Author: Bill Walker (Page 1 of 23)
Those who have been following my work for any length of time knows that this has been in the making for a while. I began writing one of the chapters in 2011! With all that’s happened at the border and with theCentral American refuge and asylum-seeker crisis at the southern border of the United States in the past several years, however, a number of updates have been made to reflect these developments. Still, the majority of the book remains focused on trends that have been observable for at least a decade — as far as the economic and political side of the research is concerned. Theologically, my hope is that what I set forth remains sound and timely no matter how the drug war might change.
A less expensive paperback and ebook version should be available soon! I owe a big thanks to many people who I mention in the preface, but I’m especially grateful recently to the those who offered brief reviews and endorsements below and on the book itself.
This book is a political and theological reflection on the violence and injustice that has taken place in Mexico and Central America since 2006 as a result of the drug war. In order to understand and respond to this conflict in the age of globalization, William A. Walker III combines the work of philosopher Enrique Dussel and theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar to develop a theology of the drug war that transcends both a Eurocentric conception of the world and a merely political account of salvation. Walker also highlights examples of Christian and church-based approaches to practicing neighborliness and resistance to drug trade-related violence, challenging both Christians and non-Christians to participate in the creation of a more just and merciful society.
Reviews and Endorsements:
Under the duress of the current political context, A Theology of the Drug War is a much-needed contribution. Bill Walker goes beyond the reductionist materiality in liberationist analysis and employs decolonial frameworks to unveil problems ignored by superficial readings of the “US-Mexico” drug war. Walker’s transmodern approach to the theology of salvation opens what have been unimagined avenues of inquiry and commitment, not only for our current context, but also for the generations to come. This is a must read for the academic and church guilds interested in decolonial and postcolonial theologies, border studies, American domestic and foreign policy, international relations, Latin-American and Latinx studies, liberation theologies, religion and conflict studies, and global ethics.
— Santiago Slabodsky, Hofstra University
What does it mean to speak of ‘salvation’ amidst the horrors of the ‘drug war’ in Mexico? Walker addresses this pressing question, combining acute cultural analysis with sophisticated theological reflections. Drawing on a broad range of thinkers and on concrete examples of nonviolent resistance, Walker presents a vision of salvation that is neither simply spiritual nor simply political, neither simply otherworldly nor simply thisworldly. It is rather Incarnational, illustrating the ways that God suffers not simply with, but for, the victims of exploitation and violence.
— William T. Cavanaugh, DePaul University
We are living in a world overwhelmed with global economic forces bigger than ourselves. Even so, Walker unfolds the call of every Christian to solidarity with the suffering. Delving deep into the theologies of Dussel, Sobrino, Moltmann, Balthasar and many others, his Theology of the Drug War sculpts a political theology of both neighborliness and resistance that can shape our churches for this new political moment. Stunning in scope and potent for our times, I see this book as a testament for what could be.
— David Fitch, Northern Seminary, Chicago
Perhaps here is the book that many have been missing and waiting for, a political theology of our time and our very day, a theology that is thoroughly theological, not a sociology in disguise, but a theology that is deeply immersed in the sufferings of our globalizing world, especially in its typically North American form, the human sufferings of the drug war along the Mexican border, but also a theology that mediates context and concern in a methodologically sound way proper to theology. Walker has produced a book that is thoroughly theological and thoroughly political, a theology that is neither premodern nor postmodern but transmodern, a theology that integrates the politics of imperialism and eschatology of transcendence, a theology that takes seriously the suffering of the poor in history as elaborated in the ethics and theologies of Enrique Dussell, Jon Sobrino, and Ignacio Ellacuria, but also takes just as seriously the aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar with its emphasis on contemplating things with “the eyes of faith.” I heartily and proudly recommend this book to anyone searching for an inspiring synthesis of faith and politics for our time, a faith seeking understanding in our very challenging and confusing world. A deeply personal, spiritual, erudite, and sophisticated book.
— Anselm K. Min, Claremont Graduate University
[This is the manuscript for the second part of a two-part sermon on Vocation preached at Christ Church on Oct. 13, 2019. The audio can be found here.]
Last week I talked about some of the reasons why we might doubt that everyone is called and everyone is commissioned. Some of the these reasons might be just difficult circumstances in general, for you or for others, and how the sinful and broken world we live can prevent some of us from living into our vocations at times.
Or, sometimes vocation is unclear. Sometimes it’s delayed. Sometimes we’re called to do things that we just don’t want to do, or that we aren’t prepared to do – we feel inadequate. But vocational formation, like spiritual formation, is a process, and God will equip us. Remembering that our identity doesn’t come from what we do but from Christ and from the gospel, and we discover our vocation then as derived from that identity and in community with others.
But the challenges of vocation in the modern period are unique in some ways.
Here’s what author Os Guiness says about that.
“First, the search for the purpose of life is one of the deepest issues of our experiences as human beings. Second, the expectation that we can all live purposeful lives has been given a gigantic boost by modern society’s offer of the maximum opportunity for choice and change in all we do. Third, fulfillment of the search for purpose is thwarted by a stunning fact: Out of more than a score of great civilizations, ours is the very first to have no agreed-on answer to the question of the purpose of life. Thus, more ignorance, confusion – and longing – surround this topic now than at almost any time in history…” – Os Guiness, The Call
So, this morning I want to go back and look at three distinct periods in church history, and the way that Christians in each of these times and places tended to understand this biblical idea of calling. Those three periods of Western Christian very simply are 1) the early church, 2) the medieval Church, and 3) the Church of the Protestant Reformation.
And then I want to ask, for today, and in our age, what can we learn from these previous eras and Christians who’ve gone before us about vocation, and then what else can we remember biblically that will guide for our present moment, which is different from these past eras? As Anglicans, Tradition does have authority for us – not as much as Scripture, but it’s still very significant.
So first, the early Church – what we might also call the Apostolic or AnteNicene Era: Simply put, the situation of the first Christians was that they had minority status. Which is to say, to be a Christian was not normal, and Christians were not widely understood or appreciated as a group. Rather, they were much misunderstood, considered by some to be a nuisance if not also viewed with suspicion and even seen as threat, which at times led to their sporadic persecution. It wasn’t systematic or constant, but it was enough to make you think twice before becoming a Christian – because it was definitely going to cost you significantly in one way or another, and could actually cost you your life.
So right away we see some significant differences between the early Church social situation and our own that many of us are probably already familiar with. But look at a few examples of the reputation that many Christians seem to have at the time. This description given by Galen, a Roman physician who generally held Christianity in contempt, admits that in their
“self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice,” these often lower-class and ill-educated Christians “have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.”
The Roman satirist Lucian, holding Christians up to ridicule, noted that they
“that they are all brothers one to another… So if any charlatan and trickster . . . comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing on simple folk.”
Even the forcefully anti-Christian emperor Julian, who tried to restore paganism in the 4th Century, had to admit that
“the impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their own poor but ours as well.”
So what then can we say about vocation in the early Church? Their primary understanding of calling – and this I believe we can say is the primary understanding of vocation in the New Testament – the early Christians believed that their call was to become Christians.
Because to become a Christian was to be truly set apart! It was to follow Jesus! It was to be different. It was to be misunderstood. It was perhaps even to be despised and persecuted.
They refused to participate in the sacrificial rituals of paganism. They refused to make offerings to the Emperor or to recognize him as their Lord. To say that “Jesus is Lord” was in fact a politically subversive claim and a statement of allegiance that called into the questions the sovereignty ad divinity of Caesar.
Ok, so become a Christian was a very big deal. It was a calling, it was a decision, it was a weighty sacrifice that had implications for your whole life – your relationship with your work, family, government, the culture around you… everything. It could exclude you from all kinds of privileges.
And most people at this time, like most people in history, did not have the mobility and the options that we do today in terms of job options and social location. People did not ask, when it came to calling, what I am going to do with my life – that question was usually already answered for them. It was especially answered for you if you were a woman, but even men were also severely limited for the most part.
Now, the Middle Ages, which is a huge span of time and a complex time of history with all kinds of significant things going on, but in general, with regard to vocation for Christians and the Church, here’s what we can say.
Whereas in the early Church, Christians had minority status, in the Medieval Period, Christians enjoyed majority status. Christians was not only legal but it eventually become the official religion of the government – not only of Rome before it fall but also of Western European civilization in general. Sometimes this whole period of Church history has just been called Christendom – Christendom because it is a time when Christianity has occupied a prominent place in society – not only through the church, but in the wider culture and political and economy dimensions of civilization as well.
