Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Wendell Berry (X)

Two years ago today I created Resident Theology, and two days after that momentous event I created the present series of "Sunday Sabbath Poetry." I began with Wendell Berry, as his collection of Sabbath poems, A Timbered Choir, had reinvigorated my love for poetry just six months earlier; and of course the title was and is homage to this influence.

It is only fitting, then, after two years and nine Sunday posts dedicated to the great modern agrarian poet, that we celebrate today with his tenth appearance in the series, and the one from which the collection received its title. Below is the first and only poem Berry wrote on a Sabbath walk in 1986. Enjoy.

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Slowly, slowly, they return

By Wendell Berry

Slowly, slowly, they return
To the small woodland let alone:
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.

Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.

They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.

Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life's a benefaction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.

In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
To walk on radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praised!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

John Howard Yoder on God's Activity in History, and Sounding a Lot Like Jenson

"Radical reformation and Judaism have in common that they see God as active in correlation with historical change and criticism more than with sanctifying the present. For one tack of socio-cultural analysis, it is possible to distinguish 'religion' as that which sanctifies and celebrates life as it is, things as they are, the personal cycle of life from birth to death and the annual cycle of the sun and the culture from spring to winter. Over against this understanding of 'religion', the category of 'history' represents the morally meaningful particular processes, which may not go in a straight line but at least go somewhere; they are non-cyclical, stable, repetitive.

"Such a blunt pair of prior categories is far too simple to deal with many important distinctions we need to make: yet there is something to it. Where it does fit, we will find majority Christianity on the 'religion' side, and on the 'history' side we will find the Jews, radical Protestants, and (today) the theologies of liberation.

"This means that God is not only spoken about and prayed to as the One who once acted. God is expected to keep on acting in particular identifiable events within history, in discernible and in fact to some extent even predictable ways. The way God acts will be the same, yet will continue to challenge and to change. Salvation or wholeness or peace will come, often at great cost for God's best friends and at the price of surprise, paradox and humiliation for those who felt the power game was already clear."

--John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited (edited by Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 108

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Scott Cairns

The more poems I offer in this series -- going on two years next week! -- the more ways I run out of to say, "This poet needs no introduction from me..." In that spirit, let me actually not introduce Scott Cairns to you, except to point you to his interview last year with The Other Journal, and to say that he is in his mid-50s and teaches as a professor of English in Missouri, and that he has written on suffering.

I have no doubt that fellow Greek students and theologians alike will find themselves smiling and nodding at the poem below. Cairns beautifully captures the fragility and hopeful impossibility of this singularly powerful word.

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Adventures in New Testament Greek: Apocatastasis

By Scott Cairns

Among obscurer heresies, this dearest rests
within a special class of gross immoderation,
the heart of which reveals what proves these days to be
a refreshing degree of filial regard.

Specifically, the word is how we apprehend
one giddy, largely Syriac belief that all
and everyone will be redeemed -- or, more nearly,
have been redeemed, always, have only to notice.

You may have marked by now how late Semitic habits
are seldom quite so neighborly, but this ancient one
looks so downright cordial I shouldn't be surprised
if it proved genesis for the numbing vision

Abba Isaac Luria glimpsed in his spinning
permutations of The Word: Namely, everything
we know as well as everything we don't in all
creation came to be in that brief, abysmal

vacuum The Holy One first opened in Himself.
So it's not so far a stretch from that Divine Excess
to advocate the sacred possibility
that in some final, graceful metanoia He

will mend that ancient wound completely, and for all.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Engaging Robert Jenson's Essay, "Toward a Christian Theology of Judaism"

In his essay, “Toward a Christian Theology of Judaism" (pages 1-13 in Jews and Christians: People of God [edited by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003]), Robert Jenson takes up the pressing question for Christians of the existence, meaning, and import of Judaism as a coherent and enduring religious tradition alongside Christianity. In concise form, Jenson traces the history of these two traditioned communities, church and synagogue, explores the way in which this history is problematic for Christians, addresses negative and positive theological explanations, then proposes his own answer to the question in the form of three proposals (and a fourth radical suggestion) toward a distinctly Christian theology of Judaism.

