Sunday, April 28, 2013

Being Sent:
the book of acts and a theology of mission

True story: by the time Easter is over, finals will have ended. Becca will be graduated. Summer will have found you. The moral of the story, as always: Easter is really stinkin’ long. That Easter is really long is a really good thing. I pray you never get bored of Easter - of the Good News that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

The Easter season - all fifty days of it - has its markers in our worship. The most obvious is the resounding, “Alleluia!” - in as many places as we can fit it. Also, there is the Paschal candle, the light of Christ that broke the darkness at the Great Vigil of Easter some five Saturdays ago. Of course, the white vestments. Another, perhaps more subtle, change: in place of the Old Testament reading, at the Lectionary’s direction, we read from the book of Acts. Importantly, the Old Testament is not omitted entirely - we continue to read from the Psalms; so this change should not be read as a statement of the larger place of the Old Testament in the Church’s tradition. But we read from the book of Acts during Easter because the Good News of Easter is seemingly inseparable from the telling of the Good News of Easter. “Go and tell,” Jesus told the women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Go and tell. Acts is the story of those who went and told the news that Jesus is risen from the dead.

This past week, one of you called the book of Acts the fifth gospel - “the gospel without Jesus,” you said. That’s not far off, I think. In the opening scene, Jesus ascends; a moment later, the Holy Spirit descends. And the Spirit’s descending means the birth of the Church in a rag tag bunch of fishermen. Acts is the gospel of the Church, and the Spirit is to be her life. And as we read through the story of Acts, we learn that the Spirit that ignites and animates God’s Church is about sending. 

Sixty times in the book of Acts, the word send or sent comes up. And that’s not counting first-person words like “Go!”, which of course is a word someone uses to send. Acts is the story of sending because Acts is the gospel of the Church whose life is the Spirit whose work is to send. The Christian Church is the Sent Church. The Spirit descends and immediately sends the followers of Jesus. They are not sent because they have the answers for the ones to whom they’ve been sent, but they are sent because the Spirit sends. 

In our lesson today, Peter is sent, and, by the end of the lesson, it is not clear at all if the conversion that occurs belongs 1) to the Gentiles who receive the Holy Spirit or 2) to Peter who receives the Gentiles. Both are sent. Both are transformed. Both embody in their new relationship with God and one another the reconciliation we’re told the resurrection makes possible: says St. Paul, “For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” 

Still, it was not obvious to the early Church that reconciliation like this was a good thing - at least not in the beginning. They are uneasy. Reluctant. They ask Peter, “Why did you go?” Go and tell - that’s what the first witnesses to the resurrection had heard. But now, hear their reluctance, “Why did you go?” Peter says (in so many words), “The Spirit sends.” And this sending changed the Church.

A year or so into college, I was sent on a summer internship to a government housing project in a small town outside of Pittsburgh. I was sent, along with another twenty-year old, white, middle-class Episcopalian intern to an impoverished, predominantly African-American government housing project, with the task of beginning a ministry. 

Our first day, we stood there in the middle of the street, standing under the sun, looking out at the homes and then at each other, pretending not to hear the catcalls of the neighbors wondering how the honky kids had gotten lost. They were right. Without a friend in the community, we resorted to prayer. We walked the community, praying silently. I remember asking God to help me see this community as he saw the community. We did this for several days.

Finally, we decided it was time to break the ice. We organized an ice cream social, to take place at a nearby park in the early evening - after parents came home from work but before the shootings started and everyone went indoors. I went to the church office and put a flyer together on Power Point - Power Point was a big deal back then - and printed off seventy copies. We returned to the familiar sidewalks and began to look for signs of receptive faces. 

A few handouts into the project, a five year old girl on a red tricycle rode up to me. I had given her some flyers a few minutes before, but now she was back. “I want some more flyers,” she said. “I remember I gave you a few already, but here are some more,” I said. She looked at the additional fliers, unimpressed. “More,” she said. I looked at her suspiciously. “How many more?” “All of them.” “All of them? Look, this isn’t a joke. I put this together on Power Point! I used Clip Art!” Silence. She seemed to stare holes through me. “You look,” she said. “Do you want folks to know about your party or not?”

I wish I could say I gave her all of the copies. I kept one in case I needed to make more copies later. Within minutes, everybody in the neighborhood knew who we were. And they were smiling. Laughing. Introducing. Our “ministry” had begun.

That was my first conversion. The second conversion came in days ahead as neighbors and interns got to know one another. As it turns out, the community was largely Christian already - these were friends of incredible faith and determination. Over time and through patient listening, my friend and I learned that this new community didn’t struggle to know God; they struggled to know that the others who knew God would stand with them in their struggles. Standing with them was the call for which we were sent.

In a wonderful book called Why Go to Church?, the author and theologian Timothy Radcliffe suggests that, if Christians are sometimes reluctant to be sent, it is because we understand that being sent “means dying to whom we have been.” This was certainly the case for Peter and, by extension, the Church he represented. Says Radcliffe, 
[When we are sent, we] are not recruiting people to adopt our views and our identity, like the Pharisees, whom Jesus accused of crossing ‘sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves’ (Mt 23:15). We are sent on mission to discover who we are in and for those other people.
If it is the case that we discover who we are in the sending, it means that, in the work of mission, it is not just the salvation of “those others” that is at stake. Peter found his own salvation, caught up with the others. When God sends us, we may rightfully question the good we can do for the others, but this question - this excuse - may turn out to be the very reason for our being sent, as we learn that we are not the heroes of every story - or even of most stories. Rather, it is God - and not our goodness, our greatness - that brings hope to transform the future; that brings hope to transform us.

After Easter, faith is being sent precisely when you don’t know what for. 