So to just be called a Christian, and to be identified as Christian – to be associate with Christians – did not necessarily come with a whole lot of sacrifice and commitment. Even though it still should have.
But in a context where Christians have majority status, what does calling and vocation look like? Well in the early days of Christendom, some sensed and responded to a call by God to removing themselves from society and pursue some kind of life in the wilderness or desert for a season, or even for their whole lives.
The purpose of this was to prepare for union with God by ridding oneself of attachments to any kind of worldly status, possession or power, and to embrace a simple, quiet life of contemplation and asceticism and spiritual readiness for death. St. Antony of the Desert is one of the most famous examples, but there were many others. In this way, these monks sought to retain the connection between their own voluntary martyrdom with those who were forced into martyrdom during the years of the early Church.“Bloodless Martyrs,” they’ve been called by some.
Vocation during Christendom and the Middle Ages later took shape through the beginning of Monasticism and religious orders like the Rule of St. Benedict. The idea behind Monasticism in part was that, because most everyone in society claimed to be a Christian, the Church was losing its distinctive witness to the culture. People could be Christian and pretty much look like everyone else.
Someone who was called to a monastery, whether they were a man or a woman, was responding to a genuine sense of vocation to participate wholeheartedly in “religious life” – prayer, manual labor, solitude, regular practice of silence and study, and a vow of poverty – a renunciation of the material world. So interestingly, the vocation to be different, distinct, and set apart for the gospel and for one’s witness to Christ was being exercised just as it had been in the early Church, but the new context required a very different form of faith.
Later on in Christendom, however – particular in the late Medieval period, Christian vocation became something of an entitlement for priests and friars only. Monasticism still existed, but many clergy in the Roman Catholic church were abusing and disregarding the holiness of the calling to the priesthood and to “religious life” as it was called. And this is what set the stage for the revolutionary understanding of Vocation during the Reformation.
For Luther, everyone had at least two callings – to be a Christian and become part of the people of God, and to a particular line of work, which included not only one’s job if you were employed, but also marrying, tending to the home, parenting and grandparenting. Every occupation was a potential vocation for serving God, and this by most accounts was a very positive development.
This Reformation legacy that revived the sacredness of all areas of work and life for ministry and for the Church is central to our understanding of Vocation today. It’s also the inspiration for the “Every Arena” part of our tagline. Everyone Called. Everyone Commissioned – yes, into every arena.
Because yes, everyone is called and commissioned to make disciples in their places of daily work and life. No one’s questioning that. But does the work that do itself have any intrinsic value? Or, is it just a means to the end of sharing our faith and reflecting Jesus’s character in how we treat people?
What Luther stressed that hadn’t been emphasized much before, is how the work we do as such, is a good end unto itself, and is actually part of our worship of God. We work for God’s glory. We work because the work matters to God, and because it contributes to human flourishing (Genesis 1). Here’s Luther on this:
“Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool, though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith, my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil’s fools.”– Martin Luther, The Estate of Marriage
So when we say Everyone Called, Everyone Commissioned, in Every Arena – we are making the radical claim that God gets glory and delight from the mundane, ordinary work that we do in our daily lives. Our homes and our workplaces are cathedrals and sanctuaries!
John Calvin even says that work a means for our spiritual formation. It’s one of the ways God sanctifies us, in other words. And this too is part of our vocation.
There are several unintended byproducts of the Reformation on the vocation of every station, however: We’ve seen this in Protestantism in a few different ways:
- The tendency to overidentify vocation with occupation or social status
- the failure to acknowledge the instances in which certain kinds of work are harmful, undignified and dehumanizing (a certain interpretation of “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.” – 1 Corinthians 7:20)
- The Protestant Work Ethic: Max Weber coined this concept and accused Calvinists of making perpetual labor appear to be a sign of one’s salvation, which of course would be a gross distortion of the original Reformation vision and Calvin’s own theology of work
- The flattening out of all vocations: inadvertently succeeded in devaluing the call to ordained ministry and opened the door for the secularization of all vocations
Alright, so here are few takeaways from these three eras –early Church, Christendom and Reformation:
- Our call to be Christians is still primary.We’ve been saying that, but it’s worth repeating. To be a Christian is a big thing, and asks everything of us. It affects every area of our lives. And it’s costly. We do it together, and we do it by the grace of God, not in our strengths, but its sacrificial life. It’s learning how to die, and how trust Jesus every moment of every day.
- Our witness is more dependent on our faithfulness and our holiness than on our influence and our effectiveness. This is not to say that we will never be influential. But rather, to take a lesson from history and recognize that, apparently, our influence was most significant, when Christians were most faithful. And not the other way around. This is especially instructive for us in this moment as our influence appears to be waning in culture. The word from the Lord might be, as Jesus told Peter, what is that to you? (John 21)
- Thirdly, from the Reformation we did celebrate and embrace God’s call to us to glorify him in whatever we’re doing, however we’ve occupying our time – so that work, that time and energy offered up, as worship, as holy, because it matters to God. It’s all part of his creation, and we get to take care of it.
And finally, for today, in the turbulent uncharted territory of the present– at least in our North American and Christ Church of Austin context.
We do live in this transient, fast-paced, digital age of social mobility and unpredictability when it comes vocation. And as Christians, we can lean into this unknown space where are there are so many options that it’s overwhelming, and we trust the Holy Spirit.
We trust the Holy Spirit and we trust God’s voice, that God is still speaking now. And isn’t once and for all. God cares about each of us individually, when it comes to what we do. So when we are listening. When we are quiet enough, when we are still for long enough. When we rest. When we seek God voice. God can and does speak to us and guide is. We’re not just guessing here.
Biblical scholar Klaus Bockmuehl has a trinitarian way of thinking about vocation that might be memorable and helpful to some:
The father gives us the cultural mandate to subdue and develop the earth. The Son calls us to discipleship and summons us with the Great Commission. The Spirit equips us for a task:“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).
The New Testament reading for today reflects some of these manifestations or gifts in Ephesians 4: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
But this list is not exhaustive.We also find gifts listed in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. Romans 12:3-8 in particular speaks to gifts that are extend beyond the body of Christ and that are useful for vocational work in the world:
6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with yourfaith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching,then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. Romans 12:6-8
Typically these are gifts, acts, strengths – things we enjoy doing that we’re also good at. There’s both an affinity and ability. So I think today something we’ve discovered as a Church that the Reformation didn’t emphasize is that our gifts and natural ability are from God for us as we have opportunity to use for the common good and for God’s glory.
And I would just add these final instructional words to that quote from Paul Stevens’ book The Other Six Days:
“There is no need to be “called” through an existential compelling experience to an occupation in society [necessarily…]. God gives motivation and gift. God guides. Work, family, civil vocation and neighboring are encompassed in our total response to God’s saving and transforming call in Jesus….So vocational guidance is not [just] discerning our ‘call’ but, in the context of our call to discipleship (early Church), holiness (Monasticism) and service (Reformation), discerning the guidance of God in our lives and learning how to live in every dimension [arena!] to please him.”
[This is the manuscript for my first of a two-part sermon on vocation preached at Christ Church of Austin on October 6, 2019. You can find the audio here.]
Vocation: “the way that we are specifically called, shaped and gifted to love God and others in a given season of life and work.”
And it is our mission during this season of our church life
“that every unique image bearer of God at Christ Church would understand better God’s work in their current setting, know their own vocation, and be supported, connected, and commissioned in that vocation.”
So you’ll notice I think that a lot of what we’re going to be doing in the coming weeks and months is derived from this mission.
I was in a meeting hosted by Austin Bridge Builders recently,which is a great organization is Austin that brings different churches and church leaders/pastors together to work on common ministry goals in the city. And this particular gathering was of people interested in the ministry of faith and work. And so I was asked to share about what we’re doing at Christ Church, and I told them about this tagline: Everyone Called. Everyone Commissioned. In Every Arena.
And the group loved it! These other pastors wanted to use it. And they were from like pretty big churches. Which made me feel good.
So it sounds nice, but I do want to ask: is it really true? It’s a bold claim. And I ask this question sincerely! Is everyone really called and commissioned? Everyone?
Maybe at one time in our lives, many of us really did strongly believe this, you know. And maybe you still do. But think when we are kids, and we were asked, what do you want to be when you grow up? Or in college, same thing… Or just being told, especially my generation, you can do anything, be anything you want –
“I can do all things through Christ who give me strength.” Philippians 4:13
Or, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, pans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11
Take these verses out of context, and it easily becomes a kind of permission for slip for uninhibited ambition and optimism. Expectation for the absence of suffering, setbacks, disappointments. Blissful fulfillment in every endeavor as long we work hard, stay positive and trust the Lord.
