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Sabbath & Eucharist in Brueggemann

Sabbath as Resistance is one of those brief theological reflections that packs a punch.  It does more real work – exegesis, ethics, prophetic exhortation – in less than 100 pages than most theological works do in 300+.   For Brueggemann, the esteemed Old Testament don from Columbia Seminary, Sabbath is not merely Blue Laws and avoiding lawn work, it is both an act of resistance and alternative to the dominant culture.  To enter into Sabbath rest is to enact a counter-liturgy (here I am influenced by James K.A. Smith’s work on cultural liturgies) to the slavish existence that Pharoah brings.

In a remarkable passage from the Preface, Brueggemann links his vision of Sabbath with the Eucharist in a vivid image:

I have come to think that the moment of giving the bread of Eucharist as gift is the quintessential center of the notion of Sabbath rest in Christian tradition. It is gift! We receive in gratitude. Imagine having a sacrament named “thanks”! We are on the receiving end, without accomplishment, achievement, or qualification. It is a gift, and we are grateful! That moment of gift is a peaceable alternative that many who are “weary and heavy-laden, cumbered with a load of care” receive gladly. The offer of free gift, faithful to Judaism, might let us learn enough to halt the dramatic anti-neighborliness to which our society is madly and uncritically committed. (xvi-xvii)

Like the Eucharist, Sabbath is a gift of God that grows us in grace.  It is an alternative to the “earn and take” society we know too well, in that we can only receive this good gift and be glad in it.

Like the Eucharist, Sabbath invites us to a different world, a different narrative.  The “give us this day our daily bread” from the Lord’s Prayer might well hearken back to the manna that sustained God’s people in the wilderness, bread they were given each day – except the day before the Sabbath, in which they were given a double portion so they could experience rest.

Similarly, the bread of the Eucharist is a Sabbath bread, an invitation to receive from God’s own hand, and to rest (however briefly) in a world where abundance is not deserved or grabbed, but received and shared by all who desire it.  To participate in the Lord’s Supper is to gain a glimpse of the Kingdom feast, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, where all are fed and none go hungry.

As the author of Hebrews said, “there is a Sabbath rest for the people of God,” a rest that we envision every time we sit at table with Jesus and his friends.  We are not Superman, we are allowed a respite, and there is none more nourishing than this great feast of the church.

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Bonhoeffer & the Empty-Handed Christmas

At Christmas, we typically think about all the things we’ll get our hands on: wrapping paper, bows, gifts, egg nog, gift cards, etc. In other words, Christmas is a time of accumulation, at least for most 21st century Christians in the West.  But in a letter from prison in 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests a Christmas with empty hands is all the more powerful:

I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: “We’re beggars; it’s true.” The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.

The Christmas story is, at its core, a story of God’s grace – that is, His unmerited favor and goodness to us.  Christmas is the ultimate a gift – the gift of God’s very self not only to us but as one of us – a gift for which we did not ask, a gift more grand than we could have imagined.  Bonhoeffer discovered, behind bars, that with nothing else to hold onto, the gift was that much more wonderful. “Now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us…will seem all the more glorious.”  It was Paul Newman who first told us that nothing can be a “cool hand.”  Perhaps Bonhoeffer was right that a kenotic Christmas – a self-emptying, like Paul describes in the hymn of Philippians 2 – is more powerful, and true to the gospel narrative, than how we typically experience the holiday.

At Christmas, how can we approach the manger with empty hands? How can we remember, in the midst of so much consumerism and conspicuous consumption, to try to be content with only the essentials?  Bonhoeffer, and the church in chains around the world, illustrates the truth of the old preacher’s quip: the one who has God and everything else has no more than the one who has God and nothing.

P.S. I highly recommend this Advent/Christmas devotional built around Bonhoeffer’s writings (pictured above) titled God is in the Manger. The above quotation is dated December 1, 1943 and is found on p. 6.