For the purpose of clarity, Jenson distinguishes between Judaism and “canonical Israel,” whose identity may be found narrated and authorized in the Old Testament, which existed as a “national political and cultic entity ... for something like a millennium,” but which came to an end in the destruction of the second temple and in the eventual dispersion of the Jews from the land (p. 2). In any other case this entity would thereby be assumed to be done away with, historically and otherwise, yet this was not to be for Israel—for “its identity is claimed by subsequent and outwardly very different historical entities,” a phenomenon able to be explained or understood only theologically (pp. 2-3). The two primary entities emerging out of canonical Israel’s closure are rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, synagogue and ekklesia, each of which added a second volume to the Tanakh and apparently discovering God’s presence in their midst in the portable gathering around Torah, whether as text or as the one in whom Torah became flesh.

The problem for Christians is that they believe Israel should have recognized and called on Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah, believing the good news that in his death and resurrection God had acted to fulfill his promises to Israel—yet on the whole this did not happen. What are Christians to say or do about this, and therefore about the parallel community that arose in messianic faith’s stead?

One hugely influential historical answer has been supersessionism: “the theological opinion that the church owns the identity of Israel in such fashion as to exclude any other divinely willed Israel-after-Israel” (p. 5). This position assumes that in the raising of Jesus the Messiah from the dead in fulfillment of the promises to Israel, there is “no remainder of expectation,” and thereby “Israel’s mission [is] concluded” (p. 6). And if this is so, surely “Judaism can have no further divine purpose.”

Yet in Israel’s logic and according to the New Testament, this account cannot be true. For if Messiah has come, then the kingdom has come, and if the kingdom has come (in full), all of history has come to its grand eschatological conclusion of redemption; but in that case “things would have to look rather more fulfilled than they do” (p. 7). In that there is “strictly speaking ... only one advent of the Messiah,” and Christians await the return of Jesus the Messiah, “the time of the church ... must be understood as a time within the one [messianic] advent.” The church “is what God ordains in the time of Jesus’ ascension, the time ... accommodated within the coming of Messiah.” In other words: “The church is a detour from the expected straight path of the Lord’s intentions, a detour to accommodate the mission to Jews and gentiles.”

Looking, as it were, across the street, recognizing the church as a detour opens up the possibility for a new perspective on the synagogue: perhaps Judaism also is “another detour taken by God on his way to the final fulfillment” (p. 8). Assuming God’s providential care for what has happened from the first century on, the question for Christians is simple: What might be discerned as God’s will in “God’s ordination of the community shaped by the great rabbis”?

In brief answer to this question, Jenson proffers that, given what did in fact happen in the Jews’ reception of the gospel about Jesus, if the (quickly predominantly gentile) “church had been the only Israel in the time of its detour,” the promised made to Israel would not have been temporally proleptic, would not have been dialectically present yet not—“they would have been simply in abeyance.” Per this thesis, Jenson offers three proposals and a radical suggestion, to be listed summarily for subsequent discussion. God wills the existence and endurance of Judaism:
  • that the lineage of Abraham and Sarah might continue in the world (p. 9);
  • that there might be a community in the world marked out by Torah obedience (p. 11);
  • that when Christ returns he might find both believers in his coming as Torah enfleshed and those utterly obedient to the Word of Torah that he is (p. 12);
  • such that “the body of Christ” names together the communities of both church and synagogue, for the body of the risen Lord is Jewish flesh, which a wholly gentile ekklesia neither is nor can be alone (p. 13).
Clearly, Jenson’s proposals are bold and, whether they ultimately obtain, they do their job in pointing toward a Christian theology of Judaism. The first question to ask of Jenson’s argument concerns the extent to which it ought to “hang together” with the thrust of the New Testament on this issue. On the one hand, Jenson is surely right to ground much of his case in the ambiguity and wrestling with this question so evident in the New Testament, particularly by Paul in Romans 9–11. Messiah has come, yet the kingdom has not (in full); while the apostles wait for the Lord to bring the kingdom in his wake, they are to be witnesses to all nations; somehow gentiles are grafted into the tree of Israel, while Israel persists in unbelief; and so on.

On the other hand, the language and tone of the New Testament regarding the ekklesia, this new community gathered by and around the risen Messiah in the power of God’s own Holy Spirit, is categorically not that which calls to mind something of a “detour.” Rather, the proclamatory rhetoric of the New Testament in, say, Ephesians is that of divinely revealed mystery: that this is what God has been planning for all eternity. Not a detour, not a sidestep, not an accommodation to plans not working out; no, “church” names the miracle of Jew and Gentile sitting together at the table, names the glorious eschatological vision of the Spirit’s indwelling a community, names the long prophesied day of forgiven sins and peaceable life and obedience in defiance of the defeated powers of sin and death. Can Christians truly call this a “detour”?