But as we get older and as we face difficulties in life, there’s a weariness and probably a doubt or even a cynicism that can develop around this idea that we’re called by God or sent to do something. Maybe at one point you were confident in it, but life happens, and now you’re not so sure. Or maybe you believed in having a calling in principle but haven’t ever really found clarity around your own calling. I think both of these experiences are common and need to be acknowledged.
And if that’s where you are, that’s ok! You’re not alone. There are many other Christians who have been that place and who are there right now.
For the past month, and for the next few weeks leading up to the Parish Retreat, a number of our small groups have been going through and are using a study of the book Called by Mark Labberton— the name of the book and discussion guide is called Called🙂 – and it’s a really helpful overview and introduction to what is meant by Vocation.
So I want to read a quote from the book itself that help us situate our understanding of this idea of vocation in 21stCentury North America:
“The church in the West is immersed in a social context with seemingly endless choice that drive us to constantly reassess how to maximize our self-interest at every turn. This can move us to feel that we’re unable to fully follow God until we find that one special job or partner or activity that we think most satisfies us and God…”
“Middle-class America is part of the dominant culture and a small percentage of the world. The norm for most people includes neither adequate resources nor the freedoms we experience.”
“Not all of God’s people will find the perfect job, do the work that best suits their gifts or have the chance to express their most creative and particular, [fully developed or mature] selves. Poverty, injustice, [tragedy,] lack of education or opportunity, and circumstances in general keep many from [fully living out their vocations].”
And I think it’s important to say this is true in Middle-class America as well, not just in Majority World countries.
This reality of unrealized, unfulfilled vocation has to be named at the outset for us to have integrity in how we talk about vocation. It isn’t an afterthought. It’s front and center. And because of sin, it is the norm for so many people, past and present. Frustration, disappointed, confusion, delay, sickness, disability, regret, lack of opportunity, premature death, and so on.
This is the truth! This is life East of Eden. In Christian theology, this is the concept of the already and not-yet nature of the Kingdom of God. It’s near, and we can taste it – God’s original purpose for our lives and work with him isn’t completely lost, but it’s fleeting. It isn’t guaranteed here and now.We trust and hope and long for the full restoration and coming reign of Jesus over all things one day, when creation will be made new and healed and brought to its completion. But that day is not yet here.
So we live in the in-between. And to say that everyone is called and everyone is commissioned is not something we necessarily experience as true at all times and all places. It’s actually more of an eschatological statement! In other words, it’s like praying, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
At the same time, even if we find ourselves in difficult or even oppressive circumstances, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have a calling! Many people find themselves in situations of injustice, persecution, slavery… all kinds of evil. And yet God can still use them.
Vocation is dynamic and it’s in process. It can change based on where and in what kind of situations we find ourselves.
So it may not be something that we particularly want to do, but that’s never really been a biblical prerequisite for calling. It also may not be something we feel adequately prepared for or qualified to do!
From Abraham and Moses to Jonah and most of all, Jesus himself, praying in the garden for God to take this cup away from him…
Maybe you’ve heard that adage at some point in your life in church: “God doesn’t call the equipped. He equips the called.” It sounds a little bit cliché, maybe, but if we were to just look at some of the key figures called by God in Scripture, it seems about right!
One of the verses we’re holding up that guides us in this is found in Romans 12:1, as we saw last week, and it’s in the Vocation brochure — The Message translation:
1-2 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.
And going to verse 2 in a different translation:
2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Two quick takeaways here that are guiding how we’re approaching much of what we’re doing this year:
There’s both an inward and an outward call in this passage.
The inward part is the mention of transformation by the renewing of our minds – offering up our bodies and our lives as living sacrifices to God, in worship! One of the common Christian phrases used to describe this activity is spiritual formation.
The outward part, though, is also mentioned, and it comes at the end where it says that then we’ll be able to test and discern what God’s will is, what is good and pleasing and perfect. This is not as common of a Christian phrase, but we’re describing this more outward activity as vocationalformation.
Spiritual formation and vocational formation. Both are included in our mission and purpose as Christians. Spiritual formation is what is common to all of us. Follow Jesus, obey what he commands, offer our lives to him – love God, love others. This leads to our transformation.
But vocational formation sometimes has to be more carefully discerned. It’s more specific and seasonal/contextual/individualized (not individualistic though!). It’s particular to each of us, and to use our definition again, it’s the way we’re specifically called, shaped and gifted to love God and love others in a given season of life and work.
So when we say, Everyone called. Everyone commissioned — in Every Arena…There’s also this big open space between called and commissioned that isn’t described.
What happens in between calling and commissioning? That’s what we’re interested in. That’s where the equipping takes place.
Think about the disciples and all that happens between their being called and then being commissioned – between when Jesus says come and follow me, and when they’re given the Great Commission before Jesus’s ascension.
That’s our work! The vocation and spiritual formation between calling and commissioning, and we’re all in different places in that journey, and that’s ok.
But another key element is that it happens in community. It’s not a private, individual affair. It needs to get worked out in the church.
When I first got here in May, in the first 24 hours, I was part of an intensive planning meeting– “retreat” – to build some consensus around what this whole initiative is about. Of course, there was already vision for it, and a job description and all of that, but there had to be concrete plan developed out of that vision and description. And in the process, we had to get clear on what it is we were even talking about with this idea of Vocation.
And so we wrestled with that for a while! It took time and some back and forth. It was bit of struggle– not in a bad way, but just different people, experience and perspectives trying to grasp at the same thing. In fact, that’s a good way to do it, but it takes time.
But I share that because it wasn’t easy right way to establish what we’re trying to say about vocation.
You’ve heard our definition of vocation and the mission of this initiative:
“Vocation is the way we’re called, shaped and gifted to love God and others in a given season of life” – and we want everyone at Christ Church to experience this!
But there was more to do than just defining vocation. Vocation isn’t an idea that stands on its own or starts with us – with the individual, with our own strengths, gifts or passions.
I like what Will Willimon says about this in regard to vocation:
“Vocation is not evoked by your bundle of need and desire. Vocation is what God wants from you whereby your life is transformed into a consequence of God’s redemption in the world.”
So vocation begins with God and with the gospel– God’s plan, God’s mission of redemption for the world, through Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So it might look something like this:
It might seem obvious, but it’s probably the most challenging aspect of this whole idea. Vocation is not ultimate. It is derivative and subsequent to our purpose and identity that is given to us by God in Christ. The order of the four circles is very important.
The gospel– God’s saving work through Christ and the Spirit on our behalf
Identity – God’s beloved, made in his image, and for relationship with him
Purpose – To be loved by God and make disciples by loving God and others
Vocation – The specific way we fulfill this purpose in a given season of life
And I think it’s safe to say that anytime we misunderstand or distort our conception of vocation, it’s probably because we’ve mixed up this ordering.
God’s love for us and our love for God is the start and finish of our vocation. – Labberton
Our identity stands completely on this. Everything vocational can be taken away in an instant.
God’s love is conditioned on anything we can do, and neither is our identity. We’re loved because we are. And that’s it. Grasping this, accepting this, and living in this, is the foundation of any sustainable vocation.
Even the mission and calling to love God and others, which is indeed our common vocation, cannot be sustained apart from our first being loved by God. He chose us. We didn’t choose him.
And finally, another way that we mix up the ordering of this sequence is by not only placing our sense of vocation and identity above God or his purpose for us, is by thinking about vocation is primary individual terms, rather than as a community and as a church.
When vocation or calling is referred to in Scripture, it’s usually in the form of a collective and common calling– one that applies to Israel, the church, or to all followers and worshipers of God.
In our society, the individual is often thought of before the group or the community, and career choices or what neighborhood we live in, what school we go to or send our kids to – these kind of questions tend to be discerned and asked at the private individual or at most nuclear family level.
In sum, it’s Life Together– We live and experience our calling with other human beings but with those in Christ’s family especially. My vocation can be discovered only in the context of our vocation. We discover and live our identity and purpose in Christ with and for one another. This is what we do as a church! (Labberton paraphrase)
Everyone Called. Everyone Commissioned. Amen.
[This is the manuscript of a version of the sermon I preached on July 14, 2019 at Christ Church of Austin. The audio can be found here.]
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
One of the most striking things about the Psalms is how honestly and realistically they depict raw human emotions – especially when it comes to fear. Some of us of a certain age or generation might have grown up in an environment in which expressing emotion was discouraged and frowned upon. Maybe it was considered immature or a sign of foolishness. Maybe this wasn’t explicitly taught, but it might have been implied. By contrast, we’re living in a time today in our culture in which this is becoming less common. And conversely, increasingly, society tells us to express our feelings and let our feelings be our sole guide and to totally trust them. Authenticity is the highest value, you might say.
