Thursday, March 31, 2005

"Heaven is important but it's not the end of the world"

So much of the Bible is appropriately metaphorical and we need to know what it actually refers to. But much more important than that is to get into our heads what the New Testament really is banging on about, which is resurrection, which is not a synonym for going to heaven when you die, but is what is going to happen after that.

I've often said, heaven is important but it's not the end of the world. What the New Testament is on about is what I call "life after life after death." That is, resurrection life after whatever state we go into after death. The New Testament teaches a two-stage post-mortem eschatology. And it goes on and on about resurrection and says very little about the intermediate state, which we can call heaven if we like. It's very interesting that so much Western Christianity has focused on the intermediate state so much that it's forgotten that there is an ultimate resurrection. It thinks that heaven is all there is.

- N.T. Wright, in Christianity Today, June 7, 2004

Here's another that examines the question, "Do Western Christians really believe in the Resurrection?" It's readable and informative, so do check it out if you're interested in the matter.

If death is the dissolution of this body, never to be reassembled, then death has succeeded in saying present creation is bad and is going to be abandoned. But resurrection says, No. Present creation is good. It is corruptible and transient, not least because of sin, but God, having dealt with sin in the cross of Jesus Christ, will deal with corruption. And the result therefore must be the reaffirmation of the good creation, including the reaffirmation of human bodies.
- Wright, in Christianity Today, April 14, 2003.


Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Signs of Life

Resurrection Happens Posted by Hello

The Spirit of promise moved silently through the house, rippling across the surface of our souls as it did over the waters before the First Day.

It billowed with the cigarette smoke that wafted in from the front porch every time someone walked into the house.

Over the din of a March Madness game, through the busy preparations in the kitchen, and under the light and unselfconscious silence of smoke breaks, we came together in the waiting space of Holy Saturday. Like any of us, I found myself resting and waiting for resurrection in a tomb filled with my own fears and disillusionment.

This is the night,
when you brought our fathers,
the children of Israel,
out of bondage in Egypt,
and led them through the Red Sea
on dry land

Each of us was carried to 12th Street, once again, by the Promise. This was a joyful gathering, one of expectation. We cooked and we talked. We ate and we listened. In that joy, I found that I forgot nothing. The disappointments and recriminations – the ordinary brokenness – of a common life remained, but I knew they belonged right where they were. They ought not be cast aside, not on this night.

I was just happy – deeply and exuberantly so – to be with my friends, just to be together as we were meant to be and to do what we were always meant to do. Yet I mourned those broken things, without expecting it, and without even paying attention at that moment.

This is the night,
when all who believe in Christ are delivered
from the gloom of sin, and are restored to
grace and holiness of life

Unexpected, unspoken conversations brought words of prophecy and healing to pain and despair. (Grieving together does not require speaking.) The listening itself became a prophetic act as Friday’s cross carried all of our brokenness into Saturday’s tomb. Those hurts could be honored and treated them with tenderness. I began to realize that his Resurrection was coming upon them.

In the completely unplanned and spontaneous ways that characterize God’s New Community, we were broken like the bread and poured out like the wine.

Nobody planned that. It just happened. It just happens. It was so ridiculously ordinary.

The Creator Spirit came and re-created us into a Community. In those moments, we lived in forever.

How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God

I wish I had the words for it. When do you say when you’re standing in the kitchen and pouring peas into the steamer basket and you’re really joining everyone in adoration, pouring your heart out onto the floor and you suddenly know that Yahweh himself is in the house and he’s healing you and everyone else there whether we know it or feel it or not and nothing is stopping him or even slowing him down? When you’ve not even lit the coals for incense, or finished mashing the potatoes?

What do you say after you go away and you know it happened and you know it’s not stopping for anything?

Arise, O Christ

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Saturday, March 26, 2005

Easter Vigil

"How blessed is this night,
when earth and heaven are joined
and man is reconciled to God" Posted by Hello

On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the Church dispersed throughout the world gathers to wait and to pray. For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which, by hearing his Word and sharing holy food and drink, we share in his victory over death.

So we gather together. We gather together and eat together and wait, because our deliverer has come very near.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Is Itinerant Ministry Valid?

Not many Christian denominations have consciously instituted an itinerant system, whereby pastors are assigned to particular churches for limited periods of time. However, most in the United States accept a de facto itinerancy. I think this is bad for us because it short-circuits spiritual formation in the community, and its practice is built upon an impoverished idea of what the Christian community is.