Jenson seems to assume that a historical event such as Israel not believing in Jesus as Messiah must be an active willing of God and that this divine willing must therefore be purposive. But the language of Romans 9–11, however non-supersessionist, is mostly negative in tone regarding Israel’s unbelief; even if God has willed it, Israel is equally indicted for its unbelief, and it does not seem to be for a positive purpose in Israel’s own case, for it is a temporary hardening of heart until the gentiles are gathered into the covenant.

The mention of gentiles in the covenant raises an important question, the answer to which Jenson also assumes, namely whether Jews who entered the newly formed ekklesia would have necessarily lost their identity as Torah-obedient Jews. If they would not have—and it seems from the New Testament that only gentile believers in Jesus were not expected to obey Torah—then it is reasonable to conclude that Jewish identity through Torah could and indeed would have remained in the Jew-gentile church. Why, according to Jenson, could God not have willed that?

In any case, these critical challenges are not an assault on the proposals themselves as much as important questions to answer in the ongoing, and right, quest for a renewed articulation of the church’s understanding of Jews, Judaism, Israel, and itself before the Holy One of Israel, spoken of by Law and Gospel, prophet and apostle, and worshiped by Jew and Christian alike.

Questions for Placement on the Continuum of Supersessionism

In the midst of reading various Christian and Jewish articulations of the relation between church and synagogue, Christianity and Judaism, New Testament and Oral Torah by scholars like Peter Ochs, Robert Jenson, David Novak, George Lindbeck, Michael Wyschogrod, and others, I've been reflecting on helpful ways for discerning one's own placement on the continuum of Jewish-Christian understanding. After the Shoah (Holocaust) Christians are and ought to be determined to discover new and more faithful understandings of the church's relationship with Judaism and with Jews who do not confess Jesus as Messiah. The chief historical enemy in this task is supersessionism, whose rejection and replacement is of the highest order for the church's faithfulness in relation to the Jewish people. Many (I would say most, but that would apply to mainline theological scholarship, but not necessarily local congregations, ordinary believers, or evangelical scholarship) are eager to affirm this rejection, but few are agreed on what should replace it, that is, what view Christians should adopt toward Torah-obedient Jews who do not recognize Jesus as Messiah.

Given this complex of challenges and corrections, below are some straightforward questions meant for reflection and exploration in determining one's theological placement on the continuum of supersessionism, in no particular order of importance:
  • Should Christians evangelize Jews?
  • Should Jews be baptized into Christ?
  • Does Jewish covenantal identity have significance in distinction from other peoples?
  • Does Jewish covenantal identity have theological or salvific significance?
  • Should baptized, Jesus-confessing Jews continue in Torah obedience and marked-out patterns of Jewish identity?
  • Should baptized, Jesus-confessing Jews continue in membership and attendance at synagogue?
  • Do Christians worship the one true God of Israel?
  • Do Jews worship the one true God of Israel?
  • Can Jews and Christians worship God together?
  • Do Jews today possess or retain the covenantal identity given to Abraham and promised to his descendants?
  • Are the Jewish people as a whole today properly called Israel?
  • Is the church properly called Israel?
  • Are the Jewish and Christian claims of Israel's identity mutually exclusive?
  • Does the church replace Israel as God's elect covenantal people?
  • Is the new covenant in Jesus Christ an abrogation of the old covenant?
Some of the questions may sound loaded, though I don't intend them that way. Neither do all of them have to be answered in one way or the other in order to be adequately "non-supersessionist." These are simply some of the questions I find myself confronted by in continuing to struggle through this difficult issue.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Garrett East on "Why the Church Matters" at New Wineskins

In the same series they have been publishing since early July, entitled "What Really Matters," New Wineskins has today published my brother Garrett's essay, "Why the Church Matters." Be sure and check it out, along with all of the other excellent pieces published in the last month.

Jewish Theologian Michael Wyschogrod on the Woundedness of Islam

"Islam, from its inception, has seen itself validated by its early success. Starting out as the faith of a small group of believers on the Arabian Peninsula, the message of Islam quickly conquered vast territories that were brought under Muslim hegemony by means of both the book and the sword. Islam's success validated the faith as nothing else could, an attitude not unknown to either Judaism or Christianity. Religions often interpret worldly success as a sign of divine favor but this is perhaps more deeply rooted in Islam than in the other two monotheistic religions. The existence of a political realm in which Islam is supreme is thus essential to the spiritual health of Islam, largely because of Islam's refusal to separate the religious from the political. The existence of territories where Islam has not yet succeeded in establishing its authority can only be interpreted as a temporary state of affairs to be remedied at the earliest possible moment.