So remember that Acts is the story of sending because Acts is the gospel of the Church whose life is the Spirit whose work is to send. Remember that the Christian Church is the Sent Church; that faith is being sent. And thank God the Spirit sends.



Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Faith That Is Not Our Own Making

This is the final installment in CY's series of guest posts on the importance of the Old Testament for Christians. Previous guest posts in this series can be found here, here, and here.

The Rev. Dr. D. Jonathan Grieser is a friend and priest in the Episcopal Church.


A few years ago, when I was still teaching Religious Studies at a liberal arts college in the South, I made an off-hand reference to Adam and Eve in class one day. A student raised her hand and asked, “Who are they?” We live in a culture increasingly alienated from its past. That is as true of Christianity as it is of contemporary secular culture.

Why does the Old Testament matter? On a fundamental level because it is a powerful record of human beings struggling with the most profound and most difficult questions of human existence, questions we all ask (or should ask) from time to time. Job’s struggle to understand the causes of his suffering is shared by all of humanity. His unwillingness to accept the easy answer and his demand that God answer for the world’s evil are as relevant today as they were 2500 years ago. The call of Amos for a just society that cares for the widow, orphan, and alien challenges us as profoundly today as it challenged Israel’s political and religious elite in the 8th century BCE.

For Christians, though, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is more than a set of texts that shed light on humanity. The authors of the Hebrew Bible have provided the framework and context for our faith. Something quite remarkable happened in the 5th century BCE. In the Ancient Near East, if your people were conquered by another nation, that was pretty conclusive evidence that their gods were more powerful than yours—and it wasn’t logical to continue holding on to your old gods. That had happened when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. It dissolved into the mists of history surviving only in the memory of the people of Judah. In the 5th century, Babylon conquered Jerusalem and Judah and carried off into exile the political and religious elite of that kingdom. If the exiles had had any sense, they would have acknowledged the clear superiority of Marduk and the Babylonian pantheon to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Instead, during the exile, they continued to believe in Yahweh and they shaped a new theology, a new understanding of God and themselves that made sense of their experience and gave them hope for the future. During the exile, these men and women compiled and edited much of what we know as the Old Testament and they brought it with them when they were freed and returned to Jerusalem.

These authors articulated an understanding of God that continues to shape the Christian tradition. They provided the language and theology that Jesus used in his ministry. It was they who provided the vocabulary and perspective that Paul and other first-century Jews drew on as they struggled to understand their experience and make sense of their faith in the Risen Christ and to embody that faith in a new community of disciples. Cast adrift from the traditions of the Hebrew Bible and of Judaism, Christianity loses touch with its past and fails to explore the depths of its theological traditions and its God.

Studying the Hebrew Bible is also an important intellectual and spiritual discipline. Our tendency in so much of life is to ignore or discard anything that doesn’t seem relevant to our current situation. If a movie or TV show doesn’t immediately grab attention, we turn to something else. Christians tend to assume that the sayings of Jesus or the writings of Paul have direct relevance to our lives and to our faith and we also tend to assume that those sayings or writings can be easily interpreted. When we encounter texts from the Hebrew Bible that are difficult or obscure, that recount events with no other historical evidence, or seem to portray a God who is capricious, violent, or full of human emotions, or depict social conditions far different from our own, we wonder what, if any, relevance they might have for 21st century Christians. It’s helpful to know that Christians have had the same sorts of questions about the Hebrew Bible for nearly two thousand years. Before us, and alongside us, Jews have asked many of the same questions and have struggled as well to understand these texts that both religions regard as the Word of God. One of the great revelations of my education as a scholar and as a Christian was to read the Church Fathers, especially Augustine of Hippo, as they sought to understand and interpret the difficult texts of the Hebrew Bible. As I listened to his questions, and discovered with him how God might be speaking through strange stories, languages, and worldviews, I learned that I was not alone with my questions about the text and that the effort to seek God’s word in those texts is part of what it means to be a faithful Christian.

Reading the Hebrew Bible forces us to confront the views of people from very different cultures and contexts, views that may be offensive or seem misguided or wrong. Reading the Hebrew Bible forces us to confront a God and a faith that is not of our own making and to discern within those texts, in the faith and in the God witnessed in those texts, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the possibility, nay, the certainty that the Spirit continues to speak to us through them. Reading the Hebrew Bible teaches us humility.  Reading the Hebrew Bible helps us develop discerning minds and hearts. Reading the Hebrew Bible expands our faith and deepens our understanding of God.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Grieser is Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, WI. Jonathan is also a former professor of religion and currently serves on the Board of St. Francis House, the Episcopal student ministry of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Read Fr. Jonathan's blog here.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Lamb Is Our Shepherd?
An Embarrassing Conversation I Tried to Avoid over Nachos Last Tuesday

The other night, just before Tuesday's Compline and catching up with myself over a plate of nachos at the Sett, Union South, I was approached by two nervous and very determined young men. I had noticed them staring vaguely at me from a distance for some time. Finally, they made their approach: 

“Hey. Is that a collar?” 
“Huh. Is it real?” 
“Huh. Cool. What church?” 
“I work for the Episcopal church on campus.” 
“Right, St. Francis something.” 
“Yeah, that’s right. St. Francis House.” (We talked about St. Francis House for a couple minutes.) 
“Cool. We’re Catholics. Wanted to check it out. You new on campus?” 
“Yeah. Moved here last August. Why do you ask? Did you know the chaplains before me then?” 
“No, no.”

(long pause)

“Whatcha reading?” pointing to the Kindle on the table. 

“O Lord,” I thought. “Don’t y’all have somewhere else to be?” (I didn’t say that.)

No, I sighed though, because I had just that moment unarchived The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder. I had been caught, red-handed, in Nerd City. 