Premise 1. Life in Christ cannot be separated from life in the Body of Christ. To be found in Jesus Christ is to be found in the Church, and to live in obedience to Jesus entails dedication to life as the Christian Community.

Premise 2. God mediates his love to us through our life in the Body. The abstract love of God becomes concrete through the encounters of human persons with one another, when they act upon themselves and the world in redemptive ways.

Premise 3. Presbyters are the ordained leaders who take specific, appointed responsibilities for the formation of people into the likeness of Christ. They may preach, teach, bless, consecrate, correct, admonish, or exhort. They watch sheep. The metaphor only goes so far, as they are still sheep themselves. (We'll talk about our authority issues in next week's post)

If we are to live as God's new community, we should in most circumstances stay with one another, and live out the timeless reality of our connection in Christ in concrete ways. Let's make the people in our lives really important to us. Don't pour your life into someone and turn away as soon as they become too inconvenient, whether because of life changes or the sin that's scarred our relationships. Let us dedicate ourselves to the people of God as we might a family. (A healthy one, that is. Again, metaphors only go so far.)

I daresay the real reason many people seek denominational ordination is so they can have a broad, non-relational stamp of approval. This stamp is only necessary if one needs to be approved by people with whom one cannot realistically have relationships. But why would a Christian need that? This would only be the case if a presbyter, a shepherd of God's people, were to uproot from one community and go to a strange community on a regular basis. As if this were the expected norm. But what sense does it make for that uprooting to occur in the first place? Perhaps if someone with the charism of apostleship were to go to a new region that doesn't currently have a Christian community, and form one. Or if a community loses its presbyterial ministry unexpectedly, and there isn't yet someone formed in the community to bear that office.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Professional Ministry

If you’re interested in these thoughts on “ministry” and the life of the Church that I’ve been writing on lately, you might find a recent podcast to be of interest, courtesy of Alan Creech and Aaron Klinefelter. They spent about thirty minutes in conversation, unpacking some of the assumptions and problems of a “professional” ministry, especially pertaining to the nature of relationships in the Body of Christ, and living out a reformed style of leadership.

The podcast is here: Conversation of Faith I: Professionalism in the Body of Christ
Alan discusses it here
Aaron discusses it here

What I find most challenging to the prevalent paradigm is this concept of “Church as vehicle of transformation for those who are in it.” If we are in our life together the outworking of God’s plan to save the world (and I am convinced that we are; find my statements of ecclesiology here), then we must first order our own house: how will live together?

God’s transformation of our lives happens in the context of relationship: the relationship each of us have with each other, in him. Professionalism does indeed mean a “professional distance,” and I am unconvinced that this way of relating is good for Christian people. If a pastor’s role is to lead and guide a community, why is the pastor very often the one member of a community who is expected to come in, stay aloof from the entanglements of the poor pathetic laity, and then leave again when “called elsewhere”?

I don’t think presbyters are very often “called elsewhere,” at least not legitimately.

Can leadership happen by “finding solidarity rather than ruling by power,” as Aaron asks? I think that it must. We must be Christians together, before we can be anything else. Let the Holy Spirit give gifts according to the needs of the community, and let those members be appointed to offices according to their gifts. Alan expresses concern that in the commonly accepted paradigm
We’re … taking away real spiritual development in people. I think to cultivate real spiritual formation in peoples lives is much more about facilitating this being together for a long time, and experiencing God’s presence and his life together for a long time. This is not at all the idea of the church that we have, generally speaking.

This idea that we’re a part of the body of Christ from the beginning, that we’ll keep on going as long as it goes, and we don’t have to get everything done right now. We have to be the Body of Christ. That is what we have to be, and being that is what you gotta get done. Because being that is doing everything that needs to be done.
I could talk on that last bit for quite some time, but not today.

Go listen to it.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Qualifications for the Presbyterate

Clement still has me thinking.

I've written here before on my doubts regarding a present day apostolic succession. In short, when the earliest Christians were falling into dangerous heresies and schisms, the integrity of local communities was guarded by its leaders, who (probably) first were prophets and teachers, then presbyter-bishops, and later singular bishops. Those first presbyters were installed by the apostles, their faithfulness to the "faith once delivered" assured because their discipleship and ministry were formed in their relationship with the apostles. In turn, those leaders formed others in the faith to take their places of authority. On the basis of personal relationships and the redeeming work of the Holy Spirit, it was considered very likely that those leaders were able and faithful successors to the apostles in their ministry.

(In the late second century, it was a negative criterion whereby +Irenaeus of Lyons was able to discredit Gnostic teachers, who claimed a secret knowledge that the apostles gave to them, but not to the leaders the apostles had ordained.)

