Below is the video recording of my talk from the Second ACNA Matthew 25 Gathering this past Fall of 2017. The video and audio from other presenters can be found here: http://www.anglicanjusticeandmercy.org/M25-2017/
Author: Bill Walker (Page 1 of 22)
As Christians, we all have our own journeys to go on. And rarely is the path straight. There is progress and regress. I think it’s safe to say the same has been true for the Church throughout its history. One of the best pieces of advice I got as a graduate student in theology was that, no matter how much I may learn, grow, and change, I should always try to make room for the old versions of myself. I’ve also heard it said this way: what we focus on determines what we miss, and while God is always calling us forward, it’s easy to disdain the good things we used to know.
500 years after the Reformation, how does the Church continue to grow and change while still making room for what has come before?
My Own Journey
My family was Southern Baptist growing up, and then we joined a non-denominational congregation that was part of the seeker church movement. I later went to a Baptist university and seminary. For a while I attended a charismatic church, and this was one of the most formative seasons of my life. Throughout my years in school, I spent summers abroad in Spain, Mexico, and Argentina with Baptists, Catholics and Bible church folks. I worked as a youth pastor at a United Methodist Church in Los Angeles and as a professor at a Catholic University in San Antonio. And for the last three years, I was a pastor in an Anglican Church in South Carolina.
After all of this, I still call myself an evangelical and a Protestant, but with an asterisk. I would need to add words like contemplative, Wesleyan, charismatic, liturgical, Anabaptist and Sacramental. All of this to say, I, like many others in my generation, am the product of an inter- and post-denominational age. And yet here we are approaching the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which, among many other things, gave rise to denominationalism.
The Legacy of Protestantism
In 2008, Phyllis Tickle made quite a splash with her book, The Great Emergence, in which she argued that the Church has already been experiencing the next reformation. I had the fortune of getting to speak with her about this when she came to Baylor. I was fairly surprised to discover that, despite her bold claims about a massive rummage sale going on in the Church, she also had a humble and simple Anglo-Protestant piety about her. She could eloquently account for the effect of any historical development on Church and society: the erosion of biblical authority, the sexual revolution, the Civil Rights movement, new discoveries in the sciences, global capitalism, and so on. And yet, we were talking about the problem of religious pluralism over dinner during her visit, and at one point she said: “If you don’t eat the body and drink the blood, well then…may God have mercy on you!”
It was as if there was something at the heart of the Reformation that even this prophet of Protestantism’s downfall herself could not relinquish. After all, what is the legacy of Protestantism if not the proliferation of perspectives on precisely this issue? From Baptism and the Eucharist to Calvinism and Arminianism, did not the Reformation produce answers to one central question: How are we saved?
Of course, behind this question was also the question of ecclesiastical authority. Sola Scriptura, Sola fide, and Sola gratia were the responses to Roman Catholic corruption, and scores of us remain indebted to this rich heritage of courageous protest and sacrifice. Not only the household theological names of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, but martyrs by the hundreds gave their lives for the cause of elevating the Bible above the Magisterium, and moreover, eventually delivering it into the hands of the people. Huss (and Wycliffe much earlier), Tyndale, Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley and so many others. And that’s not even to mention the Anabaptists, who were persecuted by other Protestants, and who were the true reformers of church-state relations and witnesses to Jesus’ teachings against violence — in addition to believer’s baptism. These men (and unnamed women) are our saints. (See Roger Olson’s excellent and much more comprehensive post on the Reformation’s legacy and why he’ll celebrate the real beginning of the [Radical] Reformation in 2025. Olson also argues, citing Bebbington and Noll, that it is really Arminianism, Pietism and the Great Awakenings, and not solely the Reformation, that pave the way for what would now be considered classical evengelicalism. I also resonated with this article by Hauerwas that somewhat justifies the persistence of Protestantism even today.)
The Age of the Spirit
In the West, some have called the early to late Medieval centuries of the Church the “Age of the Father.” The Reformation, subsequently, ushered in the “Age of the Son.” By the early 20th Century, however, and probably long before, change was in the air. The turning point probably doesn’t have a date, but Azusa Street is as good a marker as any. It was a new dispensation of sorts, the “Age of the Holy Spirit.” Curiously, with a few exceptions, most of the famed 20th Century theologians didn’t grapple with Charismatic Christianity. It just didn’t seem to fit.
But much like in the book of Acts, the Spirit appeared to be moving among the uneducated and unauthorized. Every movement has a dark side, and Pentecostalism was no exception, but in addition to the experience of new charisms, the Charismatic awakening brought unprecedented racial and economic diversity into worship. Today there’s scarcely a church that hasn’t been touched by it. Within the post-colonial era, the South did indeed rise again — the Global South, that is, and the next great chapter of church history and theology will not likely be European or American.
The Three Streams, and Beyond
In 2014, I became a pastor in a church that was part of a small denominational movement called the Anglican Mission in America. Inspired by the work of missiologists like David Bosch and Lesslie Newbigin, and drawing on the tradition of St. Patrick and Celtic Christianity, this group of church planters and breakaway Episcopalians formulated an identity not based on any one of these three great periods in Christian Church history, but on all of them. They called themselves “three streams” Christians. They claimed to be catholic, evangelical, and charismatic.
