Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Speak, Eat, Drink, Bathe: Proclamation and the Sacraments

Part 5 of Reformed Tradition and the Missional Church (final handout for participants, critique welcomed as I develop this resource...)

Two of the primary distinctives of the Reformed Church tradition in general and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in particular are the sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It could be said that the Presbyterian Church is a sacramental church wherefore the institution of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper hold central position. As a part of the spiritual formation of the church and its members, it is crucial to underscore the role of both these sacraments within the Christian ordo (liturgical order) of service and the missional witness in and for the world. In other words, as we pursue Christian discipleship we are called to remember our baptismal vocation and Eucharistic mission that stems from the sacred waters and the reconciling table of Jesus; this through the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is important to note that at the core of sacramental exploration is an embrace of mystery. Actually, the word sacrament alone derives from the Latin translation of the Greek word for mystery (Migliore 280). That is to say, the sacraments are not intended, neither within the New Testament witness or on-going church praxis, to be defined and possessed by human language. Instead, the sacraments point beyond themselves, however mysteriously, to what has actually occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Even more so, the mysterious nature of the sacraments insists that God’s people regularly gather together as a community not only to explore the richness of meaning, but also to embody the sending nature of both baptism and the Eucharist. Here is a brief discourse that can be considered and discussed.

The sacraments of the church are the visible signs of God’s covenantal promises and grace that are most fully made known in the person of Jesus and his gospel. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two sacraments affirmed and regularly instituted by the Presbyterian Church as ordained by Jesus the Messiah. First, baptism is the proclamation that God has claimed us as God’s people to be God’s image bearers in the world. Baptism is the physical representation of God’s on-going work of new creation and liberation upon an individual who is adopted into God’s family, gifted with the Holy Spirit, and called to participate within the life, witness, and mission of the church. Second, the Lord’s Supper is the regular practice of the church whereupon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah are remembered and proclaimed in anticipation of the new creation that is to come. In the practice and institution of the Lord’s Supper the church remembers God’s new covenant with humanity and that all believers have been baptized and united unto Christ, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and called towards faithful gospel witness and Eucharistic mission in and for the world.
Another marker of the Christian Church is the proclamation of the Word of God. In the Reformed Tradition it is the combination of both the proclaimed Word and the institution of the sacraments that denotes the very existence of the Christian Church. As John Calvin wrote, “Whenever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (Institutes, 4.1.9). The interrelationship of proclamation and the sacraments is to call the Church to remember the storied tradition of which it is a part, the history of God’s faithfulness within that story and climaxes in the incarnation of Jesus the Messiah, and the role of God’s people as participants, by the Holy Spirit, in God’s on-going work of redemption and new creation. This has led some theologians to suggest:

The true church is not only the church of the ear (where the gospel is rightly preached and heard), and not only the church of the eye (where the sacraments are enacted for the faithful to see and experience); it is also the church of the outstretched, helping hand” (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding 273).
Again, it could be stated that through the preached Word of God and the celebration of the Eucharist the baptized are invited to live into their missional vocation in and for the whole world. Moreover, it is proclamation as witness and sacraments as memory that remind the Church that God’s redemptive mission hinges not on its own voice or praxis, rather upon the object, subject, and goal of the faith, who is Christ, of and to whom the Church follows and bears witness.

Helpful Quotations from Significant Voices

“So faith rests upon the Word of God as a foundation; but when the sacraments are added, it rests more firmly upon them as upon columns. Or we might call them mirrors in which we may contemplate the riches of god’s grace, which he lavishes upon us”
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.5

“The news which the Church has to proclaim is that in virtue of what has happened in Jesus Christ [humanity] can now live with God in faith and love and hope, on the ground of God’s unfathomable and unmerited mercy. And this news is so urgent that in every time and place where the Church exists it must be proclaimed at once and in all circumstances.”
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, p. 850

“These ministries of leadership [proclamation and the sacraments] are given to enable the church to carry out its fundamentally missiological purpose in the world: to announce and demonstrate the new creation in Jesus Christ.”
Darrell Guder, Missional Church, 185

“The Lord’s Supper is therefore also the sacrament of human participation in the divine life by sharing life with each other…There is an intrinsic connection between responsible participation in the Lord’s Supper and commitment to a fairer distribution of the goods of the earth to all its people.”
Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 295

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Missional Memory: Hebrews 12:28-13:16 Sermon Text

By far my favorite breed of canine is the Beagle. My wife and I now have two that we adopted a few years ago from a Beagle Rescue in State College, twins in fact, named Copper and Jax. Now, if you know anything about this particular breed you know that they are not exactly known for the long-term memory or an ability to stay focused for very long- except for when they are on the hunt. This has been particularly challenging for one of the twins, Copper. While he is almost five-years old, the world around him always appears new and different. This has made taking him out to do his business a little difficult at times, time consuming to say the least. It is as though he forgets why I am taking him out each time. And just when I think he is about to go he spots a flower, a butterfly, a blade of grass with a tasteful amount of morning dew, or a breeze with a likeable fragrance that causes him to tilt his nose upward. I have to remind him over and again what he is outside to do. His short-term memory, or even complete lack thereof, has prevented my Beagle from completing his task- even if it is to water our small bushes. But we, especially my wife (who is a Social Worker and Therapist, conveniently), love him.