The Politics of Jesus is a brilliant book, but not without its controversy. In it, Yoder, a Mennonite, argues that Christian discipleship entails Christological non-violence, i.e., a certain kind of pacifism. It’s not a popular position in my own tradition; I don’t talk about it much around my family. I wasn’t especially eager to broach the topic with these two stubbornly intrusive strangers. 

“Whatcha reading?” they had asked. And the two men waited for an answer. In It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, Linus says to Charlie Brown: “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” Well, one out of three ain't bad, I thought. I took a deep breath and looked longingly at my nachos. And I told them the name of the book.

“Sounds interesting,” one said. “Why are you reading it?” Their eager sincerity began to disarm me and even to overcome their annoying-ness. 

“Well,” I said, “this coming Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday. I think y’all are reading similar lessons, too, actually.” They nodded. “The readings are from John’s gospel - “the sheep know my voice”, Jesus as the Good Shepherd - and Psalm 23 - “the Lord is my shepherd,” but the reading from Revelation is not first of all about a shepherd; it’s about a lamb -  a triumphant, slaughtered lamb. And I can’t stop thinking about Boston and the bombs. And I can’t stop wondering what it means that Jesus, our Shepherd, the one that we follow, is also the Lamb.

“So I remembered that this book’s last line was about the victory of the Lamb, and that the last chapter of the book was about the war of the Lamb, but I wanted to make sure I was remembering these connections rightly. You know, not mis-remembering or making it up.”

I looked down at my nachos, checked my watch, felt like I’d said too much, sure that this was far more than they had bargained for. But, hey, I thought, they asked. Lest they’d forgotten, they were interrupting me. I shoveled in a bite of guacamole.

“That’s awesome,” they said. “So, in a sentence, what’s the book about?”

“Well, in a sentence, that the shape of Jesus’ life - who he was and how he lived - is as instructive for Christians who would follow Jesus - reveals as much about God’s nature - as his death and resurrection; that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are of one piece and, together, show us who God is.”

They looked at me blankly, as if sensing that I was holding out on them.

I sighed again. “And,” I confessed, “Yoder is going to make the case that the shape of discipleship informed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is necessarily non-violent. So it’s political. It’s about our response to things like terror. It’s a book about politics and Christian pacifism and living lives true to the shape of the Kingdom of the Lamb who was slain.”

They perked up. “That’s awesome. That’s really cool. That’s some good stuff.” they said. “We should talk more. Hey, what’s your phone number? We’ll call you sometime.” And we made some small talk, but that was that, more or less.

I don’t know why this struggle embarrassed me at the time. Or better, why I was embarrassed to share my struggle. Embarrassed to admit that, as my Facebook news stream becomes a partisan war zone for patriots of every side, I struggle - for example - in the conversation over gun-control legislation, to know when/if Christians can finally ask one another out loud whether killing another person, even in self-defense, is faithful to the God of the cross.

Our Shepherd is a lamb. The one who is with us in the valley of the shadow of death is the crucified Lamb who cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This struggle is worth naming. 

Sometimes I think our being embarrassed by the struggle is why we Christians feel the need for cheap answers we can control, as in, “X event happened because we failed to do Y.” Or, “If we can do A, B, and C - and we can! - this kind of thing will never happen again.” Because it is easier to feel outraged than impotent. Easier to blame ourselves than need God. Easier to hope in ourselves than in God. So the Church looks in the mirror after a tragedy and vows to be more useful, to be more ready, more prepared, the next time around. 

But in his Easter sermon this past March, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams challenged this instinct. He said, “Even if every commentator in the country expressed generous appreciation of the Church (and we probably needn't hold our breath...), we'd still be bound to say, 'Thank you – but what matters isn't our usefulness or niceness or whatever: it's God, purposive and active, even – especially – when we are at the end of our resources. It's the moment when the wall becomes a window.'”

When we are at the end of our resources - that’s how I felt this past week - after Boston, the political games surrounding gun control, the horrific explosion in West, Texas, the earthquake in China - at the end of my resources. Helpless, if not hopeless. In our emptiness and need of God, this is when the wall becomes a window. 

Our Shepherd is a Lamb - slaughtered and triumphant - and this Lamb is our Shepherd, the one whom we follow. In Revelation, we read that on this ground is our hope: that "the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.” 

In The Politics of Jesus, Yoder writes, “The choice that [Jesus] made in rejecting the crown and accepting the cross was the commitment to such a degree of faithfulness that he was willing for its sake to sacrifice effectiveness.” So when John writes in Revelation, “The lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power!”, John’s words are less a paradox, writes Yoder, and more a meaningful affirmation that “the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history. The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience (13:10)...[because the] relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.”  

The one who for our sakes walked the way of the cross, died on the cross, rose victorious, and shattered death, bids us follow. Our Lamb is our Shepherd. Our Lamb is our Way. Our Lamb has conquered. Let us follow him. 


SFH. 4.21.13

Friday, April 19, 2013

a question for the Church

At what point in the gun-control legislation conversation do Christians ask one another out loud whether killing another person, even in self-defense, is faithful to the God of the cross - regardless of whatever rights the government decides to give us or not give us? How would it change the public conversation if it was simply a given that Christians would rather die than kill? Realizing that such a conviction is not a consensus position among Christians, I ask the questions honestly and openly.

I worry that progressives and conservatives alike essentially agree that gun control is an issue to be meted out in the houses of the State and so therefore forget that Christians are free to renounce legislative freedoms incompatible with the freedom Christ won for us on the cross. That is, the Church punts hard questions of Christian discipleship to the State at her soul's peril. Moreover, for the Church to expect to live her convictions without cost is an evasion of the Gospel.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What You Told Us:
Old Testament Survey Feedback

CY has been featuring a month-long series of guest posts on the importance of the Old Testament for Christians. A few weeks ago, we asked for your input. Here's what you told us:

When do you read/hear the Hebrew Scriptures (Christian Old Testament)?