Now, the three streams are great, but they don’t tell the whole story. We in the West have also learned from the Eastern Church. In addition to Pentecostalism, the 20th Century American religious scene gave us the retrieval of Patristic and pre-Reformational spirituality. One leading figure responsible for this recovery was Thomas Merton. Personally, if I had not been introduced to the contemplative tradition as a chaplain during seminary, I do not know where I would be today.
As early as the late 19th Century, still another dimension of the tradition was being re-discovered: not merely the gospel of the Reformation and the forgiveness of sins, but the gospel of the Kingdom of God. It was always right there under our noses, but the Reformation seemed to block it from view. If the gospel of the kingdom of God and all of its social implications had been appreciated by Christians after the Reformation, one has to wonder if the history of the U.S. might have turned out a bit different (vis-a-vis slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, etc.).
And finally, while atheism, Darwinism, biblical criticism and eventually the Holocaust raised challenges with which the Church is still wrestling, there arose another prophetic voice. It was the voice of liberation, and it continues to speak from many difference marginal experiences. Whether Latin American, African-American, feminist, womanist, mujerista, Minjung, Palestinian, or otherwise, as these theologians would have it, if the gospel isn’t good news to the poor and the oppressed, it isn’t the gospel.
Transcending and Including the Reformation
Still, at this 500-year juncture, the gift and legacy of the Reformation is not to be left behind. It must live on. True, it must be transcended, but also included. The Reformation resides at the heart of evangelicalism. It reminds us that the Christian faith is intensely personal, and that evangelion is still a very good word! It’s the stream that preaches the gospel. Not that the gospel wasn’t preached before, but Protestants revived it at a crucial moment when the Church had lost its way and forgotten about the assurance and comfort of God’s grace by faith in Christ.
So while in the 21st Century it may be safe to say that Mere Protestantism will not do, and ecclesial provincialism is a thing of the past, so is lowest-common denominator ecumenism. Modernity in the 20th Century tried one last time to crack the code on religious diversity in search for a universal theology derived from Enlightenment anthropology. And it failed. So while we must be nurtured by each of the three streams — the Catholic, Evangelical, Charismatic, and others — there will usually be one that is our home. If we forego our particular histories, we risk the universal absorbing us into abstraction. So yes, Catholics will go on being Catholics, and the same goes for Baptists, Anglicans, Pentecostals and so on. The key is simply to make room for other streams to flow through us.
But not simply so that we can remain relevant in a time when no one cares if you’re Baptist or Methodist anymore. Rather, as white Christian America moves from majority to minority, and American civil religion makes another nationalist and even racist grab for power, what were once perhaps beautiful and faithful expressions of Reformation heritage and denominational identity are now giving way to consumer religious preference, at best, and a dying gasp of white Protestant privilege, at worst. By drawing on different streams from the whole Christian tradition, religious consumerism, Protesant privilege, nationalism and even racism can be resisted.
The Age of the Church?
So yes, this may be called the Age of the Spirit, but we are also living in a pivotal time for the Church. As many others have pointed out, however, it’s one that in North America will probably look more like the first few centuries of Christian history than the last sixteen. Discipleship will not be optional anymore. Theological education will continue to become less formal but even more critical. It is a time in which the church must become more important, not less, but it will have to do so precisely by kenosis, not triumph.
500 years after the Reformation, though the world is radically different, as Protestants and evangelicals we still need the same courage that Luther had to “do no other” — the courage to be reformed and always reforming, and the wisdom to transcend while also including what the Reformation has given us.
[The second ACNA Matthew 25 Gathering took place last week in Phoenix, and I had the opportunity to present. There was a video recording as well, which I will share when it is available.]
It was not my plan to become a pastor, go to seminary, and certainly not to become a professor. I wanted to go to law school, practice public interest or non-profit law and do human rights work in Latin America. A job at International Justice Mission would have been a dream for if you had asked me in college to envision my future.
But as it turns out, I liked the idea of that kind of work a lot more than I was actually cut out for it. Of course, we’re all called to be involved in mercy and justice initiatives in the world in Jesus’s name and for the advancement of the kingdom at some level. I just had to realize that my strength was more in the area of teaching, thinking, and writing first.
So what I’d like to do here is just underscore three things that the Eucharist in particular teaches us about how and why we contend for shalom in an unjust and merciless world. In other words, what is the relationship between the work of seeking justice and shalom, and a specifically Eucharistic understanding of God’s mission in the world to redeem and restore all things?
I want to try to answer this question about Eucharistic Shalom, let’s call it, by just saying a little bit more about how I got here — because I think it will help to illustrate the first part of what I have to say.
Like many younger folks who have found themselves drawn to liturgical worship, I did not start out in this place. I was raised in a Baptist and broadly evangelical church setting. During my senior year of college, I went on a spring break mission trip with my church to Juarez, Mexico. My experience at this church taught me some very important new lessons about the Christian life, one of which had to do with the role of the Holy Spirit not only in worship but also in mission. I had certainly been taught to revere God’s Word as inspired and authoritative for my life, and I knew what it meant to be an evangelical Christian, but the charismatic stream was unfamiliar. So you could say this was the season in my life when I discovered two of the three streams of Christian identity, the evangelical and the charismatic, but not yet the sacramental/catholic.
