William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian

Category: Church and World (Page 1 of 3)

Transcending and Including the Reformation: A Tribute

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 authoritySola 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 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.Matthew25_2colorlogo_300x300

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 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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Christian Responsibility During Election Season: Finding a New Political Consciousness for Churches

Last week, the Republican and Democratic primaries were held here in the state of South Carolina. I voted, but as I did so, I had the odd feeling that I was acting in a way that was totally divorced from my faith community and any collective sense of citizenship in God’s kingdom. I think this is because when it comes to Christian political responsibility, the role of the church is to make followers of Jesus who witness to an alternative way of being in the world together. The act of voting, privilege and duty that it is, just doesn’t have very much to do with this.

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Exodus, Exile and Resurrection: Living Beyond Tribalism and Individualism

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

The beauty of the Bible has as much to do with what it tells us about human nature as it does to do with what it tells us about God. Indeed, the story of salvation only makes sense when we see the various dimensions of the human person and experience with all of its flaws and struggles that Christ has come to redeem. It starts with the most simple and obvious needs and moves to the deepest and most mysterious longings.

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How to Fear Not and Love Your Neighbors: Church Barriers to the Gospel and the Great Commandments

This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog yesterday.

I heard it said once that the heart of Jesus’ teaching is pretty well summed up in these two commandments: Don’t be afraid, and love your neighbor as yourself. Of course, simple as this sounds, we soon figure out that nothing could be more difficult. This is all the more true given the way that Jesus defines neighbor (i.e., even your enemy), and given that fear is often more deeply rooted than we care to admit.

It starts with subtle worries about every day things from bills to pay, job security, and health to retirement, but then grows deeper into anxieties about rejection, loss, pain, loneliness, failure and the absence of purpose. The root of this fear is that as both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations, but infinite expectations and pretensions. This leads us to become self-conscious about our insecurity, which in turns produces the anxieties just mentioned. Anxiety inclines us to seek control of our own lack of certainty and security, of which there is never enough, and so we are driven to chase after these things to the detriment of others. Generally we either 1) abuse our freedom by grabbing for power, or 2) flee into our finitude via sensual indulgence (these are the sins of the older and younger brother in the Prodigal Son parable, respectively). In other words, fear and anxiety are what stand in the way of us actually loving our neighbors.

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Social Media, Sabbath and Silence: Three Ways to Counter Misshaping Cultural Currents

This is a repost from an entry I made on the Missio Alliance Blog last month, and it has also been curated on the Baptist News Global Perspectives Page:

The community group that I co-lead in our church has recently been talking about and experimenting with how to better spend our time and money on what matters most in God’s economy. At this point, we’re not very ambitious, but I think that’s a good thing for now. It’s easy for me to lose sight of the little ways in which we are called to be faithful. I enjoy thinking about the big picture — about the global economy, the ecological crisis, and geopolitical conflicts. Of course, Christians need to be involved in and concerned about these things. It’s just that I’ve learned how much my own personality is prone to introversion, abstraction and disembodied faith. I’ve learned that I need practices and people to keep me grounded and focused on the tangible responsibilities in my own little life. So we’re helping each other ask, what are the areas and opportunities for change right in front of me?

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Lesslie Newbigin on the Church

The following is an outline of Lesslie Newbigin’s lecture at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in May of 1995.  I’ll be posting a few more of these in the coming weeks.  I’m making these outlines available to read along with the audio of the lectures, which will be posted soon at saintpeters.me:

I. Thesis: Christ has created a place where sinful men and women may nevertheless be accepted by God and enabled to live and rejoice in his presence.

  • The Church is continuation of the ministry of Jesus who received sinners, and who ate and drank with them. The Church is that place where that still happens
  • The Church is an integral part of the gospel. Nobody becomes a Christian simply by studying the doctrines of atonement and justification by faith and then looking for some place to make contact. Rather, in one way or another, the work of the Holy Spirit draws us into some kind of existing Christian fellowship. The Church precedes our faith.
  • Moreover, the gospel is not a set of disembodied ideas or words. It is always a concrete reality in history, a given reality, and the context for that reality is the Church.

