond simply locating itself in a place of anti-shalom. It must make intentional, sustained efforts towards solidarity with all in its community and join in the struggle against alienation and violence because “to know God is to work for justice.”[19] Therefore, the church should simultaneously learn to listen to the needs of its community and to discern its unique strengths and its inherent goodness. The church should also be prepared to criticize its own participation in the evils which perpetuate the destruction of shalom. With this humble posture, a true, contextual foretaste of shalom can come to life.

[1] William C. Placher, ed., “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 223.

[2] Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Ecclesiology,” Lecture, Systematic Theology and Ethics: Reign of God THLE 521, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, April 2, 2013.

[3] Amos Yong, “The Marks of the Church: A Pentecostal Re-Reading,” Evangelical Review Of Theology 26, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 50, 54.

[4] Yong, 54.

[5] Letty M. Russell, “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 245.

[6] Yong, 61.

[7] Franklin H. Littell, “The Historical Free Church Defined,” Brethren Life and Thought 50, no. 3-4 (June 1, 2005): 59.

[8] Yong, 66.

[9] Mt. 28:19, 20, NRSV.

[10] Gabriel Facrke, The Christian Story: A Narrative Interpretation of Basic Christian Doctrine, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 156, 157.

[11] Fackre, 158, 159, 161.

[12] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988), 147.

[13] Gutiérrez, 147.

[14] Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 92.

[15] Gutiérrez, 152.

[16] Gutiérrez., 150.

[17] Letty M. Russell, “Hot-House Ecclesiology: A Feminist Interpretation of the Church,” Ecumenical Review 53 (January 2001): 51.

[18] Dulles, 100.

[19] Gutiérrez, 156.

The Gospel According to Hauerwas

From Al Mohler’s recent interview with Stanley Hauerwas (click for transcript):

Mohler:            Well, again, looking at your writings, and even preparing for this conversation, and feeling the weight of your critique at many points and just very catalytic thoughts, I came back to another question, and that is, for Stanley Hauerwas, what is the gospel? What is the good news that is at the center of the Christian faith? Because I think I could hypothesize several answers, but I would just love to hear you to respond to that. What is the gospel?

Hauerwas:       That through Jesus Christ, very God and very man, we Gentiles have been made part of the promise to Israel that we will be witnesses to God’s good care of God’s creation through the creation of a people who once were no people that the world can see there is an alternative to our violence. There is an alternative to our deceptions. There is an alternative to our unfaithfulness to one another though the creation of something called church. That’s salvation.

 

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.

Thoughts on a Trinitarian Theology of Eating

My closing remarks for a lesson plan I’m presenting next week about a Trinitarian theology of eating. My goal is to bring forward the who of eating alongside the what. Our eating usually focuses on the content of what we eat: the nutrients, the fat, the calories, the taste, the texture, etc… But what about the who? Not so much the people you share a meal with – although that is very important – but more about how the act of eating involves us in a vast personal web of relations with other people, places, and things. I’ve been heavily influenced by Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith (and some Wendell Berry) when it comes to a theological perspective on food and eating. Catherine Mowry LaCugna and John Zizioulas have been influential for my understanding of Trinity.

Trinity is about relationships; eating is about relationships. Our food makes us a part of relational webs connecting us and those we eat with – family, friends, and strangers, with those who grow, pick, transport, package, distribute, cook, and sell our foods, with the land that grows the food, with our Trinitarian Creator. We can’t live if we don’t eat so we can’t exist apart from our dependence on other people, on good soil, on healthy animals, on vibrant ecosystems, and on God. Sometimes we choose to eat in ways that ignore, neglect, or disown our membership in this web of relationships. The global food system we rely on everyday is complex, it is full of injustices, it degrades our land, and it treats God’s gifts as nothing more than goods to be bought and sold for a profit. We need the Spirit to empower our imaginations towards new ways of eating that actually reflect and even participate with Trinity. We need to learn how to eat with God at the table; with farmers, undocumented agricultural workers, food packers, truck drivers, grocery store clerks, and fast food cashiers at the table; with cows, pigs, chickens, fish, and birds at the table; with soil, fields, streams, ponds, rivers, and oceans at the table. When we see and recognize our place in these relationships, our eating can be transformed into a joyous act of honoring and celebrating the goodness of creation and the goodness of our Creator.