We can extend this theme of memory into the main plotline of the current box-office smash, Inception. The premise of the film is for agent Dom Cobb to enter into the subconscious minds of those sleeping, intercept their dream worlds, make alterations that they are unaware of, and cause the victims to alter their behavior after they awake without knowing anything took place in their slumber. Again, memory is twisted, if not lost altogether, which directly corresponds to the inability to act with proper intentions.

We come to today’s text from Hebrews and are confronted with the concluding portions of an anonymous letter that also addresses the memory of a particular people. Most probable Jewish Christians, they were scattered about in the first-century Roman Empire, fleeing persecution, and living outside the confines of their home camp of Jerusalem. Their faith and conviction to live into it was a daily decision that, when they stepped outside the sanctuary of their homes and local meeting places, could result in severe, if not fatal, consequences. It is in this light that Hebrews was written as a letter to spur the faithful to a missional memory; to remember the story of which they are a part, the history of God’s faithfulness within that story, the climactic event of redemption and liberation that came in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and the forward-moving, in-breaking promises of God that are both already here and yet fully to come. It is as though the writer is saying, don’t forget, don’t be distracted, guard your memory, and stay faithful to the story and unshakeable kingdom of Jesus.

We are not completely unlike those addressed in this letter. We, too, as 21st Century Christians, are scattered throughout the globe. Some face similar persecutions and fears when they leave their homes and are challenged to remain faithful. If you visit the PCUSA website you can read about these ad infinitum, without end, and then pray for their lives and witnesses. However, more often than not, the pressures we face stem from a different source. We are tempted to allow our personal politics, ethics, ideals, and life narratives to be tilted away from the gospel and intercepted and twisted by the culture. We then either forget who and why we are or live into a storied memory that has less to do with the gospel and everything to do with pop-icons and new-age ideals. It is to this end that Hebrews is also a letter to us that calls us to a missional memory where we remember the story of which we are a part and the future that is to come, both which hinge on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

I was talking to the staff this week about how this portion of the letter struck me as awkward. It is far more fragmented than any other section of the letter, almost as though the writer is a preacher who knows his time is just about up and needs to quickly tie up the loose ends before the organist begins the final hymn and the associate pastor pulls the preacher, new to sanctuary-preaching, out of the pulpit by the hem of the robe that he is not used to wearing. It’s a little rushed and if we are not careful we can miss the main chorus. In seemingly Trinitarian language, the writer slips into Hebrews 13:8 a well-known verse that echoes the eternal nature of the name of God, Yahweh, by penning the phrase, “Jesus the Messiah is the same yesterday and today and forever.” This is the central chorus, the hinge upon which this entire segment pivots and calls the faithful to live into with a missional memory.

A quick reminder of how we got here… A few weeks ago we read Hebrews 11 and the famous collage of faithful characters from the Old Testament narratives, those who lived in response to the faithful promises and liberating activity of God. Abraham, Rahab, Moses, and David, along with others; a motley crew of witnesses that culminated in Jesus as pioneer of the faith. It is as though the writer of Hebrews was setting the stage for the grand finale of this letter, and spurring the scattered on, “Remember the witnesses, remember God’s past activity and faithfulness, remember your history; let it comfort you, encourage you, even transform you. Remember, God, unveiled to us in Jesus, is the same YESTERDAY, today, and forever.

What is beautiful about Scripture is there can be observed patterns and parallels that help us to explore the richness of meaning. Hebrews 12:28 and 13:14 are brilliant illustrations of this. The writer moves from a call to historical memory to a now future expectation and anticipation. If the readers and hearers were looking behind them for hope and strength, now their attention was on the distant horizon. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God…” and its counterpart in 13:14, “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise.” The parallelism reminds ancient and contemporary readers alike that God’s promises cannot only be heard from the whispers of past witnesses, but also hoped for and expected in God’s future when God will make all things new and right. Again, remember, God, unveiled to us in Jesus, is the same yesterday and today and FOREVER.

Unfortunately, this is where we often stop as evangelical Christians. This may serve as our only point of emphasis…the future. Even worse, this becomes our evangelistic tract to convince others to faith, “Do you know where you are going to go when you die?” I remember years ago the home visits on the missional projects to the Dominican Republic with a ministry team I was leading. We would walk the streets of a poor town on the Western border and hear the stories of those who lived there. Without fail, at the end of these conversations a member from our team, with eagerness and confidence, would tune in just in time to ask that very question about their eternal destinations. Sitting in the front of their house, sheet metal roof, no running water, racial tensions, rationed food, and little education, they would be led to pray a prayer that ensured the evangelist of their future security. Forever was the only horizon for this particular individual’s question; the present struggles of the local community served only as a platform for the suggested real concern of the hereafter.

But God, unveiled to us in Jesus is the same yesterday, TODAY, and forever. So we move further into another set of parallel lines, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Yet still, the counterpart in 13:12, “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate…Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” Our memory of God’s past and future activity is to move us towards a new kind of missional presence in and concern for not only those inside the walls of this faith community, but also and especially those outside the camp, no matter what the cost. And we do this remembering that this was the vocation of Jesus, who endured the cross, scorned its shame, and rose from the grave for us and the whole world (Heb. 12:1-3).

