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God’s Kingdom & Our Hands

by Drew 3 Comments

What role, if any, do our hands play in God’s Kingdom? In his collected essays and lectures titled Signs Amid the Rubble (edited by my former professor, Geoffrey Wainwright), bishop and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin describes the Kingdom of God as the realm of God’s rule in human society and all creation – a rule that will not be fully realized until the last things, the eschaton.  He elaborates on why God’s Reign cannot yet be fully realized:

The perfect society cannot lie this side of death. And moreover it cannot be the direct result of our efforts. We all rightly shrink from the phrase “building the Kingdom of God” not because the Kingdom does not call for our labor, but because we know that the best work of our hands and brains is too much marred by egotism and pride and impure ambition to be itself fit for the Kingdom. All our social institutions, even the very best that have been produced under Christian influence, have still the taint of sin about them. By their own horizontal development they cannot, as it were, become the Kingdom of God. There is no straight line of development from here to the Kingdom.

But if we, with all our our wisdom and sweat and blood, cannot help but fail in any effort to bring God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” does our effort still matter? Do we need to work towards the Kingdom in some capacity, or can we simply sit with legs folded and enjoy a latte while all creation languishes?

Newbigin describes how good ministry is reliant upon the resurrection for its meaning and purpose, and how in Christ even death does not completely swallow up our effort.  John Ortberg may be right that it all goes “back in the box” when the game is over, but as Easter people we also know that death does not get the last word. The work of our hands, directed towards God’s purposes, is not work done in vain:

Our faith as Christians is that just as God raised up Jesus from the dead, so will He raise up us from the dead. And that just as all that Jesus had done in the days of his flesh seemed on Easter Saturday to be buried in final failure and oblivion, yet was by God’s power raised to new life and power again, so all the faithful labor of God’s servants which time seems to bury in the dust o failure, will be raised up, will be found to be there, transfigured, in the new Kingdom.  Every faithful act of service, every honest labor to make the world a better place, which seemed to have been forever lost and forgotten in the rubble of history, will be seen on that day to have contributed to the perfect fellowship of God’s Kingdom. (46-47)

No act of faithfulness to God’s Kingdom is ultimately lost, just as no person who has turned to God will be lost, for God will raise us up and make us participants in the fullness of His Kingdom – a Kingdom which we have not built, but a Kingdom to which our work has pointed, longed for, and honored.

Rightly understood, Newbigin’s point undermines the regnant eschatologies (ideas re: the last things) of many conservative and liberal Christians.  This view of the Kingdom as God’s realm coming to earth mitigates against any view that our eternal life is some individualistic experience of pure spiritual being, which is really a sort of gnostic existence; the Reign of God is communal, embodied, glorious, and yet physical.  The Kingdom is not, as many conservative Christians name it, “going to heaven when we die.”

Newbigin’s insights also remind us that the Kingdom is not ours to build, contra the social gospel of the early 20th century and many liberal Protestants since then.  The most perfect society humans can build cannot and will never be God’s Kingdom.  Having the right people in power or the right system in place does not equal God’s perfect society.  And yet, with our hands we can move the needle here and there towards a better reflection of God’s purposes.  We participate in that perfect Reign that is inbreaking when we insist that the way things are is not the way things shall be or should be.

I’ll close with a prayer purportedly from Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Catholic martyr gunned down at the mass for his Kingdom stance on the widespread corruption at that time in El Salvador.  I believe this prayer strikes the balance that Newbigin names in the essay quoted above.  I hope, also, that you might find it meaningful for your life and ministry:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

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Church is a Miracle: Reflections on General Conference 2016

umh-545 lyricsI’m not certain what I think about General Conference.

The usual rundowns from secular media – quoting a progressive, a conservative, and then maybe a moderate bishop or academic – reflect the problems of General Conference as much as they describe them. Both “sides” are, in different ways, claiming victory and crisis.  Most statements from denominational leaders seem to me the kinds of things one has to say when one is in leadership, not honest assessments of where we find ourselves. They fail to take seriously, at least in public, to degree to which wilfulness and division – major ingredients in the unholy concoction called evil – were everywhere on display in Portland.  Bishop Swanson’s powerful homiletic exorcism was a refreshing bit of honesty. Let’s go ahead and ask him to do that every morning in 2020.  The low point, at least to this live stream viewer, was watching a presiding Bishop, widely respected by both conservatives and progressives, get spoken down to like a school boy that had just forgotten his hall pass.  As David Watson points out, such a lack of trust is disturbing.