100%  Sunday worship
73%    Individual daily readings
55%    As the Spirit leads
36%    Weekly group study
9%      Other
0%      Daily readings with family
0%      Not at all

How satisfied are you with your familiarity of the Old Testament?

36.5%   Very Satisfied
36.5%   Pretty Satisfied
27%   Not Satisfied


"This past year have been working on Proverbs and Psalms - so learning a lot more of the OT... have not read many of the smaller books of the OT"

"but lets face it if I was really that dissatisfied with it, I would try harder"

"I'm an EFM graduate and mentor, a 17-year affiliate of a monastic order and pray the offices, so I may not be representative."

"I hear or read the OT during Sunday worship, daily Morning Prayer, and in preparation for my weekly EfM group (I serve as a mentor)."

"Still lots of room for improvement in OT knowledge, but reading it through is the best's a narrative, not a devotional."

We had also asked, "How would you tell the story of Scripture in 5 words or less?" I regret that we've lost those results somewhere in the Book of Face. We'll add those results if/when we find them, because they were really good.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tragedy in Boston: Why the Church Needs a Response that Needs God's Help

Ours sometimes seems like an unending season of tragedy. Undoubtedly it has seemed so to every generation, but that this may have been the case for those before us does not diminish our present sense of hopelessness - our present pain. The provocations of war, gun violence, and terror cause us to search ourselves, our souls, for resources capable of producing an intelligible response. 

But resources and intelligible responses to societal ills prove evasive. In twin-tweets today, David Fitch quoted Zizek, who names examples of the challenges to right responses:
The delicate liberal caring for others fighting violence + the blind fundamentalist exploding in rage are two sides of the same coin. Zizek
The story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is a lie -the truth lies outside, in what we do Zizek
In The Politics of Jesus, John Howard writes this about our predicament:
...what our contemporaries find themselves practically incapable of challenging is that the social problem can be solved by determining which aristocrats are morally justified, by virtue of their better ideology, to use the power of society from the top so as to lead the whole system in their direction.
In his Easter sermon this year, Rowan Williams helpfully challenges the Church's compulsive desire to be useful in the face of these tragedies:
Even if every commentator in the country expressed generous appreciation of the Church (and we probably needn't hold our breath...), we'd still be bound to say, 'Thank you – but what matters isn't our usefulness or niceness or whatever: it's God, purposive and active, even – especially – when we are at the end of our resources. It's the moment when the wall becomes a window.' 
We are still grieving. 

It is good and right to keep silence, lack answers; to grieve; even to name, as Williams says, that we are at the end of our resources. Quick answers deny our grief and act in a kind of denial of the impotence necessary to need God's help.

We need a response that needs God's help.

Toward that end, I revisited the last chapter of Yoder's Politics tonight. The chapter is entitled, The War of the Lamb. The chapter asks us to consider responses that sacrifice efficacy and relevance for a sharing in the triumphant suffering of the Lamb. Excerpts follow at the end of this post. I offer them as a prayer for a people in need of a response that needs God.

Peace to you.

"This is significantly different from that kind of 'pacifism' which would say that it is wrong to kill but that with proper nonviolent techniques you can obtain without killing everything you really want or have a right to ask for. In this context it seems that sometimes the rejection of violence is offered only because it is a cheaper or less dangerous or more shrewd way to impose one's will upon someone else, a kind of coercion which is harder to resist. Certainly any renunciation of violence is preferable to its acceptance; but what Jesus renounced is not first of all violence, but rather the compulsiveness of purpose that leads the strong to violate the dignity of others. The point is not that one can attain all of one's legitimate ends without using violent means. It is rather that our readiness to renounce our legitimate ends whenever they cannot be attained by legitimate means itself constitutes our participation in the triumphant suffering of the Lamb."

"Almost every other kind of ethical approach espoused by Christians, pacifist or otherwise, will continue to make sense to the non-Christian as well. Whether Jesus be the Christ or not, whether Jesus the Christ be Lord or not, whether this kind of religious language be meaningful or not, most types of ethical approach will keep on functioning just the same. For their true foundation in in some reading of the human situation or some ethical insight which is claimed to be generally accessible to all people of goodwill. The same is not true for this vision of "completing in our bodies that which was lacking int he suffering of Christ" (Col. 1:24). If Jesus Christ was not who historic Christianity confesses he was, the revelation in the life of a real man of the very character of God, then this one argument for pacifism collapses."

"The Christian pacifism which has a theological basis in the character of God and the work of Jesus Christ is one in which the calculating link between our obedience and the ultimate efficacy has been broken, since the triumph of God comes through resurrection and not through effective sovereignty or assured survival."

"A church once freed from compulsiveness and from the urge to manage the world might then find ways and words to suggest as well to those outside its bounds the invitation to a servant stance in society."

"...our interest is not in asking whether eighteenth-century religion could be the opiate of the people, but rather understanding the function of the apocalyptic vision in the first-century, whose seers were not on any drug."

"The future that the seer of Patmos sees ahead is a universe - that is, a single system - in which God acts and we act, with our respective actions relating to each other. The spiritual and providential laws which we expect to see at work in this system are as solid for the believer as are the laws of dialectical materialism for the Marxist."

"The cross of Christ is the model of Christian social efficacy, the poser of God for those who believe. Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur. Our Lamb has conquered; him let us follow."

Monday, April 15, 2013

What Christian Worship Can Learn From Atheists

While recent signs indicate that the tenor of conversation between Christians and atheists may be improving (evolving, even?) in public discourse, there is some irony in the fact that there is such considerable room to improve. Irony because, in the first centuries of the Church, Christians were regularly accused of - and killed for - being atheists, having adopted, said the ancient Greek historian Dio Cassius, "the practices of the Jews." Or as Phil Harkland put it in the article cited above: "the denial of other gods was perhaps the most important source of conflict and the strangest thing about devotees of the Judean God and of Christ."