It is easy to read this section of Hebrews and solely focus on 13:1-3. The author reminds us that at the crux of Christian community is a mutual love for one another. Pastoral care is certainly a strength of Westminster as pastors, staff, elders, deacons, and others visit and care for members of this faith community in their time of need, illness, sorrow, etc. I have been blessed by this “mutual love” and I am sure many of you have, as well. We are excellent at loving those within this camp and within this faith community. Yet, how many of us dare to image the love of Christ outside the confines of the sanctuary, the security of our church committees, and the familiarity of our fellow congregants. Do we love the stranger? I wrote to our youth this week:

Love is easy when we love those who can return the favor. Love is easy when we are confident that we will be rewarded in our “generosity.” But what about the stranger? What about those on the fringes of the cafeteria? What about those in the back corner of the classroom? What about the one who walks to class alone or is pushed around by another? What about the poor, the homeless, the abused, or the immigrant? Do we dare love them even though we may not only not receive something in return or worse, may jeopardize our reputation and be disgraced? May we be a people who reflect the prodigal love of Jesus by extending love and hospitality to the strangers of the world, for in doing so we may discover that they were more than strangers, maybe even angels, at least our neighbors, whom we were called to love and “entertain” all along.
I love the quote on the front of the bulletin. [1] But what I love even more is the memory behind the statement and the story behind the person. Jurgen Moltmann is one of the premier contemporary theologians, former student of Karl Barth, and famous for his work Theology of Hope. However, what is not often discussed is his personal history that led to his transformation of knowledge and his awareness of mission. In 1944, Moltmann was drafted by the German army to serve as a soldier at the height of World War II. After the bombing of his camp, he was held as a prisoner of war, three years spent in Belgium, Scotland, and England. His heart and mind continued to be flooded with both theological and existential questions that tormented him day and night. However, though he was a stranger in a foreign camp, the soldiers that held him captive treated him with love and grace, especially an army chaplain who handed Moltmann a copy of the Bible that he began to read. It was Psalm 39 that would forever change his life, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry…For I am a stranger, an alien, like all my forbearers.” Not raised in the Church, Moltmann would forever be transformed and go on to write some of the more influential, missional, and liberation theology of the twentieth century. He would even become active in the Confessing Church movement that spoke against the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Little did those soldiers know, little did that chaplain know, that by extending love to this particular stranger that they were entertaining a future agent of God’s revelatory grace.

This brings us full circle to our central chorus: Jesus the Messiah is the same yesterday and today and forever. We are called by this text to remember the story that we are a part of, the history of God’s faithfulness, unveiled to us in Jesus the Messiah, and the pending future of this unshakeable and everlasting kingdom of God. Until that day, we are also reminded that TODAY we are gifted with the Holy Spirit to remember our mission as participants within this unfolding story as we let mutual love continue, especially with the poor, the prisoner, and the stranger in whom the angels of God are masked and entertained. Amen.

[1] “Awareness of history is awareness of mission, and the knowledge of history is a transformatory knowledge” (Moltmann, Theology of Hope 89).  See links on post, Jürgen Moltmann and the Theology of Hope, for podcast interviews.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Inception: A Few Things I Learned...

Usually it takes at least a decade or two for a film to be remade and adapted in light of technological and cinematographic developments.  This was not the case with Inception.  While I agree with most reviews that it was a good, if not great, film, it was far from innovative.  I actually found the film somewhat predictable and way too closely related to the Matrix trilogy.  Nonetheless, there is much that can be learned from in this highly successful film:

Cultural Longings for an Escape from Reality: As with Avatar, this film taps into the cultural obsession with creating fictitious worlds to escape the pressures, disappointments, failures, and tragedies of this world.  This is nowhere more evident than in Dom Cobb's inability to let go of the death of his wife and to confine particular memories of her, even his subconscious image of her, to the lowest level of his dream world.  However, it is even more diagnostic of this cultural condition when we discover how Mal (Dom's desceased wife) died in the first place. Spoiler Alert:  It is unveiled that Mal was Dom Cobb's first experimentation of this "Inception."  They eventually utilize this as a form of therapy to escape the "real world" and grow old together in their highly developed subconscious dream world.  Eventually Mal is unable to decipher the real from the dream world and takes her life, thinking that she will then be woken up from what she believes to be a dream, in effort to return to her children.  Dom Cobb would forever be plagued with guilt and accustations of homicide, which eventually affects the team of agents' ability to carry out their mission later in the film.  In essence, we are reminded that running from and crafting cheap imitations of reality as a form of escape eventually catches up with us and may have ruining effects later in life.  I am sure more could be said....