Regardless, the Church goes on.  I do not necessarily mean the United Methodist Church, whose institutional life is frayed. I mean that whatever happens to our particular part of the Body, the work of Christ’s family goes on.  And the true Church, wherever it is found, is based around table fellowship with diverse people. (Look to the Articles 13, 16, & 18 for the centrality of the Table.)  This has been true of the church from the very beginning, even in the church in utero, represented by the disciples.

In a wonderful section of his ecclesiological tome Does God Need the Church? titled, ‘Table Manners in the Reign of God,” Catholic theologian Gerhard Lofhink reflects on the how the church, seen in the figure of the twelve disciples gathered around the Eucharist, reflects such diverse people that only God’s Kingdom could bring them together:

Certainly the common meal, and therefore the common table, played a crucial role simply because a wedding is being celebrated. We can even say that the profane table at which Jesus eats with his disciples becomes the new place of salvation. Jesus dares to effect the eschatological renewal of the people of God with the simplicity and intimacy of a table around which is disciples gather as a family.

These disciples were by no means “like-minded people.” There is a good deal of evidence that Jesus chose the Twelve from the most diverse groups in the Judaism of his time in order to make it obvious that he was gathering all Israelites. The Twelve were a colorful mixture: from the former disciples of the Baptizer (John 1:35-40) to Matthew the tax-collector (Matt 10:3) to Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15).  In a tax-collector and a Zealot the most bitterly opposed forces that existed in Israel at the time were joined within a single group, for the tax-collectors gathered revenue for the Romans while Zealous utterly rejected the Roman occupation as incompatible with the reign of God.

We should try to imagine how such different people could sit at one table. They were like fire and water. But just there began the miracle of the eschatological people of God. If each one were to remain in his or her own corner and individual house nothing of the reign of God could be seen.  Its fascination can only appear when people of different backgrounds, different gifts, different colors, men and women sit together at a single table – and when they join their lives so that together, undivided, they can serve God’s cause. (Lofhink, 174-175)

We wonder how different folks – Zealots and tax collectors, natural enemies! – can sit together at the one table of Christ.  The truth is that it is a miracle.

The church is always a miracle.

thereforegoThis is because the church is most herself when she points towards the reign of God.  It is easy for the church to reflect the world: its division, strife, discord, and polarization. United Methodists know too much of this.  But if and when the church reflects God’s Kingdom – when folk of different opinions and ideologies, life experiences and social locations, come to the one table – it is a gift of God.

As an Arminian, I believe that we can be open to or closed off to God’s gifts. God, in God’s radical freedom, grants human image-bearers a similar freedom.  As such, His gifts can be accepted or rejected.

When and where God’s people depart their “own corner and individual house[s]” and come to God’s table, there the miracle of church is enacted.

But when we refuse to leave our own huts and enclaves, when we try to keep one foot in my way and another foot on the narrow way, or if we come to God’s table with prejudices and ideologies that are more determinative than the Word of God, we have refused to receive the gift called Church.  We we make God’s table our table, we have rejected the very nature of Christian community.

I believe God’s desire is for a United Methodist Church that, like the eschatological feast that is at the heart of our faith, brings different people together to praise, serve, and witness to God’s grace.  But God has given us freedom in this. And while the Spirit binds us together and equips us for ministry, we are capable of following other spirits.

But unfortunately, the principalities and powers have been having their way with us.  The bishops’ post-Portland letter closed, cryptically, with words from John Wesley’s deathbed.  That’s the definition of cold comfort.

But God is in the business of making rivers in the desert and raising the dead to life.  It is not too late for a miracle.

I will be praying for one, and I invite you to join me.

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“Teachings of Jesus” vs. “Teachings About Jesus”

The resurrected Christ trampling down the doors of death.

Classic icon of the the resurrected Christ trampling down the doors of death.

As Christians, should we prioritize Jesus’ teachings, or teachings about Jesus himself?  Some Christians (and some Unitarians who consider themselves followers of Jesus) suggest emphasizing the former:

“UU Christians look to the teachings of Jesus (not about Jesus) as a source of wisdom and guidance in building the Beloved Community.”