But it was on this mission trip that God would also teach me something else. One day in the city of Juarez, the team I was part of went on an outreach into a public park. We had just performed a street theater-style drama that enacted that enacted the gospel story. Afterwards, we passed out gospel tracts in Spanish. I was one of the translators for our team because I could speak the best Spanish, which wasn’t saying much, and two men came up to us after the drama.
We thought they were wanting to talk about what they had just seen and heard from us, but instead, they kept trying to tell us about some of the struggles they were facing in life at the border of Mexico and the United States — the difficulties of finding good jobs, the poverty in the city, the politics of immigration, the safety issues and the crime problem in that part of the country created by drug cartels and the trafficking of narcotics, and so on. To us, this all seems mostly unrelated to the message we needed to share with them about salvation, which was spiritual — not material, not economic, and above all not political. In our minds at the time, those two dimensions, the temporal and the spiritual, needed to be kept separate and unconfused.
And so as a result of this kind of dualism in our theology, we kept talking past each other. We missed an opportunity to connect, and to share the good news of the gospel with these two men — how it could impact there life then and there, in the present, in the mundane, material, political and economic details of their life. I did not yet grasp what was going on and what was being overlooked in this exchange until probably several years later, but I never forgot it because, I knew even then that something was wrong or at least very incomplete in what we were doing.
It wasn’t even so much though that our church then didn’t care about the material needs of people. We did service projects on that trip, to show our love and God’s love for the vulnerable in Juarez. But even acts of service, with the paradigm we were working with then, were being carried out, I think, as means to an end — the end of evangelism and conversion — rather than as an ends in themselves that could testify and actually be gospel work, just as much as the preaching and street theater.
All of this to say, taking place more than ten years ago, I’ve been on quite a spiritual and theological journey ever since. And it stems from this story. I watched the talks from last year’s Matthew 25 Gathering, and at the beginning then and this time as well, I was particularly struck by Christine’s call for the holding together of the contemplative and the activist, or reflective and practitioner sides of our faith.
This has my been my same lesson and goal. It’s why I work in spiritual formation, as a spiritual director in training, on the one hand, and write and think about how to live out my political theology, on the other hand — and see no disconnection, no contradiction between the two.
For most of my life, though, even though I came to value both the spiritual and social dimensions of the Christian life, I didn’t have an ecclesiology that was able to empower both of these dimensions at the same time. Which is to say, I didn’t appreciate the church’s role and calling, and therefore my role and calling in the face of injustice, in the right way. I didn’t have a concrete, corporate worship practice that regularly drew me in, grounded and centered me in the rhythm and reality of God’s presence.
Once I got “converted” to the gospel of the kingdom of God, in addition to the gospel of the forgiveness of sins, I just kind of assumed that churches should allocate more and more of their resources toward justice efforts until there was only a minimal amount left for anything else. No need for buildings or full-time pastors. Let’s just put the money toward community development and meet in homes practicing contemplative prayer! Which I still don’t think is a terrible idea 🙂 But I judged church in my naive zeal on this basis, and I lacked a sacramental imagination for how the church participates in extending God’s justice in the world and contending for shalom.
In fact I wrote my whole dissertation without yet discovering the role of the sacraments in developing a truly counter-cultural and counter-political movement that would contend for shalom. Part of my subtitle for my work was a political theology of neighborliness and resistance (or, contending), and these practices are vital, but what I really needed, in addition, was a theology, or more specifically an ecclesiology of Eucharistic contending, which I learned especially from a Catholic theologian and economic ethicist named William Cavanaugh in his book Torture and the Eucharist.
And so my main message to you all today, is that it is the Eucharist that is at the Center between the two sides of our faith, the inward and the outward, the eternal and the temporal, the spiritual and the social. There is some distinction between each of these dimensions, but there is no separation between them, and there certainly no conflict between them.
So the first thing the Eucharist does is give us a different ecclesiology. And this ecclesiology could be the subject of an entire conference to itself, but let me just put this way: A Eucharistic ecclesiology understands that God does the heavy lifting, not us. I know this is an obvious point that might even sound cliche, but many churches in North America still struggle to trust that it’s true. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve seen, for example, the explosion of the mega-church, at the same time that we’ve seen stagnation and even steady decline in overall church participation.
And to ironically borrow business language here, we’ve gotten better at packaging the Christian faith, on the one hand — we’ve reduced the cost, we’ve monetized our sermons and our songs — but we’ve done this largely while at the same time not seeing an increase in our “market share” or tapping into new markets. And we’ve done this at the same time that our churches, again, in general, remain as segregated as ever.
Both evangelical and Mainline churches have done this. Many have developed a utilitarian ecclesiology with regard to numerical church growth within the Seeker Church Movement, and some have even become utilitarian with regard works of justice (dating back to as long ago as the Social Gospel movement at the turn of the 20th Century). In either case, the church is an instrument more than a body, used to have a greater impact on society.