But interestingly, the Psalms actually instruct us to do neither of these things. They neither suggest that we should suppress and control our emotions, nor that we should totally surrender to them. Rather, they model for us how we can pray our emotions. How we can lay them bare before God and offer them up. And this is especially true in the case of fear, I would say. Neither repressing nor overidentifying with or being led by our fears, but praying our fears. Naming our fears. Confessing our fears, and asking God to deliver us from our fears. Praying our fears.
In the context of Psalm 23, shepherding was often strongly associated with rulers and the gods. While we are usually accustomed to singing or praying this psalm as a private expression of God’s goodness and our trust in him as individuals – and this isn’t bad — there is also a political dimension to it. Biblical scholar Alasdair Roberts observes that here we see another dimension of the psalm that is often overlooked: this is a psalm attributed to the anointed leader of YHWH’s people.
The image of shepherding plays an important role in Israel’s history and sense of identity as well.The patriarchs were shepherds. Israel was led like a flock through the wilderness in the Exodus, with the shepherd Moses striking their enemies with the rod (cf. Isaiah 63:11-13). David himself, to whom this psalm is attributed, was called away from being a shepherd to become Israel’s King.
The fact that the king, himself regarded as the shepherd of his people, would look to YHWH as a weak sheep looks to its shepherd is a striking image of dependency. Comparing this with our own political leaders, who typically project a public image of confident assurance in their own sufficiency before the struggles and dangers facing our nations, the difference is stark and notably counterculture.
Some of you may already know this, but for a long time I didn’t. Probably about seven years ago, I learned that the command, “do not fear,” “do not be afraid,” or “fear not!”, is stated more than 365 times in Scripture by some counts – more than any other command in Scripture. This seems like a big deal! Why is this the case? Shouldn’t it be something else, like one of the Ten Commandments: don’t lie or bear false witness, don’t covet, don’t steal, etc.?
But if you think about it, why would we ever lie, covet or steal? Is it not because we’re afraid of something? Because we’re afraid of what will happen if the truth gets out? If we don’t have enough? If someone else has more or better things and experiences? My only theory as to why this particular command shows up so much in Scripture is because the emotion of fear seems to be the emotion that most frequently has the power to lead us to into sin. It doesn’t have to! But it very frequently does.
Now, fear along with maybe anger, is arguably the most primordial emotion that we experience. It’s the one we share with virtually all other creatures. It’s the emotion that alerts us to danger and threats, or the perception at least of danger or something that could harm us or our family group.And for this reason, fear is not necessary a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite good and is vital in many situations. It’s essential for our survival at many levels and helps know how to stay safe, protected and secure…
Our most vivid memories are born in Fear. Adrenaline etches them into our brains. Nothing makes us more uncomfortable than fear.
Marketers and politicians are masters of capitalizing on human fears for their own gains, aren’t they? They’ve done their research on this. They use fear as a motivator as often as they can.
Fear is powerful. In fact, some would claim that fear is the most powerful motivating force in the world. Nothing potentially unites and divides people quite like fear does, whether for good or evil purposes…
Because of this, fear also has the most enduring emotional staying power in our bodies – not just our minds. Our bodies literally remember anything that was terrifying or traumatic. Indeed, our bodies remember in many cases, better than our minds. Of course, our bodies and our minds are inseparable, so already to distinguish them so much is potentially misleading.
The spiritual writer and teacher Eckhart Tolle has written about this and uses the phrase “pain-body” to refer to our ego, our human psyche. This accumulated pain is a negative energy field that occupies your body and mind. It’s the emotional pain-body. A pain-body may be dormant 90 percent of the time, but many of us will experience it in intimate relationships, or situations linked with past loss or abandonment, physical or emotional hurt, and so on.
The pain-body, which is the dark shadow cast by the ego, is actually afraid of the light of your consciousness.It is afraid of being found out. Its survival depends on your unconscious identification with it, as well as on your unconscious fear of facing the fear that lives in you. But if we don’t face it, if we don’t bring the fear of our consciousness into the light, we will be forced to repeatedly relive it.
And again, this isn’t something we can think your way out of. We have to prayit. We have to prayour way through it.
When I was very young – I think about 4 years old– I went to the gym with my dad and my brother and we were playing, my brother and I, while my dad was working out. We were playing in a racquetball court without glass walls. It was a court with without any windows. And somehow, at one point, my brother walked out of the court and the door closed behind him, and the door was being kept open by a towel, because the handle to open the door was one of those tricky ones that you have like pop the lever out and the twist it in order to open it.
And so I got stuck in the racquetball court for what seemed like an eternity, when in fact it was probably not more than just a few minutes. But I was terrified. I was screaming and crying because I thought I was going to be locked in there forever and I’d never see my family again. Someone heard me and let me out, and then I found my dad and my brother, and everything was ok. And I’ve never really been a racquetball player until the last few years when I was living in Waco. And was playing somewhat regularly with some friends while living in Waco. And there are a few courts that don’t have glass walls around them and that you can’t see out of them.
So I remember this experience from when I was young every time I go into a racquetball court, but especially racquetball courts that looks like the one I was in when I was that young. My body tells me, my body remembers: “This place isn’t safe. This place made you very afraid one time, so be careful! Be on alert! Something bad could happen here…”
Now, this is a very tame example of what some people experience in much more intense and severe or disturbing ways — if they’ve had high level traumatic experiences that were actually life threatening or violent. But again, something as mild as my racquetball court experience, which my adult mind can now rationalize, was nonetheless recalled 30 years later by my emotional memory – my painbody. How much more so for serious trauma? This is not something we can handle or overcome with our minds.
Something that most of you probably don’t know about me is that my doctoral dissertation, which will be published as a book soon, that no one will read– seriously, it’s completely an academic formality – my books about drug war and drug-trade-related violence in Latin America and a Christian theological analysis and response to it, including a call to churches in North America about what we can do about it. So I pay a lot of attention to the media and not only what’s happening in current events but also the ways that entertainment industry portrays the conflict and educates people on what’s going on.
And one of the most popular shows that deals with this topic is a Netflix original television series called Narcos.The fourth season just got released this last year, and it’s very well done. However, I’m not endorsing it. As you can imagine, there’s some fairly graphic and violence content, and I mainly watch for educational purposes… I promise it’s not entertaining at all 🙂
In the Fourth Season, the protagonist in the story is Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo who rises to power to become the head of the Guadalajara cartel.That much of the show is historically accurate. And in the fifth episode, he travels to Colombia to make a deal with another cartel there but gets intercepted by Pablo Escobar on his way back. I don’t think this incident actually happened and the creative license on the part of the writers is in full effect, but it’s great.
Before trying to make a different deal with Felix, Pablo insists on knowing why Felix wants to expand his business in partnership with South America. He already has an empire in place in Mexico and political officials cooperating with him, with no competitors or real threats even from the U.S. government, who is completely preoccupied with the Cold War. Getting bigger is only going to attract more attention and create more problems for him. Pablo Escobar knows this, so he asks Felix, why are you doing this?
Felix proceeds to tells Pablo about losing his first wife to Leukemia at 22 and having to watch her die slowly. And after a long pause, he says:
“You have to take control of this [godforsaken] world, or it will control you. And if you don’t protect yourself, it makes a mess and breaks you.”
I mean, who doesn’t feel this way sometimes? I know I do. This is a serious and sober account of things. You know, Christians have done a pretty good job talking about our sinfulness, but sometimes I don’t think we spend enough time honestly acknowledging the tragic, brutal and suffering nature of life. There’s beauty and goodness too, don’t get me wrong, but life is hard, devastating really.
One the one hand, this moment really humanizes an individual who could otherwise very easily be deeply despised for the terrible crimes he’s committed for selfish gain. He’s afraid just like us. And there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying!
On the other hand, though, he’s wrong about something that’s critical. There’s no taking control of this world! But he believes the lie that he can take control. That he can get to a place of invulnerability.
Reinhold Niebuhr said it this way: We’re finite beings, but we have infinite desires, so one of our great temptations, is to deny our finitude by chasing after our infinite desires for security, influence, status – whatever it might be, and no matter the consequences. Refusing to live within our limits, in other words.
For Felix, this fear came from being deeply hurt by the loss of his wife, and he was afraid of being hurt again. And I don’t know if there’s anything more potentially destructive in the world than a powerful, wounded, and fearful.