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Jesus Didn’t Fight No Bums

How might Rocky illuminate Jesus’ atonement? In Rocky III, the beloved pugilist’s aging trainer, Mick, is terrified at the prospect of Balboa fighting Clubber Lang, played famously by Mr. T in his breakout role.  Rocky doesn’t understand Mick’s fear, as he’s on a long win streak and feels quite confident.  They have the following exchange, culminating in one of Mick’s most famous lines:

Rocky: He’s just another fighter.
Mickey: No, he ain’t just another fighter! This guy is a wrecking machine! And he’s hungry! Hell, you ain’t been hungry since you won that belt.
Rocky: What are you talkin’ about? I had ten title defenses.
Mickey: That was easy.
Rocky: What you mean, “easy”?
Mickey: They was hand-picked!
Rocky: Setups?
Mickey: Nah, they wasn’t setups. They was good fighters, but they wasn’t killers like this guy. He’ll knock you to tomorrow, Rock!

Rocky discovers, to his horror, that the win streak he’s so proud of is manufactured.  To protect him, his trainer has been picking fights that amounted to the path of least resistance.

In his classic treatise On the Incarnation, Athanasius makes quite a similar point about Jesus, in a discussion about the nature of his death:

A wonderful translation, with an introduction by CS Lewis.

And as a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage, does not choose opponents for himself, lest he cause suspicion that he is fearful of some, but leaves it to the choice of the spectators, especially if they are hostile, so that when he has overthrown the one they have chosen, he may be believed to be superior to all, so also, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior Christ, did not contrive death for his own body, lest he should appear fearful of some other death, but he accepted and endured on the cross that inflicted by others, especially by enemies, which they reckoned fearful and ignominious and shameful, in order that this being destroyed, he might himself be believed to be Life, and the power of death might be completely annihilated. So something wonderful and marvelous happened: that ignominious death which they thought to inflict, this was the trophy of his victory over death. (On the Incarnation, [Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011], 75.)

In other words, because Jesus didn’t choose a cleaner, quicker, or less “ignominious” death, none of his opponents (or the disciples’ future opponents) could accuse him of seeking an easy way out.  Because he submitted to such a vile death as torture and crucifixion, the very barbarity of this death became “the trophy of his victory.”

Jesus didn’t fight no bums.  He didn’t hand pick his opponents.  He faced the worst killers the world had yet invented – the Roman Empire – and the horrible, common death the endured became the means through which the power of sin was shattered.  Our Lord didn’t pick an easy fight, and for that, we can all – with St. Athanasius – be thankful.

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Rest in Peace Thomas Oden

thomas-odenOn December 8, 2016, Thomas Oden joined the Church Triumphant.

A longtime pillar of Drew University’s seminary, Oden wrote many influential volumes spanning the breadth of Christian thought and practice.  He famously had a theological conversion mid-career, and was an active leader at the national level of the United Methodist Church for much of his life.  His teaching and writing influenced thousands of United Methodist and other pastors.  Oden is perhaps best known as the general editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary series from IVP, a unique resource seeking to help bring the treasures of early Christian writers and preachers to today’s exegetes.  I was introduced to Oden by reading his Pastoral Theology while preparing to write ordination papers. His classical, holistic vision of ordained ministry has remained foundational for my own self-understanding as a pastor.  I also refer frequently to his encyclopedic three-part systematic theology Classic Christianity.

For those unfamiliar with Dr. Oden’s work, here are a few quotes culled from his many volumes to give you a sense of his intellect and wit.

On the Historical Jesus:

The biblical historical criticism that has pretended to be an objective investigation of the history of Jesus has often turned out to be a highly biased account that imposed the values of nineteenth-and twentieth-century naturalistic reductionism upon the New Testament texts. Jesus Christ has been reduced to human hopes, aspirations, myths, class interests, and social influences.

Modernity demanded that the history of Jesus be submitted to all the canons of interpretation prevailing in alienated modern consciousness. Jesus was refabricated, remade into a political or social or psychological advocate. his words were squeezed, massaged, and reshaped into correspondence with the interpreter’s current viewpoint. (After Modernity, What?, 101)

On Ministry:

How odd that it is apparently not God’s purpose to minister day by day to the world by direct revelation. Rather, the surprising fact is that God has chosen to minister to humanity through a scandalously visibly community, the church, and to minister to the church through human agency, by calling ordinary, vulnerable, pride-prone person into the ministry of word and sacrament. However vulnerable ministry may be to wretched distortions and abuses, curiously enough it seems God’s own idea. (Pastoral Theology, 13)