But it is not the job of the church, I submit to you, and therefore it is not the job of Christians, first and foremost, to change the world. This is my Anabaptish — my Anglo-anbaptish theology coming out, if I may. Yeah, no: changing the world, that is God’s job. Our job instead is something more like this — to witness to the change of the world. Though as soon as I say this, I realize it sounds a lot like Ghandi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Which is kind of embarrassing if God has to use a Hindu to tell the church its job description! But I think it’s ok, because I’m pretty sure Ghandi at least partially got this from Jesus (and of course, other Christians have said this too 🙂
There’s a show called Narcos on Netflix, and it’s not very wholesome. There’s violence and sexually explicit content at times. And it’s great TV! Whitney and I like watching it together because it helps us with our Spanish and because I’m fascinated with history of the drug war in Latin America… The main character in the third season is Pena, and he is one of the famed DEA agents who helped take down Pablo Escobar. During the first episode, he’s on leave from his job and back in Laredo, TX, where’s from. And he’s trying to get settled but feeling restless. Pena attempts to rekindle and old relationship with his former girlfriend but finds out that she’s married and has kids so he’s all depressed about this and sharing his frustrating with his dad.
In this conversation, his dad says: “Son, when you were young, you couldn’t wait to get out and see the world, but then you did, and you didn’t like what you saw. So you wanted to change it. But I warned you not to do this, because more than likely, it would end up changing you.” And in fact it did change Pena. He couldn’t rest, and he ended up going back to work long before he was supposed to because he was addicted to it. I know this is an extreme example, but I think it’s still part of what happens when we don’t have a Eucharistic Ecclesiology.
So what does the Eucharist say about ecclesiology? Well, part of what it says – and if you’ll permit me to take a couple of verses out of context (which theologians love to do because we’re not exegetes, except for when it helps our systematic cause — is the comfortable words: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11). Jesus says this to his disciples right after John the Baptist is beheaded and he has given the woes to the unrepentent cities of Galilee. Or how about John 16, where Jesus says, I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.” These words Jesus offers after warning the disciples about the injustice and persecution they’re going to face for his name’s sake.
So the Eucharist is good news to us — we know this. It offers us rest, it receives us in peace, and it gives comfort. When we receive it, it restores us, fill us up, and reminds us of our true identity, and therefore our first purpose, which is that we are children of God called to sit at the feet of God. Hans Urs von Balthasar, says that the Eucharist is contemplation in love and the communion of love with love; and it only from such a celebration that a Christian mission goes out into the world” (Love Alone is Credible).
The Eucharist is a love feast, the agape meal, in other words, where we are nourished, fed, strengthened, enlivened, awakened, by Christ’s real presence in the bread and the wine. It is an encounter with the love of God made known to us in Christ.
I seriously didn’t used to think that this mattered, because the church I grew up in didn’t think it did either. If we took communion, it was passed down the isle to us on a tray! It’s amazing how much the Sacrament of the Eucharist has come to mean to me now, though, just the very practice of coming forward every Sunday. During worship to the Lord’s table to receive something participate with everyone else in more than just sitting, standing, singing and listening. Our bodies get much more involved this way, which again blurs an perception of a disconnection between the spiritual and the physical.
So we start with good news. It’s like Creation and the whole story of the Bible — to begin with, the Eucharist is closely tied to the Sabbath rest of God’s communion with us (this is kind of like the upward movement).
And look, I probably don’t even need to say this, but I’m painfully aware that there’s nothing automatic about this — I’m not suggesting, for instance, that my taking communion, somehow people are just going to become better disciples every week. Sadly, the history of the church just shows that’s not true. We need many other things in the practice of our faith beyond Sunday worship.
But that’s what makes the next aspect of the Eucharist I’m going to talk about so important. The Scripture that’s going to help us, I think, is Corinthians 11:17-34. If the first thing the Eucharist does is draw us “upward,” secondly, it turns us inward. Because at a conference on justice and shalom, we tend to want to look outside of ourselves at the world to point out everything that’s wrong with it, and then ask what can be done? But God doesn’t let us do that just yet:
17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk.22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.
33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
The extent and nature of the relationship between the Eucharist and the more general breaking of bread together that’s being referenced here is not entirely clear, but it’s safe to say that the two were more connected than we are used to today. And the close association with worship and eating was familiar to the pagan context of Corinth already.
The problem that Paul is addressing in v. 21 may have either been that 1) wealthier believers were eating together in the official dining room of a Roman villa, whereas second-class citizens were relegated to the atrium; or that 2) wealthier believers came earlier to the house church gathering and ate the best food they brought without waiting to share it with the hungry poorer classes and the slaves, who arrived later.
If we can also hold Acts 2 and 4 in our minds, we might say that one major goal of this worship event in the early Church was a sharing in equal standing before God, regardless of social or economic status. Those who had more brought more so that those who had less got enough.
Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 22:15-18, “I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God.” This meal is intended to be a genuine foretaste of the great eschatological love feast, or what I think we can simply call at this gathering, Shalom.
To partake in this meal, therefore, while there is unjust treatment of one another on the basis of social or economic standing is taking place, is in fact unworthy of and unpleasing to God, rendering one guilty of sinning against the body and blood of Christ (v. 27). This is a big deal.