Clement unflinchingly upheld the qualifications of the Corinthians' deposed presbyters: they were ordained by the apostles as their successors, and in the utter absence of charges against them, they are not to be removed.

This raises a couple of questions that irritate my Anglican and Baptist sympathies, respectively. In what way is a contemporary apostolic succession valid? When is it really legitimate for a presbyter/pastor to leave one community for another?

An Alternative Apostolic Succession?

The Romans and some Anglicans (I won't make claims for the Eastern Orthodox) claim a mechanical succession: their presbyters and bishops were ordained by bishops ordained by bishops ... ordained by the apostles. Even if that were verifiably true, they could not make claims about their bishops being formed by those other bishops. The connection is mechanical, not relational, and it would require a special work of the Holy Spirit to give the benefits of the former relational connection in the absence of relationships. I don't think that's happened.

As a result, I'm not certain how ordination in the apostolic succession can be more legitimate than ordaination in the free (congregational) churches. It just may be that the Holy Spirit wishes for a different kind of system to emerge altogether.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit will form members of a community into Christians. Perhaps presbyters and teachers will be formed there, and all of the offices necessary for the life and growth of the Body of Christ in that particular place will be filled by Christians who have been formed for them by the Holy Spirit's work in each community. Separate communities in a region could form relationships, getting to know one another through time spent together, teaching and shared mission.

What further "recognition of ministry" would be required? If one is truly formed in the life of the community, shouldn't one serve that community? Shouldn't one be validated by one's reputation in that community, rather than the approving stamp of a denomination?

Could the Holy Spirit do a work in our midst that would do the same validating work as did the ancient apostolic succession?

I'd love to hear some perspectives on these questions.

What of itinerant ministry? More to come...

Monday, March 14, 2005

Schola: Clement on Schism

For this month's schola we read Clement's Epistle to the Corinthians, sent from the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth around A.D. 96 to deal with another bout of factionalism there. Apparently a group of ascendant upstarts deposed that community's college of presbyters and took their place. What follows is a quick summary, and some reflections we discussed that I think to be germane to our present lives.


According to Clement, envy and jealousy had overshadowed the church's former virtuousness. He offers examples of righteous biblical personalities who suffered because of the jealousy of others, as well as those who have displayed humility and obedience, especially Jesus, Isaiah's suffering servant: “Christ belongs to the humble-minded, not to those who exalt themselves above his flock” (16:1). He calls them to repent, and demonstrate the Christian virtues of obedience, humility and hospitality. God desires peace, but that which comes from obedience, not control: “…Let us cleave to those who are peaceable in piety and not to those who desire peace in hypocrisy” (15:1). Those who through envy and jealousy have removed the leaders given them by God seek to create their own peace rather than submitting to his will.


I was struck by what Clement did not say: he fails to give a theological justification for unity. He will not even consider the validity of any disunity or factionalism, and calls their schism “abominable and unholy” (1:1) It is telling that he sees no need to justify this: any separation or division is already a failure of fraternal love, which “admits of no schisms” (49:5). As Paul, Clement takes for granted that commitment to Jesus is equivalent to commitment to the New Community – to falter in love for them is to falter in love of him.
It is disgraceful, beloved, very disgraceful, and unworthy of your training in Christ, to hear that the stable and ancient Church of the Corinthians, on account of one or two persons, should revolt against its presbyters. And this report has come not only to us, but also to those who are unconnected with us. The result is that blasphemies are brought upon the name of the Lord through your folly, and danger accrues for yourself. (47:6-7)

Clement clearly considers the community to be in dire straits, but he models a deep commitment to the community as such: he does not explore the possibility that the leaders of the coup could be excommunicated or punished. Instead, he still speaks of them as full and beloved members of the Body, indicating by his loving and grace-filled language that even such serious sins as these, done against the community, are not “deal breakers” in terms of life in Christ:
“Let us also intercede for those who fall into any transgression, that meekness and humility may be granted them, so that they may yield not to us but to God’s will. For in this way there will be for them a fruitful, perfect and compassionate remembrance with God and the saints. Let us receive correction, and not be angered by it, dearly beloved. The admonition which we give to one another is good and most beneficial, for it unites us to the will of God” (56:1-2).

Frankly, this kicks my tail. Like most other people, I like to push folks away when it gets too hard, too painful to find ways to love right there in the middle of whatever tough stuff is going on. But as long as there is a will to strive in community, so long as there is willingness to repent and "yield ... to God's will," no one may be forsaken. No sin in itself provides grounds for schism, only the refusal of repentance.