On Preaching:oden-classic-christianity

Preaching at the end of the first millennium focused primarily on the text of Scripture as understood by the earlier esteemed tradition of comment, largely converging on those writers that best reflected classic Christian consensual thinking. Preaching at the end of the second millennium has reversed that pattern. It has so forgotten most of these classic comments that they are vexing to find anywhere, and even when located that are often available only in archaic editions and inadequate translations. The preached word in our time has remained largely bereft of previously influential patristic inspiration. Recent scholarship has so focused attention upon post-Enlightenment historical and literary methods that it has left this longing largely unattended and unserviced. (“General Introduction,” Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture)

On His Legacy (Describing the dream he once had where his epitaph read, “He made no new contribution to theology.”):

In my dream I was extremely pleased, for I realized I was learning what Irenaeus meant when he warned us not to invent new doctrine. This was a great discovery for me. All my education up to this point had taught me that I must be compulsively creative. If I was to be a good theologian I had to go out and do something nobody else ever had done. The dream somehow said to me that this is not my responsibility, that my calling as a theologian could be fulfilled through obedience to apostolic tradition.” (From this Christianity Today article)

Oden’s influence will live on in the church and in countless Christians whose lives and ministries have benefitted from his work.  Well done, good and faithful servant. I look forward to conversing with you and other Doctors of the Church in that Kingdom not made with hands, illumined only by the light emanating solely from the Lamb’s throne.

O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our
prayers on behalf of your servant Thomas, and grant him an
entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of
your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for
ever. Amen. 

(Book of Common Prayer)

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6 Times Worshipping Jesus Was Deadly (A Rejoinder to Rohr)

 

richard-rohr-quote

In one of his popular meditations, Fr. Richard Rohr observes, “Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything.” We’ve noted some of Rohr’s problematic false dichotomies before.  This one is also worth a bit of reflection because it turns out, whether one is in the 1st century or the 21st century, worship of Jesus might get you killed.

Here are six times (in no particular order) that worshipping Jesus cost Christians their lives:

1) Polycarp murdered while praying (155)

Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was a 2nd century martyr and the subject of one of the most memorable martyrologies ever written.  As described by Catholic Online:

When he was tied up to be burned, Polycarp prayed, “Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of angels and powers, of the whole creation and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your sight, I bless you, for having made me worthy of this day and hour, I bless you, because I may have a part, along with the martyrs, in the chalice of your Christ, to resurrection in eternal life, resurrection both of soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, among those who are in you presence, as you have prepared and foretold and fulfilled, God who is faithful and true. For this and for all benefits I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be to you with him and the Holy Spirit glory, now and for all the ages to come. Amen.”

The fire was lit as Polycarp said Amen and then the eyewitnesses who reported said they saw a miracle. The fire burst up in an arch around Polycarp, the flames surrounding him like sails, and instead of being burned he seemed to glow like bread baking, or gold being melted in a furnace. When the captors saw he wasn’t being burned, they stabbed him. The blood that flowed put the fire out.

2) 19 Nigerian worshippers shot dead by Boko Haram (2012)

Christians in Nigeria have been brutally attacked for years.  This report came from the Christian News Wire on August 7, 2012:

Gunmen armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles surrounded a church in central Nigeria and opened fire during a Monday night worship service. According to the Associated Press report, the attackers killed 19 of the worshippers at Deeper Life Bible Church in the town of Otite in Kogi state, located 155 miles southwest of Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

3) Iraqi Catholic church attack  (2010)

The Iraqi Christian population has been decimated in recent years.  Just one example of the violence Christian worshippers face came on October 31, 2010.  Terrorists entered a church during mass and eventually murdered dozens of Christians and others.  As described at Wikipedia,

Six suicide jihadis of a group formerly called Islamic State of Iraq attacked a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad during Sunday evening Mass, on 31 October 2010, and started killing the worshipers, saying they were sending the Christians to hell and themselves to heaven.

Hours later Iraqi commandos stormed the church, inducing the suicide jihadis to detonate their suicide vests. 58 worshipers, priests, policemen and bystanders were killed and 78 were wounded or maimed. World leaders and some Iraqi Sunni and Shi’ite imams condemned the massacre.