And now we come back to Matthew 25 – those actions make one culpable for the death of Christ himself, for what we do to the least of these, we do to him. Examine yourself, therefore! Is the exhortation, lest you eat and drink condemnation on yourself! Taking communion unadvisedly could apparently kill you!
But not only are we supposed to examine ourselves. This is the first warning. The second instruction is about discerning the body. White churches (and here I’m talking just as much to myself and my own church): the black churches in your city, the Hispanic churches, the Asian churches — are you in communion with them? Are you eating before they get there? In the Roman villas? Have they been relegated to the atrium? How is it with the body of Christ in your city? Do you even know them? Are you listening to them? Do you think you’re part of the same body of Christ?
I almost wonder if the segregation of our neighborhoods and the segregation in our churches, isn’t basically the same thing as wealthy, and mostly white people taking communion first, keeping the best food for ourselves (schools, real estate, the police force, healthcare, the environment, etc.).
Before the Reformation (on this 500 year anniversary), salvation used to depend in part on one’s relationship to the body. I think we’ve lost something by moving away from that. We corrected a corruption, but we also left behind something essential. Of course, then Jon Sobrino came along 500 years later and restated it: Not just no salvation outside the church — outside the Eucharist, in other words — this became no salvation outside the poor, because the poor are part of our body, the very body of Christ.
But we have to be careful not to romanticize the poor, as you all know. And we also have to watch out for turning the Eucharist into something that romanticizes church, or makes it into what Jurgen Moltmann calls an “unbloody repetition of the event that took place on Golgotha on the altar of the church.” Moltmann also has this, moreover, to say as a warning about what he calls “the cult of the cross”:
“[The Eucharist] points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two [rebels] in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates o the city. It does not invite thought but a change of mind. It is a [sacrament] which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned.”
“On the other hand, it is a [sacrament] which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into he fellowship of the crucified God. Where this contradiction in the [Eucharist], and its revolution in religious values, is forgotten, it ceases to be a [sacrament] and become an idol, and no longer invites a revolution in thought, but the end of thought in self-affirmation.”
So the Eucharist, is visible sign of God’s unconditional, invisible grace, granting us peace and rest, but the Eucharist also judges us, as we just saw. And thirdly, the Eucharist commissions us with a task. As we consume the elements and become Christ’s mystical body, we are then entrusted with the mission of extending that body through our presence among the exploited and suffering bodies of the world — reclaiming them as Christ’s own.
Alexander Schmemann talks about the Eucharist as a procession that the church goes on to enter the Kingdom of God. This is helpful, but I think we need to add to that that the way the church makes this procession, is precisely through what J.M.R. Tillard describes as the flesh of the church becoming the flesh of Christ, in his interpretation of Ephesians 5:29-32, which is another familiar passage talking about the great mystery of who husband and wife become one flesh just as Christ’s body and his bride’s body become one flesh. We are Christ’s presence. God realizes Christ’s body through our presence.
Whereas injustice and violence in our world and society is an anti-liturgy concocted by state and market forces to oppress vulnerable bodies, the Eucharistic liturgy extends Christ’s own broken, sacrificed and resurrected body into the members of the church to become martyrs, that is witnesses, in the world.
St. Cyprian speaks of the individual body as a microcosm of Christ’s body, and therefore stresses the importance of resisting the attempts by the powers of this world — in his case, Rome — to use Christian bodies for their own purposes. Cyprian would of course ultimately join the witness of the martyrs themselves, refusing to let bodily pain intimidate him and weaken his allegiance to Christ. The Eucharist creates in ecclesial community the kind of corporate body that can resist capitulation to sexual, political, economic and cultural cooptation.
Y’all know the Didache talks about the three years that candidates for baptism spent in catechesis before they were admitted to the Eucharist. Three years. Questions such as these are asked: Have they honored widows? Have they visited the sick? Have they done every kind of labor? The president would literally say to the congregation, “Whosever is holy, let them approach. Whoso is not, let them repent.”
That is what prepares the Church as counter-body and counter-performance to the liturgies of the dominant culture, state and economy. Christendom ecclesiology, by contrast, indefinitely defers the Kingdom of God, spiritualizes it, tell the poor to wait, and is content with superficial unity that hovers above the political plane of our lives, “setting aside differences,” (that is, by not acknowledging or dealing with them, or just worshipping in our own silos). Eucharistic ecclesiology, however — properly understood — has the kingdom irrupting into time and confusing the eternal and the temporal and thereby resisting the principalities and powers, spiritual and physical.
Many Christians still misunderstand this distinction between flesh and blood on the one hand, and the principalities and power on the other. You see, by contrasting these two realms, Paul is not inserting a chasm between the spiritual and the physical. Rather, he’s making a claim about who is actually in power. Flesh and blood are still enslaved to sin, and so they act like it, and they fight like it. But if all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Christ, then our struggle is no longer with sin, for it has been overcome. The questions is, are we giving our allegiance to the one who is already on the thrown and who will have the ultimate victory over all contenders. If we tap into that power, the immanence of Christ’s eschatological reign will be at our disposal, so that flesh and blood, that is, sin and violence, are no longer weapons with which we wage war, but temporal lies that we resist because we serve and obey the one who’s already conquered them. But this does not mean the battle is not material. It still will be, and we will probably have to suffer.