“…the fundamentalists see Christianity as a religion about Jesus, while I and others understand Christianity to be the religion of Jesus. The key difference here is that a religion about Jesus casts him as a god who(emphasis original)m we worship, whereas seeing Christianity as the religion ofJesus allows us to see him as a brother, as the role model for how we can attain a mystical union with God just as he did.” (emphasis original)

These two examples come from Unitarian Universalist sources, the first from Eno River UU in Durham, NC and the second from a UU Fellowship in Churchville, MD.  More troubling is that I have heard these exact same sentiments shared by Christians, including United Methodists (who, supposedly, have clear doctrinal standards emphasizing particular teachings about Jesus).  Why is this bifurcation problematic? Lesslie Newbigin gives us the answer:

“And indeed it is the very nature of the gospel itself which always defeats these attempts to separate the word from the deed, to give one primacy over the other, because the gospel is precisely the good news of the Word made flesh…to set word and deed against one another, and insist that one or the other has primacy, is futile. The announcing of the good news about the Kingdom is empty verbiage if there is nothing happening to make the news credible. On the other hand, the most admirable program for human welfare does not provide any substitute for the name of Jesus in whom God’s reign has come. At its very best, such a program can be no more than a sign pointing toward the full reality which we encounter only when we encounter Him.” (Signs Amid the Rubble, 99.)

With Newbigin, we see that choosing between the teachings of Jesus (feeding the poor, forgiveness, clothing the naked, etc.) and the apostolic teaching about Jesus as the Word made flesh is ultimately a false choice.  Word and deed, piety and mercy, hang together or not at all.  We don’t have to choose. Jesus did not intend us to.

The message is the Messenger. The Messenger is the message.  To paraphrase an old wedding liturgy, what God hath joined together in Jesus the Christ, let no one put asunder.

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The Cross is Not About You

Pay attention to enough old revival songs, and eventually the individualism of so much “Jesus n’ Me” theology will wear your patience thin.  N.T. Wright is an evangelical Anglican (a rare breed indeed) who gets that the Good News is not just about “my salvation,” and I continue to learn a great deal from him.

As Good Friday approaches, in which we meditate on the cross and consider all that Christ endured to effect our reconciliation with God, I found these words a helpful reminder that the cross is not merely the news about something done for me, but also a vocation that is to impact how we as Christians approach life and ministry and mission each day.  The cross is personal but also political, it is individual and communal.  Like the entirety of the Biblical revelation, it is first about who God is, and only secondarily about me.

I hope this blesses you in some way as it did me, and I would heartily suggest you add this volume to your current reading list.

The cross is the surest, truest and deepest window on the very heart and character of the living and loving God; the more we learn about the cross in all its historical and theological dimensions, the more we discover about the One in whose image we are made and hence about our own vocation to be the cross-bearing people, the people in whose lives and service the living God is to be made known…we do not – we dare not – simply treat the cross as the thing that saves us “personally,” but which can be left behind when we get on with the job.  The task of shaping our world is best understood as the redemptive task of bringing the achievement of the cross to bear on the world, and in that task the methods, as well as the message, but be cross-shaped through and through.”

N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 94-95

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A Prayer to Remember the Last Supper

by Drew 1 Comment

Artist’s rendering of a triclinium, the table Jesus and his disciples would have used to celebrate the Passover Seder. Da Vinci was way off.

I wrote the following prayer to open the service today, as we began a series based on Adam Hamilton’s 24 Hours That Changed the World:

Gracious God,
Who fills our plates with good food
and our cups to overflowing:

We thank you that your Son eats with sinners, even those like Peter
who deny him
and like Thomas
who doubt him
and like Judas
who betray him.

We thank you that Jesus still prepares a feast for people like us.
Help us to take our place at his table now,
that we may feast at the great banquet to come. Amen.

It also occurred to me (and I’m probably not the first to notice this, though I haven’t heard it before myself) that this event recorded in the gospels is misnamed.  If it were actually the “last” supper, then we would not be worshiping Jesus as the Christ and the Second Person of the Trinity.  Jesus conquered death and went on eating and drinking; in fact, the disciples didn’t recognize him until he broke the bread (Emmaus).

We look forward to what John the Revelator calls “the marriage supper of the lamb,” in which the bride of Christ shall rejoice to see her savior face-to-face in unbroken communion in that Kingdom which is breaking in even now.  Amen.

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