4) 21st Coptic martyr beheaded (2015)

In 2015, ISIL publicly martyred 20 Coptic Christians in Libya.  A twenty-first martyr was made on the spot coptic-martyrswhen, moved by the faith of the 20, he declared Jesus to be his God:

After the beheadings, the Coptic Orthodox church released their names, but there were only 20 names. It was later learned that the 21st martyr was named Mathew Ayairga and that he was from Chad. He was originally a non-Christian, but he saw the immense faith of the others, and when the terrorists asked him if he rejected Jesus, he reportedly said, “Their God is my God”, knowing that he would be killed.

5) Becket slain while kneeling inside Canterbury (1170)

In one of the most significant events in the history of church-state relationships, the Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered while praying at the altar.  You can still visit this site today in the famous cathedral.  Accounts vary, but what follows is a basic account of what transpired:

The king’s exact words have been lost to history but his outrage inspired four knights to sail to England to rid the realm of this annoying prelate. They arrived at Canterbury during the afternoon of December 29 and immediately searched for the Archbishop. Becket fled to the Cathedral where a service was in progress. The knights found him at the altar, drew their swords and began hacking at their victim finally splitting his skull.

6) Romero shot at the altar (1980)

Archbishop Romero, courtesy J. Puig Reixach via Wikimedia Commons.

Archbishop Romero, courtesy J. Puig Reixach via Wikimedia Commons.

Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke out against state violence in San Salvador and paid the ultimate price for it.  He was martyred at the altar preparing to celebrate the Eucharist, as described by Wikipedia:

Romero spent the day of 24 March 1980, the last day of his life, in a recollection organized by Opus Dei, a monthly gathering of priest friends led by Msgr. Fernando Sáenz Lacalle. On that day they reflected on the priesthood. That evening, Romero was fatally shot while celebrating Mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called “La Divina Providencia”, one day after a sermon in which he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. As soon as he finished his sermon, Romero proceeded to the middle of the altar and was shot there.

Conclusion

These six examples are just the tip of the iceberg, of course.  Tertullian famously noted, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  Rohr is in many ways a gifted spiritual guide, but that does not make him infallible.  Claiming that worshipping Jesus is “harmless” might have a rhetorical punch, but it does not hold up to scrutiny and, even worse, dishonors the memory of scores of Christians who died simply because they were worshipping their Lord.

There has never been anything safe about worshipping the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Until the Christ’s Kingdom is fully “on earth as it is in heaven,” we should not expect this situation to change. We’ll let Hebrews 11:32-38 (NRSV) have the last word:

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

P.S. Should a rejoinder to Rohr be known as a Rohrjoinder? Let me know what you think.

What are other times people died for worshipping Jesus? Which martyrs especially speak to your journey with Christ? Leave a comment below!

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Conversing with the Dead: On the Connection Between Tradition & Change

Jaroslav Pelikan, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jaroslav Pelikan, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

G.K. Chesterton once called tradition “the democracy of the dead.”  Another Christian intellectual, C.S. Lewis, encouraged his readers to avoid “chronological snobbery,” that is, the belief that our age is better simply because it is after a previous age.

What does it look to acknowledge that traditions develop and change without simply turning into a blind iconoclast?  We find some help in a wonderful little book by the late Yale historian of doctrine Jaroslav Pelikan, fittingly titled The Vindication of Tradition.  He suggests avoiding both “relativism” and “constructionism” in viewing the development of a given tradition:

There is a kind of historical relativism that will emphasize only the variety of opinions and the irresistibility of change over the years, but will ignore the continuity. There is also a kind of strict constructionism that proceeds as though development were not real and were only the application of an unchanging and unchangeable authority to outward change. The American republic, the Jewish community, and the Christian church have all had advocates of both these interpretations, and they still do. But their accumulated wisdom has taught them to recognize – and the critical-historical study of their traditions has compelled them to acknowledge – that development is real but that it goes on within the limits of identity, which the tradition defines and continues to redefine.  Like any growth, development may be healthy or it may be malignant; discerning the difference between those two kinds of growth requires constant research  into the pathology of traditions. But it is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the museum. (59-60)

To those who think that tradition and development are opposites, and completely unrelated, note Pelikan’s observation:

A “leap of progress” is not a standing broad jump through where we have been to where we go next. The growth of insight – in science, in the arts, in philosophy and theology – has not come through progressively soughing off more and more of tradition, as though insight would be purest and deepest when it has finally freed itself of the dead past. It simply has not worked that way in the history of the tradition, and it does not work they way now. By including the dead in the circle of discourse, we enrich the quality of the conversation. (81)