II. Unity of the Church

  • Ecclesia, the Greek word for Church, was a secular word that described the assembly of all the people in the Greek city-states. So, Gentiles could understand it. It literally means “the calling out of the people” or “assembly.” When used in the NT, then it is not just an “assembly” though, but the “Assembly of God.”
    o The same word is used for an individual local church and the whole church. The early church did not make a distinction. Paul spoke of the churches in terms of their area (e.g., Asia). It is not that the individual churches are branches of the Church. Rather, the church is that act of God gathering people together, in each place and in all places. it’s a dynamic picture, through Jesus Christ, gathering people into this place of atonement.
    o The church is never designated by any other adjectives than by the name of the place and by the one who calls it. Location and God’s name. That’s it. (e.g., The God of Jesus Christ in Charleston/Mt. Pleasant).
    o We are not “Peter’s party,” “Paul’s,” “Apollos,” etc. This is carnal and dismembers the body of Christ, Newbigin says. The church in each place is the catholic church (little ‘c’). Where God is, it is not a branch, but the Church. It is of the very nature of the church then that it is One, just as God is One.

III. Disunity in the Church

And yet we come to the sad story of disunity through history of the church. The main divisions are (approximately every 500 years — see Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence):

  1. The 4th and 5th centuries, churches outside of Roman Empire that could not take part in the theological discussions which defined the nature of Christ, became separated (e.g., Armenians, Assyrians, Copts, Ethiopians). A tremendous political divide when Roman and Persian Empires.
  2. The Great Schism (1054)
  3. The Reformation (1517)
  4. 19th century U.S. church history: the development of the idea of a denomination, and the proliferation of so many different denominations in the US.

From these divisions, we can discern that there are three great emphases in the Christian Church, which are not mutually contradictory, even though they’ve become separate and are often unnecessarily in competition:

1. Catholic
2. Protestant
3. Pentecostal

1. Catholic

  • The Church is defined in part by its valid historic succession.
  • The church was chosen by God/Jesus, not the other way around. So we do not “choose” it.
  • But this consecration by apostles/bishops does not exempt the church from falling into error/sin/etc. Lineal descent is not the only mark by which the true church is known…

The Catholic Church can become lifeless.

2. Protestant

  • The reformers made the point further that the church is something created by the living Christ, through the sacraments and the Word, the Gospel, and is more dynamic, not just historic. This led to tremendous renewal but also division.
  • The danger is that it neglects that which the Catholic emphasis affirms. It makes the church almost too dynamic, something that happens moment after moment, rather than something that is an historical reality given by God.

The Protestant can have no sense of unity even if lively. Over-dependence on correct doctrine leads to continuously dividing.

3. Pentecostal

  • Correct doctrine, sacraments, and succession are important, but the living power of the Spirit may still be absent. This is what Pentecostals emphasize.

The Pentecostal runs the danger of emphasizing experience and the autonomous individual without sufficient attention to what is it that we are experiencing (subjectivism, relativism, feelings… the Methodist/Wesleyan Church tended this way, historically).

In sum, we need all three to be the “true” church. Each is valid. Each is in the Scripture, but each taken by itself can lead to the loss of substance.

IV. How to Overcome these Divisions?

We cannot escape the force of the words that Jesus used (John 17) about being One that the world may believe. We cannot escape the imperative of unity, however much we may be disappointed by the difficulties we face.

  • Each of us is bound to confess that the church we belong to is the one, true church, because it’s the one by which we came to know Christ. The temptation is to look at other and say they lack something in one of the three areas.
  • There is an important difference between saying that something is a proper mark of the church and saying that it is essential!
  • Again, the church only exists by God’s grace, and not by people’s fulfillment of any of the conditions for the church. So the way that we restore unity in the church is that we accept one another as God seems to have accepted us — as we are.
  • We must first acknowledge the many ways we fall short of God’s purpose for the church. And then, only then, can we seek to correct, reform, build up one another in the faith.
    o The is very different from the kind of easy-going way that some are inclined to take, in which we simply stop after acceptance. We must not continue in sin that grace may abound. God’s grace is not so that we can carry on the way we are. That is unthinkable.