Cooption of the Mind and the Inception of the Memory: I find this particulalrly interesting, especially in light of the political battles that continue to rage on, as each side calls the other to remember who we are as a nation, a people, and even a faith tradition. [1]  Yet all our memories that lead to these challenges are surely contextual and adapted to fit our particular political, corporate, religious, etc. agendas.  To be honest, nowhere is this more evident than in the church.  Our definitions of the gospel, ecclessial agendas and missions, and political ethics as both individuals and faith communities often have been intercepted by the agents of media, celebrities, advertising companies, and Western ideals and made it difficult to decipher what is gospel and what is some sort of co-opted tradition held captive by particular sectors of the political and corporate world.  In this light, the church is desperately in need of a fresh "kick" to bring us back to reality and live into the prophetic and revolutionary message of Jesus that is to and for the world, especially the poor.

The Power of a Seed (mis)Planted: One of the greatest lines in the whole film comes from Dom Cob when he says, "The seed we plant in this man's mind will come to define him.  It will become his reality and change everything." As with the commentary above, this line reminds us that there is so much power in words, illustrations, and particular experiences.  Similar to the Butterfly Effect, we are reminded that certain things, even if they appear random or non-consequential, can have a greater lasting impact than we may ever have realized or been prepared for.  As a youth pastor, church leader, teacher, preacher, etc. I was reminded yet again of the power behind what I say and do that may (or may not) have impact either for the positive or negative.  In other words, I was not aware that Inception would "kick" my vocational conscience. However, I do believe that the above quotation serves as yet another prophetic attestation to the manipulation and subliminal attempts of culture to coopt the imagination, define our ideals and ethics, and become the reality in which we choose to live... May our eyes and ears be open and able to discern the voice of the Spirit from the voices of evil that so often are masked as preffered and prosperous reality.

[1] I was entertained to learn that one prominent (better said, infamous) political leader chose Saturday, August 28, 2010, as the date for his speech, "I Have a Plan." This Saturday marks the 47th anniversay of Dr. King's, "I Have a Dream" speech that surely spoke for social and racial justice, reconciliation, and a concern for issues that affect the weak and wounded of this world.  Although the ads for this "new" speech call us to "remember" Dr. King (along with a long list of other prominent figures), no two speeches, no two people, no two movements could be more different than each other.  This is yet another example of co-opted memory and the inception of political and religious ideals. Just a thought :)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Jürgen Moltmann and the Theology of Hope

This summer as a part of my research and dialogue with Reformed Theology for the Missional Church I decided to tackle bits and pieces of Jürgen Moltmann.  This German Theologian has been, along with my favorite, Karl Barth, one of the more significant voices that affirms my hypothesis that, at its core, all Missional Theology is actually contemporary and pragmatic Reformed Theology.  Moltmann and Barth are both engaged regularly by those who swim in the waters of both the Emergent Church and the, similar yet less "controversial" (note my tongue and cheek off -setting of this adjective), Missional Church.  While I have explored the work of Karl Barth a lot over the past two years (I am still convinced that Evangelical Theology is his best work), I had not read much of Moltmann.  That being the case, I chose to begin with Theology of Hope (Fortress Press 1967) for professional, academic, and personal reasons alike. I was not disappointed.  In fact, I have come to believe that Moltmann's work, especially in this particular text, is some of the more impressive and illuminating of all that I have read in recent years.  Jürgen Moltmann's chapter on the "Resurrection and Future of Jesus Christ" is also some of the more insightful theological reflections on the proper posture and horizon for Christian eschatology, i.e. Christian promise, hope, and expectation (220). That being said, I thought I would throw a few references from this title that would be worth dialoguing about in both off-the-record conversations at your local coffee shop or within Church formation courses as we equip God's people for their missional vocation in the world. 

To set the tone, by far my favorite selection of the book is the concluding line of two of the more significant and missional paragraphs within Theology of Hope.  Moltmann writes, "The pro-missio of the kingdom is the ground of the missio of love to the world" (224).  That is to say, Christian theology hinges on and begins with eschatology.  This eschatology properly postures the church and its witness within the memory of God's  past, present, and forward moving activity (i.e. pro-missio) to and for the whole world, which culiminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. The complete paragraph says it better than any paraphrase:
"If the promise of the kingdom of God shows us a universal eschatological future horizon spanning all things- 'that God may be all in all'- then it is impossible for the [hu]man of hope to adopt an attitude of religious and cultic resignation from the world.  On the contrary, he is compelled to accept the world in all its meekness, subject as it is to death and the powers of annihilation, and to guide all things towards their new being.  He [or she] becomes homeless with the homeless, for the sake of the home of reconciliation.  He [or she] becomes restless with the restless, for the sake of the peace of God.  He [or she] becomes rightless with the rightless, for the sake of the divine right that is coming.
     "The promise of the kingdom of God in which all things attain to right, to life, to freedom, and to truth, is not exclusive but inclusive.  And so, too, its love, its neighbourliness and its sympathy are inclusive, excluding nothing, but embracing in hope everything wherein God will be all in all.  The pro-missio of the kingdom is the ground of the missio of love to the world" (224).
Here are a few other citations that have affected me on so many levels...

“A Christian faith that is not resurrection faith can therefore be called neither Christian nor faith. It is the knowledge of the risen Lord and confession to him who raised him that form the basis on which the memory of the life, work, sufferings and death of Jesus is kept alive and presented in the gospels. It is the recognition of the risen Christ that gives rise to the Church’s recognition of its own commission in the mission to the nations. It is the remembrance of his resurrection that is the ground of the inclusive hope in the universal future of Christ" (66).