In other words, development occurs best within a tradition, in conversation with those who’ve gone before.  This epistemological humility is akin to Sir Isaac Newton’s insight that if we can see a little further than those who have come before, it is only because we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”

There is a great deal of theologizing that falls into the above categories – a complete sloughing off of tradition (which is a bit like cutting one’s anchor in a violent storm), or an ossifying of tradition (as if we should use ether instead of modern anesthesia because ‘that’s how grandma did it’).  These are both dead ends.  Instead, healthy development happens in traditions that keep distinctive identities and include the dead in the conversation even while seeking new expressions and avenues.  As Pelikan put it elsewhere, tradition is “the living faith of the dead” while traditionalism is the “dead faith of the living.”

Where do you see the vibrant use of Christian today? How do we discern healthy development from unhealthy?  When does tradition become traditionalism? Leave a comment below!

 

 

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Will the Real C.S. Lewis Please Stand Up? (re: that fake quote)

screwtape-fake

A very popular quote – but it’s not from Lewis!

The quote to the right has been making the rounds on social media lately, purportedly from C.S. Lewis’ classic Screwtape Letters.  This is Lewis’ imaginative account of a senior demon (Screwtape) training up a younger tempter (Wormwood).  While the quotation in question sounds very much like the real thing, it is in fact not from C.S. Lewis.  It is what Mickey Efird, a retired professor from Duke Divinity School, would call “pious fiction.” I am not sure of the origin, but I would imagine it was made as an homage to Lewis, though with perhaps not enough clarification that it was essentially fan fiction.  I’m not sure if the author intended this connection, but it reminds me of a line from Eliot’s “Choruses from The Rock,”

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

Lewis did, however, conclude chapter 23 of The Screwtape Letters with this reflection on politics that says much to our contemporary situation:

About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate. Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations”. You see the little rift ? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game,
Your affectionate uncle
SCREWTAPE 

To my mind, the real Screwtape quote is even more relevant today than the fictive pericope.  Certainly there is a word we need to hear from the latter about focusing on the drama and immorality of others instead of trying to increase in virtue ourselves.  The real Lewis, however, offers a subtler and more important point on the dangers of manipulating faith for our own personal and ideological ends.  Many, if not most, forms of popular Christianity (read: Protestantism) are proffered either a) as a means of personal advancement or b) as a means of societal advancement.  Both fit demonic desires. Screwtape tells Wormwood they want their victims to “treat Christianity as a means,” preferably to selfish ends but also to more noble ends if necessary.

This is a subtle but crucial point – a “little rift” as Screwtape calls it.  Christianity turned into a means is thus embraced not because it is true, not because, say, Jesus really is the Messiah of Israel and the world’s true Lord (N.T. Wright’s lovely formulation), but because Christian faith gets you from point A to point B.  Even if point B is something desirable like “social justice,” we (Screwtape’s victims) have successfully reduced Christianity from an end to a means, from the truth on which the world turns to just another way of achieving some desired outcome.

screwtape-quote

St. Augustine noted long ago, there are things that can be used and things that can be enjoyed.  Only God can be truly enjoyed, for all other things are to be used or enjoyed only in reference to God.  The temptation to make faith a means to anything else is to attempt to use God rather than enjoy God.  This makes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into little more than a glorified genie.

Much like fictive quotes associated with John Wesley, the real Clive Staples is better than the invented.  There is a reason he is still influential decade after his death.  Few have put so eloquently or so readably what is at stake in Christian believing and Christian living (which, in his brilliance, he did not divide).  So perhaps we’d be better off if we made this last quote famous, since it cuts to the heart of all our idolatries.  What better way to honor a teacher and writer whose legacy is the simple but radical project he named “mere” Christianity?

What are you other favorite quotes from Lewis?  How else do you see the temptation today to turn Christianity into a means rather than an end? Leave a comment below – and don’t forget to subscribe!

Source: Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, p. 253.

P.S. The first Methodist to say that social justice is a core aspect of the gospel because they’ve conflated it with social holiness loses points.

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Centrifugal Sin & Church Unity

Basic-ChristianityHuman beings were made for each other.