Now, some scholars have suggested that it’s actually very helpful to read Psalm 23 alongside the Psalm that comes right before it – Psalm 22– and I’m not going to do that now because it’s fairly lengthy, but Psalm 22 begins with the infamous cry of dereliction repeated by Jesus from the cross as his final words in the Gospel of Mark:“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It continues in the next two verses:
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
Felix Gallardo felt forsaken when his wife died. Mayra and her father felt forsaken. Maybe we have felt forsaken at times. And did not even Jesus experience this same feeling of forsakenness on the cross? But what does he do? He prays his fears.
Psalm 23 is spoken by one who knows fresh pain. It’s prayed by someone who recently walked through the darkest valley, and has emerged, trembling and stumbling. Psalm 23 offers assurance in the very places where Psalm 22’s lament lacks it, but we can’t separate the two.
To think of shepherding probably calls to mind peaceful scenes of rolling hills and beautiful countryside.But biblical representations of shepherding are a little different. In John 10, when Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, unlike the hired hand,we learn that the good shepherd never abandons his flock, and is prepared to drive away predators, bandits, thieves – and to navigate hostile terrain. The Good Shepherd is even willing to suffer violent death – godforsakenness – for the sake of his flock. As Jesus says, He lays down his life for his sheep.
I have a friend and former student from Baylor who’s a pastor of a church in Central San Antonio, and his church is very involved in caring for families that are seeking asylum and fleeing drug-trade-related violence in Central America. An article he wrote about this was just published in Christianity today last month. And when these families come here, to put it bluntly, they’re traumatized – one way or another: Rape, robbery, death of loved ones, separation from loved ones without knowing where they are or when they’ll be reunited again if ever, hunger, thirst, sickness, and unsanitary living conditions for weeks and even months on end up – these things are the norm for these families.
And just to be clear, I don’t share this with you from any kind of partisan political perspective but to illustrate the harm and hurt that can be produced by fear. It’s taken many of these families tremendous courage to leave their homes in the first place.But because of some of what they’ve gone through, they often struggle when they get here with fear that’s almost paralyzing.
In the article, my friend tells a story of listening to a young woman named Mayra praying with her father who’s about to be deported, and she says:
“Papa, repeat after me,” Mayra said. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I will not want.” His hand trembled while she kept her eyes closed. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside the still waters, he restores my soul.” The daughter he had taught to pray was now leading him. Eventually his voice came, raspy, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
“When our church started caring for traumatized migrants, we witnessed the healing power of praying the Scriptures,” Garland says.
Now, the word courage doesn’t show up in Psalm 23. But surely encouragement is one of the aims of this passage: “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.” Other translations say, “I lack nothing.” Or as the Message translation says, “My God, my shepherd, I don’t need a thing!”
Notice too that verse 5 shows God’s extravagant care and shifts the imagery, from shepherd to host. As a host who gives refuge to the psalmist surrounded by enemies. God offers abundant food and drink, as well as the assurance of safety. The expression “my cup overflows” indicates abundance! Not just enough.
So the encouragement here, to have courage, does not imply the absence of fear or even necessarily the overcoming of it, but the willingness and the God-given ability to move forward with fear without it controlling us or keeping us from doing what we’re called to…You feel the fear of something, but then the Spirit reminds you of what is more important and of what matters most– even more than having enough power, security, significance, approval…. The Spirit redirects us to an open-handed, open-hearted response and posture of receiving God’s love that trusts and then takes courage and extend that same love to others.
Our bishop Todd Hunter likes to say, I’m always safe in the Kingdom of God. I’ve said this to myself too, but for me I usually adapt it a bit to whatever my specific fear is. “In the Kingdom of God, I always have enough.” In the Kingdom of God, there are plenty of resources. In the Kingdom of God, no one can hurt me or my family. And this is where we live now. The Kingdom has come near.
If the Lord is not your shepherd, friends, then you don’t have one. You’ll just try to make your own – but to no avail. The courage given in Psalm 23 isn’t a promise of no evil or suffering, but the promise of God’s presence and ultimate deliverance in the midst of it. And the deliverance is true, it’s real. Whatever preys upon us, individually and as communities, we are not defeated, because God is withus. Imagine if we lived as if we really knew this truth, as if we really feared no evil, because our trust is in God. Imagine where no longer being driven by our fear might take us. Imagine if we, the vulnerable flock of the divine, knew ourselves forever to be pursued by the goodness and mercy of God.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand. – Raine Rilke
[I preached a version of this sermon on June 16, 2019 at Christ Church of Austin. The audio for it can be found here.]
Good morning Christ Church! It’s great to get to share with you today for the first time since starting in my new role as the Director of Vocation on staff – and also to be part of this sermon series on witness, which is a big part of how I think we need to understand our common vocation as Christians and the calling to be witnesses. It’s also Trinity Sunday, so I get to say something not only about our commissioned witness as a church, but also about how God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, goes before us and sends us into the world to make disciples – goes before you, and sends you, into the world to make disciples, wherever you live, work, and play, and through how you live, work and play.
Right away when many of us hear just the phrase, Great Commission, I know there are probably immediate connotations of global missions. Going– right, going – usually gets the emphasis, to the nations (i.e., cross-culturally), to tell people about Jesus, to proclaim the gospel, to those who haven’t heard – or just to those who, for whatever reason, have not believed the good news. And this is not necessarily bad, but it has limitations and can prevent us from understanding and appreciating the real emphasis of this instruction from Jesus.
When I was a senior in college, I was experiencing a revitalization of my faith in many ways. I was still very young and immature with a lot of growing up to do, but it was nonetheless a season of growth, passion and learning. One of the catalyzing events of this growth period for me was a mission trip that I went on to Juarez, Mexico, over Spring Break. And I know it might not sound like a very big sacrifice, but going on a mission trip for Spring Break when you’re a senior in college, at least if you were me, was already a significant change. I could have gone on a beach trip with some of my best friends. Whitney and I were dating at the time, and her family had invited me on a ski trip over that same Spring Break. I originally said yes, and then I actually backed out to go on this mission trip. I’m not sure how we ever got past that, but I guess we did!
All that to say, I was zealous for Christ and really just wanted an adventure. The idea of going to this border down and to some of the roughest areas of it to preach the gospel had been completely romanticized in my mind and captured my heart, so I was all in. I had studied abroad in Spain and was studying Spanish in college, so I was asked to be a translator for one of our teams on the trip, which I didn’t think sounded so bad. Little did I know, this also meant that I would be asked not only to translate but to preach – and preach in Spanish. Through a megaphone, on a street corner, in the Plaza Mayor – the public square in the city of downtown Juarez. No big deal. I was just that guy…
And unsurprisingly, the gospel for me and my church at that time was primarily about the forgiveness of sins, rather than also involving the redemption and restoration of all things, the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven, etc. My gospel was too small, in other words. There was a big hole in it, to use Richard Stearns’ language.
Interestingly, these two men came up to our group after I spoke and seemed curious about us – which I thought was a good thing – but I quickly figured out that they didn’t want to talk about anything I had said to them. They wanted to know if we knew what it was like to live in Juarez. They were wondering if we had heard about the escalating drug-trade related crime and violence. They started talking about La Linea, the Border, and immigration, unemployment, poverty, and the growth of low wage factory jobs since the inception of NAFTA. I understood that all of these things were unjust and legitimate problems, but what I didn’t understand then was what they had to do with what I just told them about Jesus!
So, I couldn’t make the connection between the gospel and what they were going through, and I didn’t have anything to say them about God’s will for their situation.I didn’t yet realize how the gospel was good news for them in the midst of all of those things, and so I missed an opportunity. And I’ve never forgotten it.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20
One of the things I think we have to do first to get a better understanding of discipleship and the Great Commission than I had when I went to Juarez, is to make sure we know what a disciple is. I like the way Robert Mulholland defines it, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, but he says:
A disciple is someone in the process of being formed in the image of Christ for the sake of others – Robert Mulholland, Invitation to the Spiritual Journey
This is a good summary statement, I think. And I especially appreciate his emphasis on the transformation dimension of discipleship rather than just the behavior. And then also that he extends its purpose beyond that of the individual. I would maybe just want to add one more definition. And I’m taking this from Dallas Willard. This one’s in the first person.
As a disciple, I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life in the Kingdom of God as he would lead my life if he were me. – Dallas Willard
That is to say, if Christ lived when and where you lived, did what you do, had the same relationships as you, and so on. And the reason I believe it’s important to add this additional clause, is because sometimes we can feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the famous Christians we know. Famous preachers and theologians, maybe, or just all the amazing things Jesus himself did, or Paul or Peter in Acts, or whoever.