"It is for this reason that European imperialism of the nineteenth century was so profoundly painful to Islam. By the end of the century, the Muslim world was largely subordinate to the power of Christian Europe. Largely due to the superiority of Western science -- but not only for that reason -- the Muslim world found itself deprived of its sovereignty or reduced to the status of vassal states of European Christian powers that had set out to establish empires in Africa and Asia.

"How could this happen to Islam, the true faith that was destined to rule the world and to unite all of humanity under the banner of the teaching of the prophet? Failure of such magnitude after so much success was also unbearable because Islam never embraced suffering as a desirable part of the religious life. Where suffering could not be avoided, a highly detailed doctrine of otherworldly rewards rushed in to take the sting out of the suffering and to assure the faithful that the suffering was as nothing compared to the assured reward.

"Since the advent of the age of imperialism until the defeats suffered in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Islam has been a wounded faith that has had great difficulty in coming to terms with its relatively weak position in a world that should have yielded long ago to the message of the one true religion. The wounds imposed on Islam manifest themselves in various ways among which fanaticism and the development of denial mechanisms are the most prominent."

--Michael Wyschogrod, "A Jewish View of Christianity" (essay originally written in 1991), in Abraham's Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations (edited by R. Kendall Soulen; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), pages 150-51

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Win Butler

Ben already beat me to the punch with quoting this song in his link round up, and Dan over at An und für sich has offered an excellent analysis of the politics of the suburbs, but I wanted to post it anyway, as I've yet to include lyrics from Arcade Fire in this series. I have little to add to the immediate and expanding reaction and commentary to this (only most recent) extraordinary release from one of the best bands making music today; buy the album, see them live (an incredible experience!), share it with others, so on and so forth.

Here's a live recording of the song, though without video, and check out David's review of the band live this month. Enjoy!

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City With No Children

By Win Butler (of Arcade Fire)

The summer that I broke my arm
I waited for your letter
I have no feeling for you now
Now that I know you better

I wish that I could have loved you then
Before our age was through
And before a world war does with us whatever it will do

Dreamt I drove home to Houston
On a highway that was underground
There was no light that we could see
As we listened to the sound of the engine failing

I feel like I've been living in
A city with no children in it
A garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison

You never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount
I used to think I was not like them
but I'm beginning to have my doubts
My doubts about it

When you're hiding underground
The rain can't get you wet
But do you think your righteousness could pay the interest on your debt?
I have my doubts about it

I feel like I've been living in
A city with no children in it
A garden left for ruin by a billionaire inside of a private prison

I feel like I've been living in
A city with no children in it
A garden left for ruin by and by as I hide inside of my private prison

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Question for Fellow "Believer's Baptism" Folks: Discerning the Proper Age

A couple weeks ago my brother Garrett emailed me this quote from Tertullian:
Baptism is not rashly to be administered... And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children... More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine!
Garrett noted: "Interesting thought: until we are willing to trust a person with earthly responsibilities and possessions, maybe we shouldn't trust them with heavenly things."

This observation led to an ongoing conversation about what age is appropriate for baptism. Often these discussions turn on what seems ultimately to be an arbitrary choice: when are you an "adult"? When are you "able" to pledge allegiance to Christ for life, aware of what you are doing and saying, and mean it?

The problem isn't only about infant versus believer's baptism, as this quote from James McClendon demonstrates. Here is part of McClendon's critique:
Meanwhile, the churches of the baptist vision have widely responded to the same societal pressures that generated the Constantinian practice, making of the great death-and-resurrection remembering sign a pale cultural symbol, administered to every young child who displays religious feeling (often sincere), and who seeks (as would be normal in childhood's latency period) to emulate admired older persons and to rival other children of the church. So in many baptist churches baptism is still responsive, yet it often fails to be responsible.
As a lifelong member of one of those small-b baptist churches (namely, churches of Christ), this is 100% on the mark. Teenagers who are baptized are at least in murky territory -- but more and more, I am seeing children in elementary school baptized, children whose voices of confession clearly lack puberty's advance. Given the commitment to believer's baptism, is this really any different -- morally, theologically, or psychologically -- from infant baptism?