“It is not good for man to be alone” from Genesis is not first an indication of the need for romantic love, but a basic teaching about the nature of human beings: we were made for each other.  Like many other aspects of human life, this is distorted by sin; we are made for one another, but sin urges us a) towards unhealthy relationships (to adultery and lust, to using people as objects rather than treating them as sisters and brothers) and b) to dissolve relationships and attempt to live without others.  Sin, in a well-worn sermon illustration, distorts both our vertical (with God) and our horizontal (with others) relationships.

John Stott, in his classic little work Basic Christianity, observes:

The tendency of sin is centrifugal. It pulls us out of harmony with our neighbors. It estranges us not only from our maker but from our fellow-creatures too. We all know from experience how a community, whether a college, a hospital, a factory or an office, can become a hotbed of jealousy and animosity. We find it very difficult to ‘dwell together in unity’.  But God’s plan is to reconcile us to each other as well as to himself. So he does not save independent, unconnected individuals in isolation from one another, he is calling out a people for his own possession. (102)

Another evangelical Brit, John Wesley considered “social holiness” an essential of Christian faith.  This is not, how it is often misunderstood, about social action – he certainly emphasized that, but called it something else – but about pursuing full sanctification in accountable small groups.  The early Methodists knew that disciples grew best not as single potted plants, but as part of a well-tended garden.

To put it simply:

The Spirit draws us together.

Sin drives us apart.

Take a look around at the church and at our world.  Which one is winning?

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What the #UMC Episcopacy Should Look Like

13th century Bishop's crozier, representing the Annunciation. Public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

13th century Bishop’s crozier, representing the Annunciation. Public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

There has been a great deal chatter recently about episcopal elections in the UMC.  As usually happens, there has been a mix of joy and tears, of relief and weeping (and gnashing of teeth).  But regardless of whether you are celebrating or grieving the newest crop of bishops, there is an ancient and apostolic standard for bishops and their relationship to the rest of the church.  Consider the following nuggets culled from Ignatius, who was the bishop of Antioch less than a century after Christ.  Ignatius, in a letter to the Magnesians, offers wisdom to the church through the ages in the following guidance:

1) Follow the lead of the bishop
It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not steadfastly gathered together according to the commandment.

2) Bishops and presbyters (elders/priests) should be united, and thus can they be trusted because there is one prayer/mind/hope/love/joy/etc.

As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Do ye therefore all run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one.

3) Doctrine unites God’s people, along with the bishops, presbyters, and deacons, to Christ and the apostles
Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever ye do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit; in the beginning and in the end; with your most admirable bishop, and the well-compacted spiritual crown of your presbytery, and the deacons who are according to God. Be ye subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual.
The office of Bishop, therefore, is not merely earthly and bureaucratic, but spiritual and apostolic.  Historically, the episcopacy has been the locus of unity in the church, both because of the apostolic role in ordaining and overseeing (episkopos means ‘overseer’) other clergy, and because of the teaching office that is concomitant with that calling.  It is supposed to go something like this:
  • The bishop is united to Christ and the apostles, and with other bishops
  • The presbyters and deacons are united to the bishop
  • The whole church, led and equipped by the three-fold ministerial office, is united in the doctrine of Christ and the apostles, upheld by Word and sacrament, reaching out in mission, service, charity, and justice

Any distortion of this order can cause chaos within the whole. An individualist or apostate bishop, rebellious presbyters, or a separation between the pulpit and pew can cause a break (schism) in the church.

The United Methodist Church is a Protestant denomination that, in truth, would prefer to not have bishops. We consecrate bishops as part of our Anglican heritage, but our American, egalitarian, democratic, and evangelical leanings mitigate against the classic understanding of the episcopal office. Thus our bishops are little more than bureaucratic presiders, dutifully moving about chess pieces but unable to really change the game. One wonders why prominent pastors would even seek episcopal office, since a megachurch pastor or influential author often has more raw influence than the typical United Methodist bishop.