But we’re actually not called to be those people or do exactly what they did – not even exactly what Jesus did! Which makes sense if you think about it, right? Jesus had a very unique mission that we can’t repeat. And yet, there’s something about how Jesus did what he did that can surely be translated into any situation and into any particular person’s life and calling – any particular person’s vocation.
And then of course, most importantly, by looking at Jesus’s own teachings themselves, we know that the process of becoming like Jesus occurs by way of obeying what Jesus commanded (v. 20). This is the “how” of our formation into his image and likeness. As we learn and practice what Jesus instructed us to do, our desires themselves will be increasingly disciplined by God’s desires themselves so that what we want what God wants, by nature – not just by doing what he said to do. The result is inner transformation rather than merely outward conformity.
So what did Jesus command? Well, of course, there’s a lot that he taught, but I do think it can be succinctly captured in just a couple of sentences. When asked what the greatest commandment is by a lawyer, Jesus replied in Matthew 22:
37 “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment.39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love another.” – John 13:35
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.” – John 8:31
This is sometimes called the Great Commandment, and the passage we heard today is known as the Great Commission.What I want to suggest to you is that the Great Commission can only be properly understood in the light of the Great Commandment. Commenting on the relationship between the Great Commission and Great Commandment, the 20thCentury Anglican priest and theologian John Stott says this:
What is the relation between the two? Some of us behave as if we thought them identical so that if we share the gospel with somebody we consider have completed our responsibility to love that person. But no. The Great Commission neither explains, not exhausts, nor supersedes the Great Commandment. What it does is add to the requirement of neighbor-love and neighbor-service a new and urgent Christian dimension.” – John Stott, Mission: Rethinking Vocation
And in case the Great Commandment isn’t clear, we have the Good Samaritan parable in Luke to help us with the question who counts as our “neighbor.”And basically Jesus’s answer to that question is everyone – everyone, but particularly those who we don’t like or who would even consider our enemies.
The Jews at this time were still living under Gentile imperial rule with the Romans lording over them and oppressing them in all kinds of ways. Jesus was essentially commanding them to love their enemies when he said this. Earlier in the gospel of Matthew, even Jesus seemed to have a concern first and foremost for the people of Israel, but now that’s all changing. Jesus is telling them to go and love and serve and teach their enemies to love God and love others.
Now, Overall, you could say the Great Commission and this work of witnessing to the gospel and to Christ has tended to be interpreted in one of two ways:
- Discipleship has been reduced to conversion, or in the worst cases, even coercion and violence. In other words, the Great Commission replaces the Great Commandment.
- The Great Commission is entirely optional or gets replaced by merely the Great Commandment: “Preach the gospel. When necessary, use words.”
For much of Protestant history in the West – not all, but much – the Great Commission has been confused with a command to make converts rather than disciples. So much so that, in some cases, Christians have used whatever necessary violent and coercive force. I’m speaking here of Western imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and military conquest…. This is to say, making people Christian or “like us” was put before the Great commandment to love them the way Jesus has loved us. Or the commandment was completely ignored. Anytime we put the Great Commission before the Great Commandment, we’re in serious trouble. Chronicling a fairly comprehensive history of Christian mission the West in the last few centuries, missiologist David Bosch observes that
“A not-so-subtle shift occurred in the original love motive; compassion and solidarity were replaced by pity and condescension.” – Bosch, Transforming Mission
“When sending becomes the overwhelming focus, the reconciling deeds of the kingdom are diminished or lost.” – Michael Stroope, Transcending Mission (my world Christianity professor in seminary!)
And again, I do not mean to suggest that this is the whole story of our missionary history as Anglicans and Protestants, but it is part of our story, and we still have name it, own it and continue to repent from it– even if you yourself don’t feel like you’re responsible or guilty of it. That’s part of being members of church, is that we have a corporate and collective identity, and therefore, corporate and collective confession and repentance – sometimes even for things that happened a long time ago.
However, we should also be encouraged that, by and large, Christianity is no longer a white, Western European or predominately North American religion — if it ever even really was. No, and we’ll get to talk about this in a few weeks with Philip Jenkins from Baylor at the “Mind Matters” Wednesday series, which just started this last week. And what we’ll see that the majority world, which is not us, has long been learning how to do Christianity and be Christians – live out the Great Commission – on their own and not on European or North American terms. So the Spirit is on the move in the world in genuinely indigenous gospel expressions that will take your breath away, and ways that don’t look very much like how we assume they would or should.
So we have to love people before we proclaim the gospel, before we teach them to obey what Jesus commanded, and before we baptize them. And this is what was wrong with my own attempt to preach to the people Juarez, Mexico. I didn’t know them. I didn’t know their culture, their political and economic reality, their context, their aspirations, their struggles. And so while I wanted to love them, maybe, I didn’t know how, and they couldn’t receive my love or God’s love.
Just to add another layer to this: Being able to love someone take even more than simply knowing them well. We also have to allow ourselves to share in the burdens that they’re carrying. This is what incarnational or embodied witness is all about. And this why the way Jesus loves us is so effective. Because he steps into our shoes. He suffers, he cries, he mourns, and he hungers, he’s betrayed – he’s in solidarity with the human condition. I definitely was not in solidarity with the Juarez condition. This is why good missionaries, real missionaries, spend years and years, learning, inculturating themselves, and getting to deeply know a place before they have much influence.
But if historically as Christians in the West we have tended to confuse discipleship with making converts or even just Western cultural imperialism, then today I’d say we’re equally in danger of the opposite problem today. Many of us are keenly aware of the mistakes of our past and our completely discredited witness in the public sphere because of so many bad examples of Christianity at the popular level and in the most extreme cases. And because of this, we’re timid. We’re insecure, we lack boldness, confidence and maybe conviction to sense the urgency any longer of the Great Commission.
And I want to make just two observations about this: one is that, I think Protestants have done a pretty good job of understanding that the gospel gives us direct access to God without the mediation of a priest or a church or any institution or good works. We know this, at least in principle. We certainly teach it, and growing up Baptist, I definitely learned that the priesthood of all believers was a big deal.
What hasn’t sunk in as much, and I fault clergy like myself and ministers for this more than anyone else, is the Great Commission of all believers. Not the priesthood of all believers, but the Great Commission of all believers. What I mean by that is, God’s blessing through Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit for everyone to be a minister of the gospel wherever they are and whatever they do. This is not primarily the job of gifted preachers or evangelists or theologians. No, it’s actually your job more than it is even mine.
It seems that for a long time the pastors and church leaders have given the impression to their congregations that your work, and your jobs, and your vocations, your resources, and your callings exist to support this institution and my calling and ministry, our calling and ministry, as clergy, priests and pastors. That’s exactly not the case.
Instead, what I what I want to tell you is that my ministry as a priest, and as someone who is employed by this church, exists to support, equip and serve you in your ministry as disciple-makers where you live work and play– so that you can better love God and love others in the places God calls you to be.
What is more, to say that my ministry, and the staff at Christ Church’s ministry, exists to support your ministry, is not to say that you we’re trying to just get you to do stuff around here in this building and with our mission trips and Sunday morning volunteering and small groups and all that. Sure, that’s all good, and I hope you do those things. But here’s what it really means:
Christ Church exists to enable you to be disciple-makers, ambassadors, salt and light, witnesses – that’s our word – witnesses – where you spend most of your time and most of your day. In your work places, in your homes, in your neighborhoods. And not because – and this is crucial – not because those things, your work places, your homes and your neighbors are just means to the end of evangelism and discipleship. No. We exist to help you be witnesses in those places because God cares about those very places. This is where God is already at work, bringing forth the kingdom, going before you, to prepare people to hear, to receive, to respond and to know the love of God that is our in Christ.
It’s the stuff of your work and your day that God wants to redeem. Your very home and neighborhood and company, and this city — the arts and the sciences, music, politics – all of it. All of it belongs to God. All if it is being invited to participate in the Triune life of God community of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So the commandment to love God and others isn’t just a call for obedience because God said. It’s offered as an invitation in response to what God has already accomplished and done for us. This makes a big difference in how we understand what love is, I think.
You know, the Trinity has only become more powerful in the last Century as an analogy for how we’re supposed to live. One of the things we’ve discovered about the physical world in the past 100 years is that it’s not primarily made up of material or matter, but rather that more than anything else, the universe and the earth is part of one enormous field of energy and particles in dynamic relationship to each other – which is not unlike some of our best Trinitarian theology.
Augustine is famous for describing the Holy Spirit as essentially the loving relationship between the Father and Son. It’s so strong and so dynamic, that it’s actually best understood as a third member of the Trinity altogether, coequal with the Father and the Son. And this love is where we’re invited to live. When we live out the Great Comission, we’re getting ourselves caught up in the Triune flow of giving and receiving.