“The horizon within which the resurrection of Christ becomes knowable as ‘resurrection’, is the horizon of promise and mission, beckoning us on to his future and the future of his lordship…They are answered within the horizon of the mission of Christ and the mission of the Jewish and Gentile church" (196).

“The hope that is born of the cross and the resurrection transforms the negative, contradictory, and torturing aspects of the world into terms of ‘not yet’, and does not suffer them to end in ‘nothing'" (197).

"If the kingdom of God begins as it were with a new act of creation, then the Reconciler is ultimately the Creator, and thus the eschatological prospect of reconciliation must mean the reconciliation of the whole creation, and must develop and eschatology of all things. In the cross we can recognize the god-frosakenness of all things, and with the cross we can recognize the real absence of the kingdom of God in which all things attain to righteousness, life and peace" (223, italics mine).
"The pro-missio of the universal future leads of necessity to the universal missio  of the Church to all nations" (225).

I hope to tackle later in the year another of Jürgen Moltmann's titles, The Church in the Power of the Spirit (Harper Collins 1977).

Two Great Interviews of Moltmann on the Emergent Podcast:
2009 Emergent Theological Conversation with Jurgen Moltmann Part 1
2009 Emergent Theological Conversation with Jurgen Moltmann Part 2

Sunday, August 22, 2010

People of the Book: Scripture as Missional Narrative

Part 4 of Reformed Theology and the Missional Church.  This is a handout for the participants, for the sake of discussion.  Certainly much to be explored and critiqued, but nonetheless...[1]

Stories are everywhere. We love stories. Stories speak to our innermost self, some obviously better than others. Stories can inspire and shape our dreams. Stories can sometimes leave us in fear and cause us to question the safety and security of our environment. Some stories intrigue us through mystery and suspense. Other stories become our form of escape from the mess of our own lives. Then there are those stories that are small tales and teach us little snippets of truth. Other stories may serve as a metanarrative, or large and overarching story that frames our understanding and interpretation of the world and life experiences. We like stories and we tell and listen to them with regularity.

Movies tell stories. Television tells stories. Music tells a story. Theater tells a story. So does poetry.There are endless stories in local and global news, stories which attempt to educate society about current events, both positive and negative. Yet there are still more variations of storytelling.

U2 singer and activist Bono calls stained glass “the first cinemas.” The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was turned into a giant canvas for storytelling when Michelangelo, hired by Pope Julius II in 1508, used his ingenuity to illustrate segments of nine biblical stories from the book of Genesis.

The history of storytelling is difficult to pin to any particular date. The Lascaux cave paintings, said to have been discovered in southwestern France by four teenagers in September of 1940, are believed to be as old as 16,000 years. Each picture provoking the imagination to guess what story was being told.

Stories are also told by way of oral tradition, passing narratives down from generation to generation by word-of-mouth. Each time the story may be told in a new and fresh way. The art of storytelling has transcended time and medium. There is power in story. Stories illustrate life and experience in a way that sparks the imagination and tugs on our creative energies.

The Bible is also an example of story or narrative. That is, the Bible is a large and beautiful story with the plot of God putting the world to rights and making all things new through Jesus. It is a story that incorporates poetry, history, narrative, parables, prophecy, song, and reflections on things to come. Even more, in order to get the fullest picture of what actually happens in the person of Jesus, we have to read and engage the whole story, both what happened before (Old Testament and the history of Israel) and what has continued to happen after (climaxing in the incarnation of Jesus the Messiah and attested to in the New Testament). In other words, how do we read Scripture? We read Scripture as a real story of the triune God’s past, present, and on-going activity in the world that centers on the life, death, and resurrection of the person of Jesus who has sent us the Holy Spirit.

It is important to be reminded that just because we say the Bible is a story does not mean we are talking about something fictional. Stories can be fictional or non-fictional. Story is just a way of breaking down and viewing a series of events with some semblance of organization that breathes fresh meanings and understandings of the world. We love stories and we can relate to stories. Stories are everywhere; and God has written a story, through real and human authors, that is to and for us and the whole world. Some have even described Scripture as a vast and loosely structured non-fictional novel. [2]

Another narratival medium is the theater. A theatrical performance is usually broken down into scenes and acts. One of my favorite writers, N.T. Wright, describes the biblical story as a six-act Shakespearean play. Wright says that we as followers of Jesus, readers of Scripture, and members of the Church are living in the middle of the fifth act. He even takes it a step farther and says we live as though members of a six-act Shakespearean play whose latter portions of Act V and the whole of Act VI have been left undiscovered. But the play is too brilliant not to be performed. So, actors and actresses carefully read the first four and portions of the fifth act, reflect on other Shakespearean plays, and then faithfully improvise the ending in light of their discoveries as a team of actors. [3]

This is us who we are: people of the book living into a missional narrative. We are captivated and transformed by the fourth and decisive act of Jesus, i.e. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, which has invited us to move into the fifth act of participation in his work of putting the world to rights and making all things new. We are not sure of the ending, but we carefully read and discuss the story, Old and New Testaments, as we have it, in community, and then live into it as best we can, faithfully improvising as a community of Jesus followers and actors within the gospel story. The biblical story is not a monologue; instead, it is a missional and communal narrative that invites all of us to play our role as the ending, rather, the new beginning, unfolds all around us.