If you want to know just how despised the office of Bishop is in the UMC, consider a vote taken in 2012. In a General Conference famous for frustration, otherwise bitterly divided conservatives and progressives seemed, for once, to agree (and thus voted down) a set-apart President of the Council of Bishops to provide oversight and voice to the Executive branch of our church.  Having personally observed a very capable and gifted bishop serve as both the President of the COB and the leader of a very large Episcopal Area, I am not exaggerating when I say we should be ashamed of ourselves for continuing a practice that is a) inhumane, in that asks an individual to fill two almost impossible tasks simultaneously and b) foolish, in that it is virtually guaranteed to render whatever poor person gets talked into that role those roles ineffective.

not how any of this worksI am doubtful anyone who was elected last week will be able do much to reverse the tide toward schism; some will likely propel us faster toward that end. This is, at least in part, simply due to a flaw of our polity: bishops, by design, just can’t do very much – and, in an increasing number of cases, they aren’t willing to do the bare minimum of what their office demands.

Looking back at the 2nd century vision for church leadership bequeathed to us from Ignatius (and before him, from the Bible and the Tradition), I see very little I recognize in the UMC at present. In a very real way, the episcopal office is a holdover from our Anglican heritage whose authority is not desired by the right or the left. I truly wonder, in a split, if the evangelical and progressive branches would maintain bishops. The most progressive denominations (such as the United Church of Christ) and most conservative denominations (such as the Southern Baptist Convention) resort to congregational autonomy with little oversight. Culturally, in the midst of what Jeffrey Stout has called “the flight from authority,” hierarchy is a dirty word and bishops feel a bit like the ecclesial equivalent of posts to which one ties their horse.

I suppose I’m just sad. Not sad at the particular outcomes at Jurisdictional Conference(s), nor at the state of the church, though it is imperiled. Rather, I am struck by just how much distance there is between what the Church Mothers and Fathers called a bishop, and what United Methodists mean by that term.  And that is a deeper issue than anything that’s gone on in the last week or the last few years.

All that leaves me with a question: do we have the form of religion without the power?

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William Placher on “Critical Retrieval” in Theology

placher retrievalWhat if there were a way to call on the best resources of the past while avoiding naïveté about their faults and simplistic rejection of all that came later? Enter the task called “critical retrieval.”

In his wonderful tome The Domestication of Transcendence, the late William Placher of Wabash College describes the task this way:

To say this – or to make any other criticism of some turn modernity took – is not to propose a simple return to the premodern. We could not go back to that world if we wanted to, and we would not want to if we could. It was a world of terrible injustice and violence, and some aspects of its theology both reflected and even contributed to these horrors. Christian theologians supported oppressive social structures and all sorts of bigotry; the male bias of the tradition is only one of its most obvious faults. if contemporary theology engages in critical retrievals of insights from premodern theology, then the retrievals must indeed always be critical, keeping in mind that what we retrieve was often embedded in contexts we can no longer accept. To engage in such critical retrievals while acknowledging our debts to modernity is to synthesize something new. As already noted, I am not much interested in whether the results should be labelled postmodernism. What matters is that we find, from whatever sources, ways of speaking about God as faithfully and truthfully as we can. (2)

What might such a ‘critical retrieval’ look like in practice?

The example that comes immediately to my mind is culled from David Steinmetz’s brilliant article “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” one of the most famous of the late Reformation scholar’s works.  He argues, among other points, that the medieval and patristic four-fold sense of Scripture offers more accurate and fruitful exegetical possibilities than the regnant historical-critical method of the 19th-20th century:

His bombshell of an article concludes:

The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues, is false. Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting, it will remain restricted – as it deserves to be – to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.

While asserting the superiority of pre-critical methods, Steinmetz neither denies the usefulness of higher criticism nor desires a simple recovery of 8th century techniques.  This is the essence of ‘critical retrieval,’ reclaiming the best of the past while staying in touch with the insights of the present.  One party at Vatican II, that great Catholic council, was getting at something similar when they encouraged ressourcement, a return to the sources (particularly of the Patristic period).  Wesleyan theology of the last 50 years has been marked by a similar retrieval of Wesley and early Methodism after fruitless detours down avenues like Boston personalism and process theology.

But this is not a longing for the past or a kind of immature nostalgia. On Placher’s reading, critical retrieval acknowledges both the virtues of the present age and the vices of past, while seeking to bring once more to the forefront of the church the greatest gifts from her bygone eras.

And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ (Matthew 13:52, NRSV)

What are some other examples of critical retrieval? What ideas or practices ought we to retrieve today?

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