While it is not uncommon for Christians to consider the distinctiveness of Christian claims relative to Judaism, it is instructive that the early Greeks saw Christians as adopting the practices of the Jews. This outside Greek perspective helpfully recalls the continuity of Israel's vocation - Israel's "set apart-ness" - and God's mission to those beyond Israel.  Dio Cassius is observing exactly the scandal by which the blessing of Israel's Kingdom is, in Christ, opened to Gentiles and that mixed kettle of fish called the Church. For Christians, Jesus is both "a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel."

To begin with Israel is to begin with one God: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad; Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is one (Deut. 6:4). 

Now, belief in one god is, in some sense, a question of movement from one's point of reference. That is, the one god of Israel's Shema could represent an increase, as in, "I did not believe in God before, but now I do." What the early opposition to the Church clearly saw, however, is that confession of "one true god" can just as easily - and far more probably - represent a decrease, as in, "I will not bow down to other gods."(1)  

Examples of the confession of one God as a decrease from the alternative in Scripture are many and too numerous to list. Consider a few representative instances: Israel and the golden calf (and God's response), Israel's request for a king (and God's reluctance), the refusal of the three men to serve the king's gods (and their subsequent deliverance from the fiery furnace), Jesus' crucifixion (and the people's haunting words, "We have no king but the emperor"), and the missionary encounters of the apostles recorded in Acts.

Similarly, the history of the Church's life and witness has consistently understood and engaged formation centered on one God as opposed to many. In his commentary on the Ten Commandments, Martin Luther writes:
Ask and examine your heart diligently, and you will find whether it cleaves to God alone or not. If you have a heart that can expect of Him nothing but what is good, especially in want and distress, and that, moreover, renounces and forsakes everything that is not God, then you will have the only true God. If, in the contrary, it cleaves to anything else, of which it expects more good and help than of God, and does not take refuge in Him, but it adversity flees from Him, then you have an idol, another god.
Thus, Christian formation consists, in part, of not believing; of saying "no" to the pantheon of the gods, where "gods" are understood to be anything from which we expect more good and help than God.

Of course, Christians are not atheists. Emphatically, believing in the one God who delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead changes everything. Indeed, to the extent Christians fail to worship the one true God - by expecting more good and help than of God from the countless myriads gods of our day - we live what Stanley Hauerwas calls lives of "practical atheism." 

But if confession of the Christian God requires of those who confess this God the refusal to worship another, perhaps we can acknowledge that atheists and Christians have a shared agenda: the naming and dissuasion of the worship of gods we don't believe exist. For this reason, it is curious that Christians have not valued inter-faith conversations with atheists on the same level as conversations with peoples of other faiths. Christians believe that it is enough to believe, and forget that not worshiping gods is as distinctive of our tradition as is worshiping the Triune God revealed in Jesus.(2) The challenge to an inter-faith conversation with atheists, I suppose, is that Christians and atheists can't agree on the gods we don't believe exist. 

Disagreements notwithstanding, I have hope that generous atheists can teach the Church a thing or two about not believing. I hope, too, that a generous Church can raise questions for atheists - about the gods, with God's help, we are learning not to worship.



(1Significantly, throughout the Church's history, one of the chief expressions of the Christian's refusal to worship other gods has been the Christian's unwillingness to legitimate the empire's claims of divine status. Thus, the Church understands "Jesus is Lord" to be a theological and political statement.

 (2) Cf. HauerwasAmericans do not have to believe in God, because they believe that it is a good thing simply to believe: all they need is a general belief in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in the US. The god most Americans say they believe in is not interesting enough to deny, because it is only the god that has given them a country that ensures that they have the right to choose to believe in the god of their choosing, Accordingly, the only kind of atheism that counts in the US is that which calls into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and happiness.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Risen Christ and the Forgiven Church

Simon Peter, the sons of Zebedee, and some others are fishing in a boat. Jesus approaches. He calls out to them. Directs them to let down their nets. So doing, they land a big catch. Jesus promises these fishermen that they will become fishers of people. The disciples leave everything and follow him.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

In Luke’s gospel, it’s how the story starts, how Jesus calls his band together at the very beginning. Here, in John’s gospel, however, it’s how the story ends. Like deja vu all over again. That pattern: fishing, approaching, directing, and calling. John’s gospel ends where Luke’s gospel begins.

Imagine John’s gospel as a movie. To end with a beginning produces the kind of ending that tells the attentive viewer, tells you, a sequel is already in the works, like when Doc Brown shows up in a tricked out get-up and tells a young Michael J. Fox to hurry, to get into the DeLorean and go back with him, the future(!), and the credits roll. It’s an ending meant to leave us on the edge of our seats, left to imagine what comes next. It’s the kind of ending that names a new and unpredictable - as in, all bets are off - beginning.

[Parenthetically, Rebekah tells me you won’t know Back to the Future, which, if true, I regard as a tragedy, and, if true, is nobody’s fault but your own. A preacher can only do so much.]

“Follow me,” Jesus says to Peter, and it’s an ending that announces that the adventure is just begun.

Reading this text in the late 4th/early 5th century, Augustine found it noteworthy that, at the first calling of the disciples in Luke’s gospel, the nets that catch the fish are filled to breaking, but here in John’s gospel, by contrast, the risen Jesus before his friends, the nets are filled but are not broken. And the nets not broken are the disciples themselves, the ones Jesus called fishers of people, in that Jesus’ death that had threatened to undo them, to break them, that had thoroughly exposed them, will not, finally, break them; will not, finally, break God’s Church; because the Church is not the community of the polished and powerful; the Church is the communion of the risen Christ.

The Church to which the risen Christ returns is the forgiven Church.