Eucharistic liturgy and Eucharistic imagination disrupts the imagination of injustice and violence, because it invokes a politics of forgiveness, and repentance and enemy love.
One of the biggest lies that the church has come to believe in the modern period, somehow, and especially in the United States, is that worship is some kind of apolitical space. The Eucharist is a political act, friends — it’s eschatological subversion of the status quo.
We can’t be fooled by the promise of a cheap unity at the Eucharist that floats above or glosses over the real conflict between the oppressed and their oppressors. Let’s not forget that the Eucharist is at least a memorial of Christ’s death at the hands of worldly authorities. And therefore a dangerous memory.
Now, again, it’s important to admit, the body of Christ is liturgically enacted, but not institutionally guaranteed. Anyone who’s part of a church knows that. Anyone studying church history knows that. But that is no reason to shrink back from tapping into the power of the Eucharist. Rather, I believe, this gap between the ideal and real is all the more cause for an urgent reclaiming of that power for precisely such a time as this.
So, our ecclesiology must become reconnected with our eschatology, which is that the Kingdom of God is at hand — not indefinitely deferred as in Christendom — and the touchdown point that holds together our doctrines of ecclesiology and our eschatology, again, is the Eucharist.
[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]
Really there are two main ideas from the Emmaus story that struck me right off the bat. One, we’re not in control of receiving salvation. Of seeing the risen Christ. God has to open our eyes. But secondly, God isn’t going to open our eyes until we let go of that attempt to be in control, and let him become our host. Only then will we be able to see the saving nature of his suffering.
It tells us right at the beginning of the story in vs. 15 that:
As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.
Now, this last line, “They were kept from recognizing him,” is not a very comforting line. It almost sounds like God was playing tricks on them or trying to deceive them and manipulate things. But I think it’s very important for us to note that neither God nor Jesus is mentioned in this verse as the agent, or as the subject, the one who is preventing them from recognizing Jesus. This is no small detail. Because Jesus doesn’t force his way in. It’s just not his style!
Because we know what this is like — to be in a state when we’re just not open, we’re just not receptive or ready to hear certain things, or to learn something new. We’re just closed off, and no matter what we hear, or how many times something is explained, we’re not going to understand or change our thinking.
And when we’re in this place, it’s funny, no one is forcing us to stay that way, or to stay stuck or closed off, or tunnel-visioned, and yet, it certainly feels like we’re trapped and we cannot help the state that we’re in. We’re powerless to change it. We’re not in control.
And what was the particular fixation of these travelers, these disciples (not of the 12, but a wider circle of Jesus-followers). What was “blocking their view” of Jesus? They have met the resurrected Jesus at this point in verse 21, but they say, “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” That had their own idea and assumption about what salvation was supposed to look like.
Many of the Israelites in Jesus’s day were wanting their group, their nation, their religion, to get back on top — that was their idea of salvation — economic and political liberation! –because they were controlled by a pagan Roman regime.
And to make this expectation more complicated and confusing, they weren’t wrong to think this. If you just go back and read the Old Testament prophecies, it’s perfectly reasonable to interpret them as saying that, this is exactly what the Messiah was supposed to do! To overthrow Israel’s enemies once and for all.
These two disciples were staring at Jesus in the face, and they were incapable of realizing it. They he opened the Scriptures to them, and they still didn’t get it. And by “opened,” they didn’t mean that literally — they didn’t actually have a Bible with them. The word “open” is metaphorical. Jesus had to show them the heart of the meaning of the Scriptures! And how they were pointing to him all along.
This has been a crucial lesson for me. It’s much easier that you’d think to make Scripture say what we want it to. And it’s easy to miss the big picture, to lose sight of the forest and get lost in the trees. And many times, the way people read the Bible tends to simply be a reflection of their own hearts rather than God’s.
The Bible doesn’t just interpret itself. It takes a community, it takes the Spirit, and it takes wise and studied counsel. Unfortunately, sometimes we’re so insulated in a particular group’s way for thinking — a group whose thinking is a lot like us — that our assumptions almost never get challenged, or our way of seeing the world is constantly being reinforced by an echo chamber, so that when anything oppositional view is put forward, we dismiss it — we block it out.
People who want a violent, revolutionary Jesus, tend to read about a violent, revolutionary Jesus. People who want a strictly inclusive, passive, tolerant Jesus that never calls out anyone’s sin or threatens people with judgment — that’s the Jesus they see in their Scriptures. Sometimes our beliefs about Jesus say more about us than they do about Jesus.
But remember what Jesus himself say to these two followers:
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”
No matter how many times we hear this, no matter how many times I hear this, it challenges me. It challenges us. Because it totally goes against our nature. Is this not why these two disciples think that Jesus’s whole mission had failed? Because he had been defeated by Rome, and crucified? … The enemy state of the Jews? Because he wasn’t strong enough? Wasn’t powerful enough?
And yet, we also know it wasn’t really the Roman’s idea to crucify Jesus. As the travelers say, some of our rulers handed him over…Yes, the Romans killed him, but they we weren’t particularly worried about Jesus. They would kill anyone. and Pilate, the Roman governor, recognized that Jesus wasn’t a real threat.