About the present situation, we can make three observations (church in Europe, primarily):

1. stubborn intransigence of the Roman Catholic Church is still a tremendous power, but is facing very severe internal contradictions.
2. Mainline Protestant churches are in decline.
3. The main growing churches are evangelical and charismatic.

  1. The Anglo-Catholic wing of the church of England was the strongest wing, had the best scholarship, leadership and so on when Newbigin was growing up. And evangelicals were a relatively small and frightened minority. The position today is almost exactly the opposite. But a major strength of the Catholic church is its stress on the objective reality of the church as a given through the sacraments. This is to be celebrated. The importance of the Eucharistic service, for instance, does not depend on its relative meaningfulness to you and me. So he suggests that we have to begin to express our unity in very informal ways across the board! This is a great challenge to us at the present time.
  2. Newbigin declares that the real issue that divides Christian in “this country today” is not between Protestants and Catholics, or Evangelicals and Pentecostals/Charismatics. Rather, it is between those who believe [trust!?] that there really is a gospel and a God-given reality of good news, and those who do not… And whether there is faith that “here” (in the church), there is the place of atonement, vs. those who say it’s just opinion, experience, etc., with no real gospel. Catholics, evangelicals and Charismatic hold in common this belief, which distinguishes them from many other Christians who have simply lost it, namely, that there is a real gospel.
  3. Either we are built up in our life in Christ through the Eucharist, or we are judged, but there is an objectivity reality there, and we need to recover our sense of that, in the face of the subjectivism/relativism in our culture, because it is the evangelical and charismatic parts that are at this time so strong and confident but in danger nonetheless of losing this important component.

V. In Conclusion, getting back once more to the historic reality of the Christian Church:

  • Whether it is popular or unpopular, big or small, is relatively unimportant.  People talk about the Church in the media as if it is a fairly marginal phenomenon only interested in gaining popular. The only question the media asks is whether they are going to be more popular or not, and that is it. According to Newbigin, this is absurd.
    o The church has outlived empires, philosophical systems, totalitarian systems, everything about public thinking, etc. These will be phantoms half-remembered twenty years from now. But the church will still be there.  This given reality needs to be at the center of our thinking as Christians.
  • That the church is this body of sinful men and women, whom God calls Saints — this is what matters. Because God has made us his own. That is the whole meaning of atonement.
    o Because the church is always a bunch of sinners. It is very easy to become completely pessimistic about the church, but we have to be both realistic and faithful, knowing if God has called us saints, made us his own, given us his gift of atonement in Jesus Christ, then that defines who we are. Above all, let’s not escape with this idea of a merely invisible Church. Invisible means we get to choose who we think is in and out. But that is not the church.
  • The Church is defined by its center, not its boundaries. When we define it by boundaries, we get into all kinds of legalism. Is a person absolutely committed to Christ, and the Christ that we encounter in the Gospels? The church is constituted by its relationship to Jesus Christ. And how can you reconcile what you say and do with Jesus. .
  • That the Church be a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the kingdom of God. The Church is not itself the kingdom of God, but neither are they completely separate. When we separate the two, we’re susceptible to turning the Church into an ideology, a program, or political utopia.
    o A sign points away from itself, to something that is not itself, but is nevertheless a reality. It may be an instrument of God for doing the will of the King. Because it’s a sign and instrument, it’s a foretaste. And because it’s a foretaste, it can also be a sign and an instrument.
  • The church is in communion with the saints who have gone before. This is an element we are in danger of losing in the reformed, Protestant churches. We are in communion with those who wait for the resurrection and the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.

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