[1] I have adapted this from a resource used in our youth confirmation program, CREDO (www.imagodeiyouth.com/credo).
[2] “Barth’s reading of Scripture as ‘one vast, loosely structured non-fictional novel’” (D.H. Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology, p. 48, also in Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ, xxiv).
[3] N.T. Wright, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative.” http://www.ntwrightpage.com/ . Brian Walsh also discusses this in Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be. p. 182.

Other Helpful Citations Pertinent to This Discussion:

“Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experience and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible’s revolutionary themes- promise, exodus, resurrection, and spirit- come alive.”
Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 17

“Scripture is the unique and irreplaceable witness to the liberating and reconciling activity of God in the history of Israel and supremely in Jesus Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Scripture serves the purpose of relating us to God and transforming our life.”
Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 44

“It must not speak and think in the manner of a timeless Church discipline, but with full participation in the energies and hopes, the cares and struggles of the Church of its own age.”
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, 805

“Hence dogmatics as such does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets.”
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, 16

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Hopeful Elect: Eschatology and the Reformed (Missional) Church

Part 3 of Reformed Theology and the Missional Church:

        There is great confusion within the contemporary Christian faith in regards to how to illustrate and confess appropriately the hope of the faith and the related community of believers. If you ask people in the Church what they hope for and what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus accomplished, you will probably get as many responses as the people you question. Even more so, when asked about what is the ultimate goal of the Church and individual believers, especially as it pertains to life after death, you will also receive a diversity of answers. So what do we hope for as followers of Jesus and those who profess faith in the gospel? This question and the quest for an appropriate response is referred to as eschatology. Contemporary German and Reformed Theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, defined the term:

Eschatology means the doctrine of the Christian hope, which embraces both the object hoped for and also the hoped inspired by it. From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present (Theology of Hope 16).
That is to say, the beginning of Christian Reformed and Missional Theology is eschatology. Christian faith, proclamation, and practice begins with formative reflection about the end, or better said, what is yet to come, and properly postures God’s people in their movement within the present world.
          Most of our understandings that pertain to the Christian hope revolve around the idea of some sort of heaven as a place one goes to when he or she dies and leaves this place called earth. As kids, many of us have had visions and illustrations both taught to us and conjured up by our own imaginations that incorporate a surreal place somewhere beyond the atmosphere, maybe able to be reached by a spaceship that travels past the great beyond (at least that’s what I thought as a kid). A popular children’s’ book offers a familiar illustration in regards to the afterlife:
“‘Heaven…is a beautiful place up in the sky, where no one is sick, where no one is mean or unhappy. It’s a place beyond the moon, the stars, and the clouds. Heaven is where you go when you die…It’s a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk to other people who are there…If you’re good throughout your life, then you get to go to heaven…When your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you up to Heaven to be with him.’” [1]
Most of the concepts and notions that we have of heaven and the Christian hope, i.e. eschatology, are void of an honest reflection of what the Bible illustrates as the goal of the gospel and the anticipations of the Church. Even more so, if we read the Scriptures carefully, we will notice that many of the depictions of the Christian hope are quite different and far more brilliant and beautiful than our cultural illustrations of a sweet by and by in the sky.
          The Christian hope rests upon the belief that the day is coming when Jesus will come again and make all things new and right. In other words, the Christian hope is for new creation. Moreover, the resurrection of Jesus is the first sign of God’s work of new creation in that Jesus was raised from the dead as a reminder that death and decay, evil and injustice, suffering and pain, war and violence do not have the last word, rather life and rescue are God’s constant and eternal words to and for the whole world.
          Yet, we live in a world that does not appear to have been fully delivered or rescued. We do not have to look very far, maybe simply look into our own lives, and see that everything is not the way that it is supposed to be. Even more, it can often feel as though God is not only unconcerned, but also very much absent from real human sufferings and experiences. All of us, at some point in time, and maybe currently, have felt the effects of a world that is out of rhythm with its intended purposes. We can even turn on the news or read the papers and encounter poverty, murder, genocide, homelessness, racism, and greed- all signs that the world is not right. As Christians, we live in tension with God’s real promises for resurrection and new creation, as well as on-going reminders that the new creation is not yet fully here.
          What is beautiful about the Christian hope is that it does not incorporate God’s abandonment of the creation or humanity. Instead, the Kingdom of God, made real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, enters into the mess of creation and restores it, renews it, and resurrects it. This is the good news, i.e. gospel, that through Jesus the whole of creation, including our individual lives, can anticipate the day when all will be well and right. This is what the early Christians and the Jewish tradition referred to as shalom [2], or peace and welfare. God’s dreams for the world, dreams of new creation and shalom, then form God’s people, by the Holy Spirit, for mission in, to, and for the world. In the Reformed language it could be said that we are elected for and called to practice the resurrection [3] and inaugurate new creation in how we care for one another, serve one another, love one another, and remind one another that in Jesus death has lost its sting and new life is both already here and yet-to-come (1 Cor. 15:55-56). We are to be new creation people that hope for, not an escape to some world in the sky above the clouds, rather, a new heavenly city that comes down to this world and makes all things as they were intended from the beginning- good and filled with life (Rev. 21). And in the middle of this new creation, this new city, God makes a home with God’s people that wipes away all sorrow, pain, and injustice. As Christians we are called to be the hopeful elect who live in anticipation of this day, confident and expectant that Jesus’ resurrection was only the beginning of the resurrection of all things!