It was the religious leaders that really hated Jesus and conspired against him.. The reading from the book of Acts a moment ago made this clear:
36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you [Israel!] crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
And it’s not necessarily because they were Jews. They could just as easily have been modern-day Christians.
The point is, Jesus didn’t meet their expectations about salvation either! Because salvation for the religious leaders was what? Keep the law! (And this is based on a fairly straightforward or surface-level reading of many parts of Scripture as well!)
And abiding by a moral code in order to be saved is not a uniquely Jewish tendency. Legalism is legalism. And all human beings tend toward it – we just do!
But it goes deeper than legalism. Legalism is only one way of trying to stay in control. There are lots of ways of trying to control things.. You can throw the rules out the window, and write your own, in order to be control, or you can try as hard as you can to follow them.
The lesson regardless is this: As long as we think our well-being, our happiness, our security or our worth is something that’s ultimately in our own hands, we’re never going to be in a place to recognize Jesus and to receive salvation. To experience and enter fully into it. Because it calls us to a posture of letting go, accepting the reality of suffering, and our lack of control of that reality.
And it feels like loss when we do this! It feels like dying, like giving something up, like losing, like weakness. And the cross is the great metaphor for this.
But it doesn’t have to be something so terrible as the cross. The cross is indeed terrible, on one level. To give up control itself is a kind of suffering — a necessary suffering that is indeed the road, or at least the beginning of the road to salvation.
And there’s another layer to this: giving up control doesn’t just mean giving up on trying to be good enough. It also means that we have to give up our desire to fully understand. And this was is really hard for me. But the reason I need to give this up is because, even if you think you understand this, or believe it, as a doctrine, let’s say, the moment that you move into a place of merely conceptualizing it, you’re already in danger of missing it.
Because it’s not first and foremost an idea or belief. It’s a way to be entered into. A lived experience, a posture of the heart to assume. And we are so quick to separate our mind from our minds, our thinking from how we live. We do this all the time, and we especially do this when it comes to faith. We think that just because we believe something, we’ve somehow mastered it, or that’s it has sunk into our being and our lives.
But salvation, losing control, surrendering to the mystery of the redempive nature of Christ’s suffering — and our own participation in that same suffering! — is a practice, not a belief. It has to be lived, not thought. It’s a mystery to be welcomed into to, not a theology to be explained.
But again, at the same time, it’s not a practice that we control. It’s God’s initiative. The only thing we can do — and I hesitate to say it’s something we do, it’s really something we don’t do — is to let God in — to stop resisting God! — and to allow ourselves, to let ourselves get put in God’s way..
The two travelers in the story are not in control of when and whether they’re able to perceive who Jesus really is. And yet, there is this subtle lure and invitation that we can respond to.
There was something about Jesus, before they even realized who he was, that made them want to ask him to stay longer with them. They didn’t understand yet, but they were being drawn in by Christ’s lure. Their hearts were burning! They say, “Were not our hearts burning inside of us when he was talking to us on the road?”
There’s a strikingly similar statement to this one made by these followers in the writings of John Wesley some 1700 years later:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” – John Wesley
Why does Wesley say that his heart was strangely warmed? What prompted this sensation and this deep feeling of conviction? He says it came from an assurance that he’d be given by God, an assurance, that God had indeed taken away his sins, even his, and saved him from the law of sin and death.
In a word, he was assured of God’s love for him, and of God’s forgiveness. Y’all know this feeling. when someone important to you, who you really care about, loves you, gives you the assurance of their life — It just sort of makes everything else not matter very much!
The other worries of your life, they just kind of fade. They no longer weigh you down. They don’t go away completely, but they’re no longer sources of anxiety. Parents, I know you have experienced this. I’m already experiencing it as a young parent.
But on an even greater level, when the Creator God himself, gives us the assurance of his love, personally, we’re not afraid anymore! Even death, which is scary, and suffering, they just don’t have the power over us that they once did. They don’t threaten us.
Which is what these two disciples are feeling. It’s what leads them to run back to the city where Jesus had just been killed. Probably not a very safe place, but they were no longer afraid.
I read something this week that I hadn’t ever heard before: when we love someone, we’re actually letting something inside of us die a little bit. Because we’re forgetting about ourselves and our own ego, and focusing on the well-being and value of another. To love is to suffer. Which is why God’s love for us led to such great suffering.
Great love suffers greatly, and both great love, and great suffering, have the power to prompt surrender in our lives, which is precisely the attitude and the posture of the heart that is required for transformation and salvation.
It’s not our version of salvation. It’s not the one we would pick. We’d prefer something safer and less painful. But it is the only true path of salvation. The only one that works.
Just a final quote that really captures this for me:
“If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.” – Julian of Norwich
Letting go of our own preferred versions of salvation: Giving those up — It’s going to feel like death at first, but the great mystery is that that’s precisely the gateway to being kept in God’s love, which is the safest place that anyone could ever be. It’s the only safe place, and you don’t have to do anything to get there! We just have to stop resisting. We just have to receive it. And let ourselves fall into.
For the two disciples traveling the road to Emmaus, being kept in this same precious love just mean letting Jesus become the host. Inviting him to stay for dinner. They didn’t know yet what he would do, but he came in and met them, and revealed himself to them, through the breaking of the bread and through the communion table. Let’s pray.