They had denied him, abandoned him, left him for dead. But here he is, and here they are, re-enacting, re-claiming, that first vocation. Fishers of people. And like fishermen’s nets, Jesus mends them, makes them whole, and restores them to God, themselves, and the mission of God in this world.

I wonder if you have ever longed for this kind of mending.

This mending is what Peter is learning from Jesus just now in the question that won’t go away: “Simon Peter, do you love me more than these?” The question repeats three times in order to knit, mend, and heal Peter’s three earlier denials. Jesus, finally accepting what Peter can offer - “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” - now spelling out clearly for Peter how love for Jesus and love for his sheep, from this moment on, must go together. In other words, reconciliation and mission go together because, as the disciples are learning, the mission is reconciliation. And reconciliation is friendship restored: the disciples restored to their Savior; the fish of the sea gathered together in one, unbroken net.

God’s mission is reconciliation. It’s true. You can look it up. Reconciliation is the mission the Church has been given: St. Paul, to the Church in Corinth writes, “...if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

But if God’s mission is reconciliation and reconciliation is made possible by the risen Christ, it follows that God’s mission requires of the Church today conversations like Peter’s with Jesus. Real salvation from real sins, real mending of real denials... If reconciliation and mission go together, mission begins with self-emptying before the risen Christ, naming our need of the forgiveness we find him speaking to us. “Drink this, all of you,” he says, “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

In an interview, an African bishop observed some years ago that North American Christianity takes a particular shape in part because it assumes a position at the center, a position of power. He suggested that this position of power is what makes the so-called “Great Commission” of Matthew’s gospel - “Go and make disciples of all nations...” - so attractive to North American Christians. Said the bishop, “Americans have been preoccupied with the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the Great Commission: ‘Go and make.’ I call them go-and-make missionaries. These are the go-and-fix-it people. The go-and-make people are those who act like it's all in our power, and all we have to do is ‘finish the task.’ They love that passage! But when read from the center of power, that passage simply reinforces the illusion that it's about us, that we are in charge.”

The bishop suggested instead what he called the “Great Invitation” of this gospel: Jesus, meeting Peter and the others, mending the broken nets. Jesus, alive and at the center, re-issuing the invitation that began the whole adventure in the first place: “Follow me.”

“Can we,” the bishop asked, “begin to read those passages that trouble us, that don't reinforce our cultural centeredness?”

“When I am weak, then I am strong,” Paul says. Familiar words, and in them the invitation of reconciliation: to go against everything we’ve been taught to believe, survival of the fittest, all the rest – every value of a society steeped in the waters of post-enlightenment western might and individualism. As a mission, as a calling, as a beginning, Paul's words are nonsense.

Nonsense. Except that we have been steeped in other waters; we have been steeped in the waters of baptism; we have seen our Savior claim his kingship from a cross. And long after we and the crowds had gathered, lost hope, and gone home, there, on that beach, around that charcoal fire, he finds them. There, the disciples restored to their Savior; there, bitter tears turn to joy; there, God’s own dream: the fish of the sea gathered together in one, unbroken net.

“Follow me,” Jesus says, and it’s an ending that announces that the adventure is just begun.

St. Francis House. 4.14.2013

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Quasimodo Sunday
(A Homily for J's Baptism)

In many parts of the Church, this Sunday has a nickname: “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” It is not a nickname that lends itself to cheerful greetings on Hallmark cards quite like “Happy Easter!” – but it is arguably more compelling than another name this Sunday goes by: Low Sunday. “Low Sunday,” originally for more noble reasons, but these days because churchgoers customarily take the Sunday after Easter Sunday off, stay in bed, which only helps the Church forget that Easter season is fifty days – that’s right, a full ten days longer than that seemingly interminably long season called Lent. What can I say? Guilt and self-loathing come more naturally to Christians, I suppose, than grace and resurrection. Too bad. But I digress. Doubting Thomas Sunday it is.

Because we read this same gospel lesson every Doubting Thomas Sunday, we may come here expecting that we know what to expect. That is, we know that the gospel appointed for Doubting Thomas Sunday is about Doubting Thomas. Makes sense. Only, today I want to suggest that knowing that this story is Thomas’ story keeps us from seeing something far more curious, more disturbing, than Thomas’ doubt that Jesus has been raised from the dead (a forgivable doubt, if ever there was one). The truly strange thing in this gospel is that, one week after Jesus reveals himself to the other disciples, they are still here, in this same darned room, locked behind the doors.

What are they doing?

As one scholar succinctly puts it, “They proclaim the Easter message, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ but their actions do not fully match their understanding.”

The story gets more difficult before it gets easier. Next week we’ll find the disciples fishing – that’s right, as in, the thing they did before Jesus called them to be disciples in the first place – even after Thomas has seen Jesus’ hands and his feet and his side.

We are told that doubting Thomas is “the Twin,” and we certainly discover a kind of kinship with him when we hear Jesus say to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." (It’s as if Jesus is giving us a shout-out at the end of the story.) And yet, I am struck that we also share a kinship with the other ten disciples – insofar as we too proclaim the Easter message, but our actions do not fully match our understanding. We find ourselves wondering, “What does it mean to believe?”

I returned yesterday from three days at a theology conference on the topic of Christian Political Witness, where three-hundred-some-odd of us gathered together to admit that we do not always know what it looks like to believe and that being Easter people with Easter actions – that is, actions that proclaim the crucified and risen Lord in all aspects of life, including politics – is hard.

To name the obvious, Christ’s victory over death does not always find concrete expressions in our lives. That is, we’re still learning. And the lesson of tonight’s gospel is that God is patient with his People as they learn. Because Jesus’ resurrection changes everything, whether we get it or not, we discover that we are unpacking a gift that overcomes even our failures to receive it. Christ is risen from the dead.