[1] This long citation is taken from the children’s book, What’s Heaven?, written by Maria Shriver (St. Martin’s Press, 1999) and cited in N.T. Wright’s, Surprised by Hope (2008).
[2] See Seek the Peace of the City, by Eldin Villafañe (Eerdmans, 1995).
[3] The Westminster Catechism (Shorter Catechism) states that “we are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ by the effectual application of it to us by the Holy Spirit” (Book of Confessions 7.029, italics mine).  "Practicing the resurrection" is another way of stating this very confessional and vocational article of the faith.
[4] For more study on Christian eschatology and hope (although not necessarily uniquely "Reformed") read, Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright (Harper One, 2008).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

God as Unified and Missional Community: Trinitarian Theology as Missional Theology

Part 2 of Reformed Theology and the Missional Church.  A handout for those participating...

       One of the more common words utilized by the apostle Paul to describe both the character and activity of the God made known in Jesus is mystery. In other words, Christian Theology is at some level both unexplainable and beyond definition. This neither means that theology is pursued in vain, nor that any attempt to speak of God is void of truth. Instead, the maintenance of mystery within the discipline of Christian theology reminds the Christian theologian and Christian Church that all theology is modest theology [1] that humbly bears witness to the nature, character, and activity of God. Dr. Daniel L. Migliore [2] writes:
Christian theology begins, continues, and ends with the inexhaustible mystery of God. It speaks of God, however, not in vague and general terms, but on the basis of the particular actions of God attested in Scripture (Migliore 64).
That being said, throughout history the primary means that Christian Theology has illustrated and confessed the mystery of God in Scripture is through trinitarian language, i.e. the self-revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It could even be said that all Christian Theology (and Reformed Theology) is uniquely Trinitarian Theology that bears witness to God who is three-in-one.
           Trinitarian Theology is difficult to explain and even more difficult to defend, as nowhere in Scripture is there a clear and clever description of the doctrine. That is to say, the doctrine of the trinity is not one directly revealed to us through Scriptural proof, but a doctrine interpreted, developed, and experienced by the faith community from the first generation of Christians up to the present day. Karl Barth affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity as the “work of the Church, a record of its understanding of the statement of its object [who is God]…regarded only as an interpretation” (Church Dogmatics Vol I.1 p. 308). Trinitarian Theology surfaced as God’s people interpreted and experienced the three-fold activity of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e. Old Testament), incarnated in the person and work of Jesus (as illustrated in the New Testament), and continually revealing God’s self and activity through the Holy Spirit. However, it has been essential for Orthodox Christian Theology to maintain not only the distinct yet unified manifestations of God (three-in-one), but also the eternal existence of God as Trinity, i.e. there never was a time when God was not trinity.
            While much ink has been spilled over the precise language and the proper discourse used to explain, defend, and promote Trinitarian Theology, the doctrine must extend beyond mere philosophical jargon. That is to say, Reformed Christian Theology as Trinitarian Theology also provides the platform for a Missional Theology rooted in the missional nature and character of God. German Theologian, Jürgen Moltmann says it best, “We don’t believe in the Trinity only. We live in the Trinity; we live in God…surrounded from all sides.”  Migliore offers yet another advantageous insight:
Trinitarian doctrine describes God in terms of shared life and love rather than in terms of domineering power. God loves in freedom, lives in communion, and wills creatures to live in a new community of mutual love and service. God is self-sharing, other-regarding, community-forming love (73).
The reality of the trinity exposes the communal nature, redemptive activity, and sending spirit of the God revealed in the biblical witness and confessed by believing communities throughout history. In essence, common to Scripture and historical confessions, as God the Father sent the Son, the Father and Son sent the Spirit, so too has the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sent God’s people to bear witness with their lives and lips to the good news of salvation that is for the whole world.

[1] Karl Barth wrote, “Evangelical theology is modest theology, because it is determined to be so by its object, that is, by him [God as trinity] who is its subject” (Evangelical Theology 7).
[2] All Migliore citations are from Faith Seeking Understanding (Eerdmans, 2004).