This week we’ve especially been talking about and looking at the way Jesus’s journey to the cross reveals our sin and the weight of it, the cost and consequences of it — just how devastating and serious it really is. And this is really important. It’s something we can’t lose sight of and that we should indeed focus on and remember during Holy Week. Our violence, our selfishness, our fear, our anger, leads Jesus to the Cross.
And somehow, because Jesus is both human and God, he stands in for us. He’s our representative suffer. He takes on what we would otherwise have to bear for ourselves, and takes it away — sets us free of it. This is central to the gospel and to the hope that we have as Christians.
But of all the words that were just read from Matthew’s gospel, maybe none of them so much as Jesus’ last words have struck Christians and baffled them throughout the Centuries as the ones that Jesus uttered from the cross in his dying breathe: (v. 46) “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]
Matthew 21:1-11; 27:11-26
Last Sunday we begin to take a turn in a slightly different direction in our sermons as we are preparing for Holy week. And we talked about the story of the golden calf, and about God’s mercy and justice in response to that sin, and then specifically this idea of generational sin — sin that gets inherited, in a sense or passed down, because it’s in our family or environment — it’s just around us, and we may not even realize it.
Sometimes we’re perpetuating it, it’s sin that we’re committing and we’re caught up in, but other times it’s sin that’s been perpetrated against us, and we’re the victim of it. So we’re wounded, and there needs to be awareness, first of all. Because if it isn’t acknowledged, then it can’t be healed, and there can’t be reconciliation in our relationships.
But in the story this morning for Palm Sunday, a different kind of sin is highlighted. It isn’t so much generational sin, and it isn’t necessarily even just individual sin — though it certainly includes those two. What we see in the Palm Sunday episode, and then in the passage I read a moment ago, which takes place only a few days later, is the showcasing of what I think we can just call social sin.
[This review originally appeared on the Mockingbird blog.]
It will perhaps be no surprise to many readers here to learn that, overall, The Shack is simply not a high quality film. It has already received scathing reviews by critics, and for very understandable reasons, even if the popular viewership has been moderately receptive.
A movie like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, for example, is arguably superior to The Shack, and it’s unfortunate, in my opinion, that more people will likely see the latter than the former. But unlike Silence, and this isn’t unimportant, The Shack is a film that is especially suited for older children — much more so than adults. It’s only rated PG-13, I would presume, because of the heavy thematic content: innocent suffering, murder, the problem of evil, etc.
[The following is from the sermon I preached on March 12, 2017 at Saint Peter’s Church. It is based on Mark 1:29-39, and the audio can be found here.]
For the whole year of 2017 so far, and now in the season of Lent, we’ve basically been talking about following Jesus: how to be with him, do what he did, and, as a result, become like him. Moreover, we follow him in community with others, and this following and community happens in the presence and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
For the first Sunday in Lent, we heard about Jesus’s most basic requirement for following him, which was this: if anyone wants to be my disciple, he or she must deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow me. It’s a discipline of self-denial and self- renunciation. It’s requires a certain kind of self-imposed suffering, in other words — suffering on purpose, you could say, so that suffering on accident doesn’t overtake us. So that we can remain who we are in Christ, and live like him, even when life becomes overwhelming.
And the Christian way of doing this and preparing ourselves for this is through the regular practice of various spiritual disciplines. And not surprisingly, to learn what those disciplines are, again — we look to Jesus and ask how we can do what he did. So this morning we’re getting very specific and asking about one particular practice Jesus observed.
It tells us in Mark 1 that
35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
In other words, Jesus had a regularly rhythm not only of prayer in his life — it does say he went to pray, of course, and we could talk about prayer — but prayer is something we do talk about fairly often.
It also tells us that Jesus had a regular rhythm of moving into silence and solitude. Two things we don’t tend to talk about as much.
The Politics of Jesus remains a landmark book that has inspired much of neo-Anabaptist thought. I read it for the first time in seminary alongside several other seminal works by Gustavo Gutierrez, James Cone, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Reinhold Neibuhr and others. It’s represents a movement that I’ve been impressed by in recent years, particularly with its critique of how power often gets used in our culture and in the church to reinforce hierarchies and antagonisms, rather than to advance God’s kingdom.
[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]
Well if you’ve been around all in 2017, you know that we’ve been in a series on Sunday mornings on discipleship: how to be with Jesus, do what he did, and become like him — and in the last couple of weeks, we focused on two key essential ingredients for doing exactly: what does it take to become like Jesus? First of all, we have to know his message and his teachings, and then we have put that message and teaching into practice — because what we do with our lives, and the habits we form and practice determine where we end up and who we become.
What we do and the habits we form literally, actually changes our desires themselves, from what they naturally are, which is very self-serving, to what they could be, in the service of God and others.
And you can be sure that, if you go on this journey of doing the things the Jesus did, your life is going to look different from the rest of people’s lives in the society and culture us. It’s safe to say that we will actually be living a counter-cultural lifestyle if we’re imitating Jesus, and he has authority over what we do.
But there’s one aspect to this counter-cultural life that may actually be the most unnatural and counter-cultural of all in our present age. And it’s this: community.