And over time, theologians throughout Church history begin to describe this relationship between the three persons of the Trinity as one of perfect and total giving and receiving between each member all at once! It’s this complete image of each of the persons, being fully known and fully loved by each other despite their different functions. Their nature is common, but their roles are distinct.
So when we’re sent, we’re not sent out on our own to carry the weight of the world. Christ and the Spirit go before us already doing that. We just get to be part of it. How freeing and how empowering is that?
Our own culture context and moment makes this more difficult, but the best and most common way that we’re going to be able to train people in Christian living is by loving them unconditionally, earning their trust, and listening for when and how the Holy Spirit might be creating an opportunity to articulate the reason for the hope that we have – and then continuing to build relationships that foster transformative learning in how to follow Jesus more fully and faithfully.
One of the marks of the first Christians, who were a minority group in a Greco-Roman, pagan world, was a posture of both peace and urgency when it came to their witness. They knew that the Holy Spirit was the one who was actually going to transform people’s hearts. That’s not our job. At the same time, that doesn’t exempt us from communicating and witnessing to our faith in Christ in a way that connects and resonates with people around us.
In John, Jesus shows the disciples his pierced hands and feet and then says to them: “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21). So what’s really essential is the wounds and sacrifice. Our going and being sent is simply the natural byproduct of God doing this for us. We already want to do it if we’ve really come to know the love of God. We can’t help but do it. It compels us. It leads us into the ministry of the Trinity, and the ministry of making disciples, Monday through Saturday, where the Spirit is already drawing people into God’s love and into relationship with Christ. Let’s pray.
Many who know me are already aware of this most recent development in my life, but I wanted to take some time to elaborate on another professional transition in my life that is especially exciting. As of this past month, Whitney, Liam and Roy and I have moved back to Austin, which is where Whitney and I met and have spent much of our lives. It is home to many of our extended family members and to many more lifelong friends. This by itself makes the change particularly meaningful. Baylor University and Truett Seminary will always be in my life, and we are already missing Waco — which, by the way, was a cool and desirable place to live long before Chip and Joanna said so! I intend to continue teaching at Baylor part-time as a lecturer in theology and ethics, both at Truett on occasion and in the business school, just as I have done for the past two years.
Apart from our history and long-term relationships in Austin, I also feel uniquely suited for my new professional role at Christ Church as their Director of Vocation. We have defined vocation as the way someone is specifically called, shaped and gifted to love God and others in a particular season of life and work. In this job, I will be overseeing an area of the church’s ministry where whole-life discipleship and mission intersect, which we’re calling vocational formation. I find this focus intriguing and fitting for several reasons…
My doctoral research and writing was in philosophy of religion, but more specifically theology, ethics and society, or what in some circles gets called political theology. This just means that I’m interested in exploring the relationship between the Church and the world and how Christians understand God’s mission in the public sphere — socially, culturally and politically — and our responsibility and participation in that mission.
The first class I taught at Baylor was in the Interdisciplinary Core program and was entitled “Examined Life.” As suggested by the title, the main purpose of the class was for first-year students at Baylor to begin to discover what the “good life” looks like — intellectually, emotionally, socially, physically and spiritually. This was a team-taught course in the Honors College with several other faculty members, and I was one of the instructors in the social dimension. Discerning one’s calling and vocation was a big theme throughout the course, as well as learning about important social issues and wellness practices for flourishing in college and appreciating the significance of a liberal arts education.
This past year, I’ve been teaching another course at Baylor as well called Christian Ethics Applied to Business, in which I’ve been drawing significantly on some of the work done by Seattle Pacific University’s Center for Integrity in Business. In addition, I became a certified spiritual director last month and just stepped down from my position as the Assistant Director of Spiritual Formation at Truett Seminary. This was a two-year training program and learning environment for me to grow in and practice the art of listening to and accompanying others as they seek God’s will for their lives and work in the church as well as the world.
Finally, while I’ve been a pastoral minister in a congregational setting before, most extensively at Saint Peter’s in Charleston, I have not been actively functioning in this capacity since 2017. And yet, I haven’t been able to let go of a sense of calling to local church leadership. Dayspring Baptist Church has been our community and place of worship for these past two years. I think it’s a model Christian congregation for how to integrate contemplative, liturgical and sacramental life together in a way that still flows outward and engages the community. For some reason, though, I’ve continued to be drawn to the Anglican world and the mission of the Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others in which I am ordained, and of which Christ Church of Austin is a part.
In sum, I saw where this new opportunity had the potential to bring together three major streams that I have been swimming in for several years now: Christian theological and social ethics, spiritual formation/direction and ministry in the local church. As Director of Vocation, I will occasionally teach, preach and serve as a priest, but my primary responsibility is to educate, equip and mobilize Christ Church members for aligning their daily life and work with God’s purposes — whether in the marketplace, at home, in healthcare, entertainment, science, education, the neighborhood, the arts, or government and politics. This is a big job that requires a whole community to accomplish it. Thankfully, the church is already well on their way, and I just get to join them. If your’e in the Austin area or ever visiting and want to learn more, let me know!
This message was preached and recorded at Truett Seminary’s chapel service on January 29, 2019.
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
I was recently thinking back, in light of the sadness of his death earlier this month, on Lamin Sanneh’s visit to Truett in 2009 to deliver the Parchman Lectures. He spoke then as he often did about and as he’d also famously written about the power of the gospel throughout history to bring so many different kinds of people together in so many different cultures and parts of the world to worship the same God. There’s simply not been any other religious movement quite like it.
I was taking a class on religious pluralism with Paul Sands that same semester, and Sanneh visited our class to talk about precisely this unparalleled capacity of Christianity over the centuries to somehow incarnate and inculturate itself, in a genuine indigenous fashion, in such a wide variety of social, linguistic and even religious contexts. (Now, it didn’t always spread this way. Sometimes it was caught up in colonialism and other sinful, distorted versions of Christendom’s exploitative and militant conquest — but not necessarily, and at its best, it wasn’t! And in this respect, the gospel has functioned as incomprehensibly unifying force.
In the passage you heard read a moment ago, Paul speaks to this and insists that the Corinthians be unified perfectly, in mind and thought. I read this this last week in the daily office, and I find it to be one of the most at once compelling and perplexing expectations placed upon the church, so that’s what I’m reflecting on this morning.
It’s compelling because, who could deny the attractiveness and allure of what Sanneh emphasizes in his work? — How Christianity through the power of the Holy Spirit unlike any other movement, unites without diminishing difference. It’s a beautiful thing, church unity, even intended by God to be a reflection of the unity and in diversity of the Trinity itself! That we in with all our differences might be one in Christ.
But unity for Christians is also perplexing because despite the power that the gospel potentially gives us to be unified, we are in so many ways anything but. I think I first noticed this even if at a very superficial level at a very young age, hearing I don’t know how many bad jokes from the pulpit promising to dismiss us in time to beat the Methodists to Luby’s.
Of course, I don’t think denominational diversity and difference is all bad. And not every difference is a division. I myself am something of a denominational mutt in this regard, and yet I wouldn’t say that I feel very divided about it.
I belong to a Baptist church, and I grew up in a Baptist church, but in between, I attended Bible churches; I received my own sense of calling into vocational ministry in a charismatic community church. I served as a youth pastor in a Methodist congregation, and later taught at a Catholic University before finally getting ordained among the Anglicans. Just don’t tell them that neither of my kids have been baptized yet!
And my story isn’t all that unique – at least insofar as it represents the broader phenomenon we’re seeing of more and more Christians in North America drawing on each other’s respective streams and traditions, emphasizing what we have in common, worrying a little less about what makes us different.
Of course, it’s only appropriate if not inevitable that we do this in a post-Christendom age in which, for those of us committed to the gospel, we can hardly afford to trouble ourselves with non-essential differences.
At the same time that there can be good in our diversity, though, we also know the dark side – that much of it is not mere diversity or difference, but indeed, actual division and the result of ugly and even violent conflicts and war in our past.
And so far I’ve really only been referring to one kind of diversitydivision, one kind of difference, namely, denominational, which is actually a fairly narrow category. We know that if we really want to talk about division in the church, we’re going to have to be ready to talk about race, class, age, gender, and so on.
Now, historically, human beings have most effectively been unified by clan and common enemy. And sociologically speaking, this is still very much the case. So in many ways we should expect people to be most unified precisely around what they are divided about and around who and what they oppose.