This same dynamic is true at our baptism, in which, for all of the promises made in that moment, the promise and action definitive of the moment – the promise and action that become definitive of us in that moment – belong to God. Sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own. A gift. This gift brings life; the gift also challenges our prior identities. In other words, after baptism, “Texan” is not the most determinative thing that can be said about me. Them’s fightin’ words in some parts, and thus, how baptism quickly becomes political. The opening of the gift (and challenge) of baptism means our admission as babes to the feast of the living Christ; where he is our food and our strength, by which we grow into his likeness. Our parents used to tell us “you are what you eat.” This is our prayer.

So the stories we receive in the weeks after Easter Sunday – 1) the disciples disbelief at the outset when the women say to them, “We have seen the Lord”, 2)Thomas and his defiance, 3) next week’s fishing on the boat – all remind us that the first disciples –  and we, like them – grow only with God’s help into our witness of the risen Christ.

Like Thomas, we did not expect the risen Lord, and so our response is not ready. Like Peter, we say yes to God and cannot know what we are saying yes to. But our not knowing what we are saying yes to does not undo God’s yes for us. Moreover, God’s yes for us gives us, the Church, all that we need to be God’s people, proclaiming Jesus risen from the dead.

It is not easy. Like any calling worth being called to, it feels strange starting out. Like learning a new instrument, it’s going to take some practice. Like learning a new instrument, it’s going to take a steadfast commitment to fail. Over and over and over, until one day, as if miraculously, the thousand tiny steps and butchered chords add up… And the name for this practice is Church.

Which brings me, finally, to one other name this Sunday goes by. I just learned it this past week. Thank you, Wikipedia. The other name for the Sunday after the first Sunday of Easter is Quasimodo Sunday. [Parenthetically: Yes, Quasimodo, that one-eyed, hunchback of Notre Dame is a namesake of this day. In Victor Hugo’s novel, the malformed and abandoned child was found by his adoptive father on the cathedral’s front steps the Sunday after Easter. Today.] The name “Quasimodo” comes from the first two words, in Latin, of the verse from 1 Peter with which the liturgy for the eighth day of the Easter celebration begins. This is the verse: Like newborn babes, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.

This language of taste and God’s goodness is right on because, in some traditions of the Church, those baptized at the Easter Vigil would receive their first communion today. Jimmy’s baptism and first communion tonight recall this pattern for us. Thus Easter reveals Jesus as the firstborn of creation, while we are reborn as children – babes, even – craving spiritual milk, so that we may grow up in our salvation, having tasted that the Lord is good.

Quasimodo Sunday presents us, like Thomas and the disciples, as babes in this resurrection faith, but without embarrassment at our infancy and early missteps. Instead, on this day we become like the children Jesus says we must become if we are to inherit the Kingdom of God.

Young, weak, and unprepared, the Church is found by Christ. And in this very weakness we discover permission, hope, the freedom, to grow into the likeness and full stature of Jesus.  “My Lord, and my God,” Thomas says when Christ finds him. And his joy, tonight, is ours, too.


Homily, St. Francis House, 4.7.13, on the occasion 
of the baptism of SFH student James P. Cheng.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"When Will It End?"
When Worship Exceeds Its Temporal Bounds

In Silence and Honey Cakes: the Wisdom of the Desert, Rowan Williams quotes the author Annie Dillard as saying something like, "I don't like writing; I like having written." The blogger Glennon Melton (no relation) shared a related sentiment in an hilarious post in which she describes the moment a woman approached her while she waited with her children in the Target line. The woman told her, "Sugar, I hope you are enjoying this. I loved every single second of parenting my two girls. Every single moment. These days go by so fast." Writes Glennon:
At that particular moment, Amma had arranged one of the new bras I was buying on top of her sweater and was sucking a lollipop that she must have found on the ground. She also had three shop-lifted clip-on neon feathers stuck in her hair. She looked exactly like a contestant from Toddlers and Tiaras. I couldn't find Chase anywhere, and Tish was grabbing the pen on the credit card swiper thing WHILE the woman in front of me was trying to use it. And so I just looked at the woman, smiled and said, "Thank you. Yes. Me too. I am enjoying every single moment. Especially this one. Yes. Thank you." 
That's not exactly what I wanted to say, though...What I wanted to say to this sweet woman was, "Are you sure? Are you sure you don't mean you love having parented?"
The honesty of people like Rowan, Annie, and Glennon has been a great gift to Rebekah and me in our conversations about the lives we live as individuals and together. What a gift, to be able to name feelings like these without shame and/or guilt...

Anyway, I began flashing back to these words midway through the litany of Old Testament readings this past Saturday night at the Great Vigil of Easter. After the initial excitement of the Great Fire and the myriad candles burning in the hands of those assembled, there comes the less sexy realization that we will be listening to Old Testament lessons for the next forty-five minutes or so. And we only read five of the nine available readings!
Jonathan Grieser, our preacher that night, named this reality in his opening remarks with a mix of truthfulness and sensitivity rooted in kindness: "If this is your first Easter Vigil," he said, "you are probably wondering - when will this end?" His honesty gave me permission to give life to the question that had begun in me sometime along minute thirty-six of the readings: what when God's People prefer having worshiped to the worshiping itself? How much of my worship is simply to have worshiped?

This question need not be a condemnation. Sure, people are vain and praying for show is not a new thing - should be expected - but I am certain the question is more complex than that. Exercise, for example, is something I do not enjoy doing but I enjoy having done, and my exercise would be a pitiful appeal to vanity on my part. No, I enjoy having exercised because of the benefit I experience/develop after. Surely it is the hope that our liturgy will continue to shape us and speak to us after the service is over. Moreover, the analogy with exercise reminds me to expect - indeed, to hope! - that the life of faith would not be without difficulty but would challenge me.