Thanks, Father Clement.

Read our reflection papers on Clement's Epistle at the Schola page.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Christians and the State

Here's a little more on Christians and the State:
…As those in whom all ardor in the pursuit of glory and honor is dead, we have no pressing inducement to take part in your public meetings; nor is there aught more entirely foreign to us than affairs of state. We acknowledge one all-embracing commonwealth – the world. We renounce all your spectacles, as strongly as we renounce the matters originating them, which we know were conceived of superstition, when we give up the very things which are the basis of their representations.

- Tertullian, Apology, chapter 38.
And now Adam Glover's gotten on board, aiming some sharp criticism at John Piper (the link is dead now):
So, love your enemies, except when they are "agents of the opposing government/system." In that case, they evidently aren't really humans, implanted with the image of God, but rather instruments of "terror" to be eliminated – brutally, if necessary. In other words, as a "private individual," the commands of Christ hold, but as a "government agent" the Sermon on the Mount is somehow suspended – superceded by a temporal power. We might as well burn the cross and raise the flag. Christ have mercy.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

"...Deliver us from cant"

Yes, that's right. Another World War One bit.

(I can't believe that my disinvitation of that heretic Bailes didn't get more discussion. Go to his blog and denounce him!)

I've spoken of this fellow before; G.A. Studdert-Kennedy was a C of E chaplain in World War One, and wrote in raw and honest fashion of the heartache and theological bankruptcy experienced by Christendom after the War.

In "A Sermon," S-K follows the logic of an anonymous cleric who counsels mothers and countrymen to simply "trust God" in their grief. That is, whatever misery, whatever pain, is an expression of God's will, and your sin is your refusal to accept it with a smile (sound familiar? Anyone?). He seems almost sympathetic, right up to the end...

Remember, rather, all your sins,
And bow to God's decrees.
Seek not to know the plans of God,
But pray upon your knees
That you may love with all your heart,
With all your soul and mind,
This perfect God you cannot know,
Whose face you cannot find.
You have no notion what He's like,
You cannot know His Will,
He's wrapped in darkest mystery,
But you must love Him still,
And love Him all the more because
He is the unknown God
Who leads you blindfold down the path
That martyred Saints have trod.
That is the Gospel of the Christ,
Submit whate'er betides;
You cannot make the wrong world right,
'Tis God alone decides.
. . . . . .
O, by Thy Cross and Passion, Lord,
By broken hearts that pant
For comfort and for love of Thee,
Deliver us from cant.

"Woodbine Willie"
Rev. Geoffrey Anketel Studdert Kennedy
27 June 1883 - 8 March 1929
Priest, Church of England Posted by Hello

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Open Thread on Patriotism

This is an open response thread regarding the Patriotism articles on my sidebar. New folks still come upon them from time to time (even several months later), so this is the place if you want to offer some insight, argument, or a new train of thought.

I invite you to read all the posts of the series and thereby see the context of my outrage and arguments, before you become too terribly upset with me.

Patriotism: Before the Altar of Caesar
Thanks for reading.


My conclusions on the matter:

While I do wonder if the patriotism issue would have gotten so much thought and attention without it, I do realize that my original anathema has made it quite difficult to move the discussion away from what Porter Memorial did in favor of discussing patriotism generally. I can’t argue that those folks are “hellbound” just because they are deceived. Honesty, I don’t think in those terms anyway.

But as I have made clear in the posts that followed, my problem is with history: I see no qualitative difference between the patriotism of these 21st century American Christians, and the German Christians who supported the Third Reich.

I retract my anathema (as such) and temper my initial statement. If one forsakes Christ, one may well be placed outside the Reign of God. Patriotism can deceive people (see photos below) into forsaking Christ.

Patriotism is dangerous. Patriots are not damned for being patriots; rather I think patriotism can lead Christians into ethical situations in which they will be hard pressed to be loyal to Christ. This is so dangerous because they could betray Christ long before they know they’ve done it. That’s what happened to the Europeans throughout the 20th century, and see nothing to keep it from happening again. I have no question that an unexamined patriotism will lead to this betrayal.

I never said, don’t love your country. But if you claim to, I challenge you to define what that means, and to carefully differentiate it from the way those Germans loved their country. One cannot really love in the abstract. Love acts in concrete ways. I would never say that I love my country, because that phrase in itself is meaningless. I actually suggested concrete ways that one might “support” U.S. troops as a Christian, without betraying Christ. No patriot has done this yet, at least not in the present discussion.