William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Category: Church and World (Page 1 of 4)

The Great Commission, the Great Commandment, and the Trinity

[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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 believersNot 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.

Life Update: A New Job in Austin

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!

1 Corinthians 1:10-17: “Unity through the Gospel”

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 members[]lose 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:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 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.

Becoming the Church: From Hostility to Harmony (Ephesians 3)

[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…

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Ananias and Sapphira

[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. 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.

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? 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.”

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

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.

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Transcending and Including the Reformation: A Tribute

[A version of this post appeared on the Missio Alliance blog on November 7, 2017.]

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?

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The Matthew 25 Gathering: A Eucharistic Ecclesiology of Justice and Mercy Contending for Shalom

matthew 25 gathering image[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.

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The Politics of Jesus or the Politics of Jesús?

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.

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Silence Plumbs the Depths of Suffering, Priesthood and Apostasy

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog.]

In his work, Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes a distinction between the spiritual posture of what he calls the “sick soul,” on the one hand, and “healthy-mindedness,” on the other. Neither label is necessarily positive or negative.silence-banner-e1483736562537

By “sick soul,” James means someone for whom human suffering and injustice tend to be an inescapable and overwhelming problem. There are no answers for it, and finding a state of “rest in God” can be very difficult for those with this disposition. By contrast, the “healthy-minded” person of faith is able to cultivate a deep sense of peace and trust that God is good, and all manner of things will be well. Evil for the healthy-minded is like a lie that poses no serious threat.

Of course, many of us probably oscillate between these two places from time to time, and certainly the latter is ultimately more desirable from a Christian point of view. But rush too quickly to healthy-minded religion, and we are sure to lose the prophetic heart of the biblical narrative. We see examples of both throughout Scripture, each one given legitimacy as a earnest stance before God — e.g., “How long Oh Lord?” (Psalm 13) vs. “I have stilled and quieted my soul” (Psalm 131). But the movie Silence, much like the book, does not make the still and quiet of healthy-mindedness very easy to come by.

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A Different kind of “Secular” Church

This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog.

A (not so) Secular Culture

Despite declining numbers in church attendance, the majority of people in North America are not necessarily growing less religious or spiritual. People’s faith in something transcendent remains, and God is still a common reference point for morality, politics and even sports (e.g., Lebron James’ shout out to “the man upstairs” in his emotional speech after the Cavs won the NBA finals). In many ways, the postmodern era continues to usher in a plurality of religious and spiritual enchantments. One might find more evidence of “worship” at the Republican or Democratic National Convention or the Copa America than in some churches.

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