Still, there is something curious about the impatience that finds us all at one time or another in worship. (1) After all, for what else have we come? In that moment, we have arrived not just at the place from which we left our homes to be, but at that place for which our selves - our souls and bodies - were created. "The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want." I suspect that part of the reason for our impatience that we are so poorly practiced in being present. Just yesterday I sat down to eat my lunch and resolved to do nothing else but eat. No iPhone. No book. No notepad. The fork literally trembled in my hand. But after ten minutes of trembling and inner-turmoil, I discovered flavors in my cold Easter leftovers in their greasy Tupperware container truer than any I had tasted in years.

The Eucharist, for me, is the ultimate occasion in practicing presence. The presence of Christ challenges every priority that would distract me for the moment. What would I hold above this moment? The Eucharist simultaneously exposes my impatience as idolatry and holds my fragile and fragmented self in the love for which I was created. If I could believe this with my body, my life might look very differently. I might delight in the law of the Lord, and meditate on it day and night. And who knows what else I might learn to enjoy that I currently despise - despise for its getting in my way of being someplace else; despise for its getting in my way of being someone else. This last thought leads me to believe that impatience in the presence of God names my refusal to love and be loved. This last thought reminds me that bold action and silent contemplation are not on opposing sides.

"Be still, and know that I am God."

Be still, my soul, indeed.

(1) If you need proof of this impatience, insert an unexplained two minute silence into your next worship service; sit back, observe, and enjoy.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Nerdy Post on Economics, the Great Vigil of Easter, and How We Read Scripture

For the last few week leading up to the Great Vigil of Easter, CY featured a series of guest posts on the question, "Why does the Old Testament matter for Christians?" The first post, by my friend Paul Cizek, began with an ancient principle called the "Rule of Faith." Paul wrote
The Old Testament matters for Christians because it informs our “Rule of Faith.”  In the 2nd century AD, Ireneus, the Bishop of Lyons, wrote that Scripture has an order, which he called the “Rule of Faith.”  This Rule of Faith makes a claim about the order of Scripture, though it is not necessarily articulated in Scripture itself, but rather has been passed down through the church from the apostles...Ireneus’ account always follows the same narrative path from creation, through Christ, to everlasting glory.  
Two contemporary examples of a Rule of Faith might be the Reformed articulation of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Kingdom of God, or one developed at the Duke Youth Academy using 7 Cs: Creation, Crisis, Covenant, Christ, Church, Calling, Coming Reign of God.(1)  But what’s most important for Ireneus is that whenever Scripture is used, it must be interpreted in accordance to and never contrary to the Rule of Faith – this is the “rule” or “measure” of how faithful an interpretation is...
In our day and age, wherein appeals to the authority of Scripture can feel haphazard, even reckless - across labels of conservative, progressive, and all  the rest - I don't think the importance of having a "Rule" can be overstated. Of course, to have a Rule does not imply that yours will looks like mine (or should), but the presence of a Rule would appear to be a helpful gift to give each another as we seek to understand readings of Scripture that differ from our own.

The question of Rule is, in part, "What's going on here? What is the larger picture? How do we read Scripture as diverse portions of one piece?" David Steinmetz, at Duke, used to enjoy telling us that sola scriptura was not a doctrine intended to suggest the jettisoning of tradition and reason in conversation with selections of Scripture - as if this or that verse was without need of interpretation - but rather that sola scriptura initially represented the desire of the reformers to allow Scripture to speak as one, insisting on a reading of Scripture that seeks to hold the many disparate voices of the texts together. (2)

And it reminds me of these graphs we used to draw in economics classes. Data points everywhere, a series of dots on a page. Then, the questions: and what does it mean? What's going on here? What's the larger picture?
The challenge is to draw a line that best describes the reality. Depending on where you draw the line informs your subsequent interpretations of particular data points, as in, "this point is still true, but appears to be an outlier relative to the bulk of the other data." Importantly, being an outlier doesn't diminish the truth of the data; perhaps it gives it a sharper voice in the context of its very separateness. 

This is a picture, for me, of the Rule of Faith.

So what, for the Old Testament - minded Christian, are the key data points? 

(The answer to this question in part explains the timing of the answer - that is, there's a reason for my writing this post on the Tuesday after Easter.)

The Great Vigil of Easter includes a remarkable number of Old Testament readings for a service chiefly about the death and resurrection of Jesus, reinforcing everything the guest authors on this blog have suggested about the importance of the Old Testament for Christians. In fact, Old Testament readings are arguably not found in greater number anywhere else in the Christian liturgical year than at this service which is about the distinctly Christian claim that the God who raised Israel out of Egypt raised Jesus from the dead.

Here are the readings:

Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation] 
Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18, 8:6-18, 9:8-13 [The Flood] 
Genesis 22:1-18 [Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac] 
Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel's deliverance at the Red Sea] 
Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all] 
Baruch 3:9-15, 3:32-4:4 or Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6 [Learn wisdom and live]Ezekiel 36:24-28 [A new heart and a new spirit] Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones] 
Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God's people] 

What kind of graph does one get - what sort of trajectory results - when one begins with these points? What themes emerge when these readings are allowed to lead the pack?  

Again, this post does not intend to suggest that one particular Rule emerges from such a reading; it does want to equip the Old Testament reader who longs for a greater sense of the larger picture with tools and beginning steps that might honor the longing. 

The work toward that longing is hard and long and good; it is also the beginning of a sanctified imagination. It is worthy work.


(1) Sam Wells' 5 Act Play, developed in Improvisation: the Drama of Christian Ethics is a Rule I have found particularly instructive. 

(2) The Rule of Faith also reminds us to let Scripture be the first interpreter of Scripture; as in, before I tell you how a scripture is fulfilled, let me check to see if another scripture claims to tell you how a particular scripture is fulfilled.

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