Helpful Quotations from Significant Voices

“When Christians speak of God as eternally triune, they simply affirm that the love of God that is extended to the world in Jesus by the Holy Spirit is proper to God’s own eternal life in relationship.”
Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, p. 70

“God is the majestic creator of the heavens and the earth, the servant redeemer of a world gone astray, and the transforming Spirit who empowers new beginnings of human life and anticipatory realizations of a new heaven and a new earth.”
Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, p. 67

“The biblical witness to God’s revelation sets us face to face with the possibility of interpreting the one statement that ‘God reveals Himself as the Lord’ three times in different senses. This possibility is the biblical root of the doctrine of the Trinity.”
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Vol I.1, p. 376

“We don’t believe in the Trinity only. We live in the Trinity; we live in God…surrounded from all sides.”
Jürgen Moltmann, 2010 Emergent Theological Conversation

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Speaking of God: Reformed Theology as Missional Theology

I am currently working on a course for a summer elective on Reformed Theology.  As per my final assignment, I am developing a course to be utilized in a congregational setting, i.e. adult education class, titled Reformed Theology and the Missional Church.  For each class I will handout a brief summary of the content to be discussed.  Below is week 1:  Speaking of God: Reformed Theology and the Missional Church.  Critiques are welcome as I continue to develop this not only for my class, but also for use in the church this Spring ;) Four more are to follow on Trinitarian Theology, Eschatology and Ecclessiology, Authority of Scripture, and Proclamation and the Sacraments.

Speaking of God
         The discipline of theology has played a significant role in the life of religious communities and institutions throughout the course of history. The human attempt to pursue comprehension and understanding of that which pertains to the divine has been a diverse task that has had tremendous influence on the way people perceive the world and chosen movements through it. Moreover, it has even been suggested that theology is not merely a religious discipline, but rather a universal human characteristic that directly influences and correlates to diverse human behavior: “
Human existence demands that every person must decide and act, and every person decides and acts in the light of some faith commitment about the nature of the universe and the meaning of human existence. To be human is to live by faith. There is no other option. Therefore, to be human is also to have a theology” (Leith 89).
This is not to say that all theology is shared theology, or even that each individual and/or community would claim to be theological in nature. Instead, it is noted that humanity lives, moves, and has its being in light of particular convictions about the divine (or absence thereof) and the divine relationship (or lack thereof) to the created world.
                Theology can be defined in a broad sense as speech about god(s). The world of the twenty-first century, as with history in general, is theologically plural in nature, i.e. flooded by a plethora of talk about and attempts to explain and/or illustrate particular convictions about the divine. These theologies not only come to us in the form of world religions and faith traditions, but also through contemporary philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and especially pop-culture. Books, films, television dramas and sit-coms, music, and talk shows often offer theological commentaries that affirm, confront, and occasionally initiate theological discourse and paradigms that are both adopted and critiqued by the human audience. As confessing Christians, this reality demands that we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear these theological attestations as we discern together our own convictions, traditions, and confessions in regards to the unique discipline of Christian theology. That is the goal of this course and the hope of this on-going conversation, especially as we navigate through the particular branch and tradition of Christian theology common to our faith community: Reformed Theology.
               Reformed Theology is a unique theological tradition in that it serves as a human response to and/or mirroring of God’s revelation of God’s self to the world in and through the incarnation of Jesus and attested to within Scripture. That is to say, Christian Theology bears witness to the Trinitarian God, who is the object and subject of the discourse and discipline. It could also be said that Christian theology is a form of thanksgiving and worship in light of God’s action through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Daniel L. Migliore offers a simple definition, “the work of theology [is] a continuing search for the fullness of the truth of God made known in Jesus Christ” (Faith Seeking Understanding 1). However, this search is not to be pursued alone or in isolation. Instead, Christian Theology is a communal discipline, “Theology which is a human enterprise and a communal responsibility is best understood as a continuing dialogue” (Leith 94). Furthermore, this dialogue does not assume the ability to fully possess and/or contain God. Instead, Christian theology engages and wrestles with the diverse voices of the past, contexts of the present, and anticipations of the future so to move much more like a bird in flight than one that is confined to a cage (Barth, Evangelical Theology 10). In this sense, Reformed Theology is not a tradition but a traditioning of the Christian faith (Leith 19), i.e. semper reformanda, “always reforming,” which humbly bears witness to its primary center, who is God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
                Finally, it would be a mistake to assume that Christian Theology is purely a matter of linguistic reflection and intellectual debate. Instead, Christian Theology is most illustrated in its ability to move God’s people towards individual and corporate incarnations of the gospel. In other words, Christian Theology is missional theology that asks, in response to God’s revelatory act in and through Jesus and the gifting of the Holy Spirit, not only how we ought to speak of God, but also and especially how God’s people ought to act in light of this revelation. Moreover, the theological and confessional nature of the church “declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, [and] what it resolves to do” (Book of Order, G-2.0100). In essence, Christian Theology is proclaimed by the lives and lips of God’s people as they move in rhythm with the revelation that God has once and for all acted in and through Jesus Christ.

Helpful Citations and Working Definitions:

“Christian theology is an on-going, second order, contextual discipline that engages in the task of critical and constructive reflection on the beliefs and practices of the Christian church for the purpose of assisting the community of Christ’s followers in their missional vocation to live as the people of God in the particular social-historical context in which they are situated.”
John Franke, The Character of Theology, p.44

“The community does not speak with words alone. It speaks by the very fact of its existence in the world; by its characteristic attitude towards world problems; and moreover and especially, by its silent service to all the handicapped, weak, and needy in the world. It speaks, finally, by the simple fact that it prays for the world.”
Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, p. 38

"The Reformed Church is my tradition; the ecumenical church is my future."
Jürgen Moltmann, 2010 Emergent Theological Conversation Pt. II