You can scarcely find a better example of this than in our own government right now and the U.S. political climate in general. In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,social-psychologist Jonathan Haidt says it this way, and I think he describes the nature of human reasoning pretty well in this:
“[W]hen a group of people make something sacred, the memberslose the ability to think clearly about it…Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second…We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play…[Our political and religious] reason[ings] are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog…You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments…” though I’m sure we’ll die trying!
It would be nice if Christians were an exception to this. But I think we all know that we are not. I would still suggest, though, that Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 1, is that it is the power of the cross and the Lordship of Christ that enables this unity in thought and mind that he is calling for, and that when gospel and lordship of Jesus Christ is what ultimately brings us together, no division should be able to remain.
Now, the church in Corinth appears to be facing this same universal and timeless human problem, or disease we might even call it. And Paul diagnoses the disease, calling it schisma.
Schisma is not a mere disagreement about something. Schisma is relational division felt deeplyin the culture and between significant segments of a collective, of a community. In the context of human relationship, schisma between people leaves an open wound, that without proper treatment, can infect the whole body and become a hardened, ugly and disabling feature.
The schisma that Paul is addressing in Corinth, however – and this is important – does not appear to be doctrinal in nature. If it were, it is likely that Paul would have said so or given some indication of this, for he doesn’t hesitate to do so elsewhere. And that Paul speaks well of Apollos, for instance, only a few chapters later, wouldn’t make sense if Paul thought Apollos was a false teacher.
But even if they weren’t divided over doctrine as such, that they were divided is still theologically significant. For doesn’t it means that, for some of the Corinthians, something, had become as important or more so than the gospel itself? Were not some groups claiming higher status than others, because of who they were following? Vying for greater privilege, maybe, and power and influence in the community?
Now, all that Paul mentions about the schism is that it has something to do with factions formed around certain leaders, whether because of who had baptized them, eloquent speech, or something else, and regardless of whether the leaders intended to form factions. Some say, “I follow,” or “I am of” Apollos, Cephas (no evidence Peter had ever been to Corinth), Paul or just even “Christ.” Those who say “We are of Christ” are especially difficult to identify, positively or negatively, but regardless, Paul objects to any grounds for the existence of such factions, however many there were.
Whatever the problem was exactly, the division in Corinth for Paul is arguably only a presenting symptom of a bigger problem– the Corinthians do not understand, or they seem to have forgotten, that the cross of Christ undid their ways of defining and valuing themselves and one another! The lesson is not that our differences are really no big deal, but that the reconciling love and power of the cross is greater than even our biggest differences.
Paul echoes this same sentiment in chapter 12:
4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
A few verses later:
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
Now,we this is a place we have to be very careful, though, that appeals to the unity, even in the name of Christ, not blind us to or make excuses for unjust relationships of power among us. I think of those of white folks who want to say to our black brothers and sisters, “we’re with you, let’s be unified, let’s work together” – but we don’t want to give anything up or make a change. We want racial reconciliation to be easy, and we think it should be, because we don’t really believe we have any responsibility. We don’t see our own complicity in it. It’s easy to say “let’s unite!” when you’re not the one who has been disenfranchised.
But Paul is not naive about this. While he doesn’t directly address the subject of racism, he does show a particular concern for members of the body who have been mistreated or overlooked by those in power, and how they are meant to be incorporated in the Church – the poor, the elderly, the widows – anyone of lower social status:
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it,25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Paradoxically, the unity available to us through the gospel doesn’t come by treating everybody the same. No, it actually means looking out for the vulnerable. Taking care to include and empower those members among us whom the world tends to judge as insignificant. Showing them special honor. Making theirsuffering our suffering. Not in a patronizing way, but through practicing solidarity.
Isn’t this what the gospel says? Doesn’t God say that to us? Your suffering is my suffering. Our sin, Christ becomes that sin for our sake – and even for the sake of unity?
This unity is deep and costly. It is grounded in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ.
Schisma cuts deep, so the healing of it has to go deeper. Only the cross of Christ does this. Why? Because in Christ, God identifies with. God enters into solidarity with. God takes on. Our sinful condition. He takes it on, absorbs it, and then takes it away. Some of the greatest division is caused by betrayal, deceit and infidelity, and yet this is the very thing Christ experiences and enters into.
I recently joined the board for a non-profit organization called Open Table. Some of you may have heard of it. Their model of ministry is to get 8-10 people or so committed for a full year of supporting a person facing some kind of hardship – oftentimes it’s homelessness – partnering with them and building a relationship with them as each table member helps to address one area of need in the person’s life.
Obviously, the person receiving help from the table benefits significantly, but story after story that I hear is primarily about the transformative and unifying community experience of the 8 other table members as they grow closer in relationship with each other and the individual they’re serving. By caring for the weak and vulnerable in their midst, the gospel goes to work and unites them.
Again, some have tried to think about unity apart from Christ. Unity around a political platform or even an entire political philosophy. Others have attempted to establish this kind unity through other commonalities: race or ethnicity. Unity around nationality or social class. Unity around a certain, narrow theological school or sect.
Of course, there can indeed be unity around certain important and even ordained causes. The fight against racism or sexism in this country comes to mind. And there’s no reason why the church can’t get behind this! In fact, the church must get behind these efforts, and such causes can even be unifying, but only when we engage on Christ’s terms. Which is to say, in cruciformity, and founded on the basis of our trust in God’s redemption mercy and forgiveness.
Here I can’t help but think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for the three young girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham in 1963, in which hedescribes the potential power released by their death to unify!
History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilt blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future.
To say it another way, the treatment for the disease of schisma is the cross of Christ. The cure for schisma is for Christians is to strive for unity that is gospel-shaped, which means surrendering, as Christ did, all ambition for worldly status, power or privilege. And exchanging this ambition for love of the weak and the vulnerable.
In fact, Paul seems to think that the marks of status, such as eloquent, impressive and attractive speech or worship services (we might say today), may actually have the effect of emptying the cross of its power.
And finally, not only does the cross deeply heal and unify us in this way – it also sends us out. For as Paul says, Christ did not send me to baptize (nothing wrong with baptism, of course), but to preach the gospel.
To preach the gospel, moreover, isn’t to ignore the problems of the world. It rather means being sent more fully into them, unleashing the power of the cross to heal, because the gospel is the only cure for the disease of schisma.
At the risk of conflating John and Paul, let me close by reading Jesus’s own prayer in John 17 for unity among his followers and for those who would come to believe in their message:
20 My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
[This is the manuscript for a sermon I preached on July 29, 2018 at Resurrection Church, South Austin.]
Today’s reading, the whole chapter of Ephesians 3, really is one of the most elegant passages in all of Scripture, I think. It’s very moving to read it. And it’s powerful for the church to hear it. So I want to try to help us hear it a little bit more this morning. And there’s a lot here we could talk about — too much to cover in one sermon.
Maybe most famous of all is v. 18, which is a sermon in itself, speaking of how far and high and wide and deep is the love of God in Christ — and that we may know it.
It’s kind of surprising, though, I think, that — when Paul starts to talk about the mystery that is being revealed — what does he say? That Jews and Gentiles, through the gospel, would be members together, belonging fully and equally to the same body — that this is the mystery! I almost want to say, really? Is that it? That’s the mystery? That Jews and Gentiles? I would have guessed he’d say something like, the mystery is that God became human, took on flesh, was born of a woman and into a humble place…
[I preached the following sermon at Saint Peter’s Church on July 22, 2018 (the audio can be found here). We read from Acts 5:1-12.]
Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”
5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
9 Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
This passage today – the Acts reading – it’s not exactly a feel-good story. And I actually had a choice as to whether to use it! But I guess I figured hey, I don’t work here anymore. No big deal if it bombs. Someone else can deal with the fallout, and this is one at least looks interesting and fun!
And can we also laugh about this story a little bit, too? It’s crazy! There’s literally no explanation for either of their deaths. It doesn’t say God killed them, or that Peter did, or that they had heart attacks, or what!
Now, obviously their death is related to their actions and to Peter and the church’s judgment of their actions, but there’s still a lot of mystery around it. James Dunn, one of the leading NT scholars of the 20th Century (1996), describes it as ‘one of the most unnerving episodes in the whole of the New Testament.’
Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion has a chapter that criticizes the Old Testament depiction of God, and then the chapter immediately following it is entitled, “Is the New Testament any Better?” So you can imagine how he might reference this story of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 to support an argument that the God of Jesus Christ is also unreasonably harsh, vindictive and too easily used to justify violence in his name, and so on.
So unsurprisingly, the intensity and perplexity of this passage has been used against Christians to call into question the credibility of not only the Scriptures, but even the God to which the Scriptures testify.