Thursday, August 23, 2012

Peace and the Battle

So to call the blog of late sporadic would be kind. Said blog (rightfully) slid to the back-burner as the family and I undertook the good, hard work of transition to our new home in Madison, Wisconsin, where I am glad to finally be, and where I now serve as chaplain to the St Francis House Episcopal Student Center. Without presuming to speak for you, I know I've missed it. I'm glad to be back. I'm hopeful that we can find our groove again.

Just now, some informal thoughts in conversation with the epistle assigned to this coming Sunday, August 26, especially as regards the lesson's role in the Church's tradition, hymnody, and self-understanding.

The well-known passage from Ephesians exhorts followers of Jesus who are the Church in Ephesus to "put on the whole armor of God." Christian theology historically cites this passage in the traditional three-part delineation of the Church: the Church militant, expectant, and triumphant. Roughly speaking, the Church triumphant is understood as that part of the Christian faithful already in Paradise, the full presence of God; the Church militant is we Christians living on earth who continue in struggle against the spiritual forces of evil (citing this passage from Ephesians); the Church expectant traditionally refers to the Church in waiting (Purgatory), though in light of even Catholic writers like Henri de Lubac - who suggests that those seated at the Feast are nevertheless waiting for all the guests before they begin to eat - it might be possible to find the description of the Church expectant helpful, even apart from the full doctrine of Purgatory (which is difficult for many Protestants) - in so far as it emphasizes the unity and common destiny of the People of God.

Anyway, the point: our place in the Church (at least at the time of my writing) is as the Church militant, those who struggle, and further that this understanding anchors itself largely in Paul's words about the armor of God. 

This foundation in place, militant language subsequently comes to pervade the Church's self-understanding, prayer, and song. I think immediately of "Onward Christian Soldiers," for example, in which the self-description of God's People is "marching as to war." Or Martin Luther's "Mighty Fortress". Or any number of others. Randall Balmer elsewhere notes that the siege mentality of some seasons of especially Evangelicalism was encapsulated in the architecture of church buildings, etc., which took the shape of literal fortresses. Signs of the struggle.

So far so good. But a question: if we proceed in our understanding of Christian struggle and militancy to simply list the particular items Paul encourages his hearers to put on, how would we as a Church find our default understandings of militancy and struggle challenged?  

Here goes:

Truth.
Righteousness.
Whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
(Huh, that one is interesting - for obvious reasons - and also because Paul forsakes his metaphor language seemingly to emphasize the point. "Whatever it takes, wear that.")
Faith.
Salvation.
The Spirit, whose emphasized work here is
Prayer.

My own devotional and instinctive response to the words above listed is Gethsemane and the events of Holy Week. These words take me there, to the struggle - time of trial - from which Jesus tells his disciples to pray for deliverance. And of course it makes sense that the struggle and the cross should find shared space in Christian understanding. But can this space also instruct us as to the shape of Christian militancy? Where enemies are there to love and the last words of his Spirit are forgiveness for those who do not understand the things they do?

Importantly, these thoughts transform the Church's militant hymns for me. The hymns are not for me un-singable, but they find a meaning in the content of the armor to which we're called that the hymns do not suggest alone. 

Perhaps all of this is yet another example of the Christian discipline of insisting that God inform our definitions, rather than the other way around. So, for example, we do not know what love is apart from the love we encounter in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We do not call God "just" before learning what justice is from God. Might it be so with struggle? And so also, with militant response: in this life, committed to the hard, even militant, struggle of peace and the Spirit and the work of the Spirit: the agonizing good work of prayer.   

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