Here was my simple answer to Garrett's query about the proper age for baptism, either in America or elsewhere: the age at which a culture deems an adolescent to have been initiated or made the transition into adulthood. Depending on time and place, this will be signified by the expectation or possibility of marriage, and/or of having children, and/or of living alone, and/or of owning property, and/or of concluding basic universalized education, and/or of working for one's own or one's family's sustenance, and so on.

Is this view controversial or problematic? Is the rush prior to this stage of adolescent/adulthood transition primarily about fear of damnation? Is it about wanting to "grasp hold of" or to affirm any expression of faith before it withers away? Is it because Americans in particular view the church as a kind of extended family-friendly institution, so the more professing children, the better?

Whatever be the case, I welcome responses and thoughts. And let me reiterate: the assumption of this post is believer's baptism. We have discussed paedobaptism in its own right elsewhere. My question is about, for, and to Christians committed to baptism as the event of a person's conscious confession of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, initiation into his body, washing of burial with him, and rising into the resurrection life of his Holy Spirit. Within that commitment, how ought we to go about discerning the proper age for such an event?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On Martyrdom Being the Call of a Few or All: Thinking Baptism, Discipleship, and Witness

I have come across the following attitude enough to wonder where it stems from: that martyrdom is the calling of a few, or that God only calls a select few of the church to be martyrs.

Of course, as a descriptive statement, this is undeniably true. But in the way it is used rhetorically in arguments, it often has the force of a prescriptive statement, that is, most Christians are not called to be martyrs regardless of the situation.

If that is the case, or the claim being made, I confess myself hugely perplexed. Is this a theology of martyrdom that has been worked out over centuries, about which I am simply ignorant? Is it an idiosyncratic position merely randomly on offer? Is it purely a rhetorical ploy with little thought behind it?

Obviously, any discussion of martyrdom by unthreatened academics or unpersecuted church people is bound to be cheap, or at least contained within a discourse little touched by the actual realities in question. Any talk of martyrdom, therefore, must be filled from top to bottom by absolute humility before the awful fact that thousands upon thousands of Christian believers have suffered and died for the faith.

That said, I cannot imagine a theologically defensible conception of martyrdom that would say only some Christians ought to be prepared to give their lives for the faith. Rather, every baptized believer is called to undivided allegiance and faithfulness to Christ all the way to death. If every baptized believer is a disciple, and every disciple is called both to take up the cross and to be a peaceable witness (martyr) to the crucified One, what would it mean to say that, given the threat of death for the sake of Christ, only some are called to give their lives willingly? Would this imply that sometimes self-defense for the sake of Christ, or defense of other potential martyrs, is a faithful response? What would such a situation be? It certainly cannot be to save women and children, for not only are martyrs historically more often women than men, but from the beginning the church's witness is that having children is no safeguard against suffering for the faith.

To make these observations or to ask these questions is, again, no assumption that martyrdom is easy, simple, or an abstract affair; but it is to question the bourgeois establishment mentality that so characterizes mainline theological academic discourse as well as the plethora of Americans filling megachurch pews. To put it as starkly as possible: To be baptized into the death and resurrection of the crucified One is to be willing, if the time comes, to die on his behalf as a witness to his way.

However much we fail, however much we flail and quail on such a path, however much we fall -- which many have done before us and which we ineluctably will also -- before such a mighty call, that is the call. Either we follow Christ to the cross, or not at all.

Monday, August 9, 2010

On Coherence in Christian Teaching: Hospitality, Truthfulness, and Speaking as Yourself

Back in February of this year, my friend Josh Case published the piece below on his blog as part of a series of guest posts. As I began a two-week course today on Theologies of Religious Pluralism, it seemed relevant and worth sharing in this forum for sparking conversation about pluralism and truthfulness.

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Finding oneself in a diverse and predominantly liberal seminary is an extraordinary experience in more ways than can be explained or anticipated. One of the hallmarks of such an environment is, of course, the all-pervasive virtue of tolerance, highlighted in conjunction with the hoped-for and hailed value of diversity. It has been a great gift to belong to a place which, warts and all, strives after such things.

However, it is unclear to me that mere tolerance is a virtue, much less something to be sought after at all. Tolerance is to diversity what passivity is to violence: the pacifist can sit on his righteous haunches all he wants, but until he gets up and does something, until he acts (to be sure, nonviolently) for justice, nothing's changing and no one could or ought to care less. Similarly, to "tolerate" the differences of others leads inevitably to the whitewashing of legitimate differences, often resulting in a kind of loose "we are the world" false unity or, worse, an intolerance of those who are not tolerant "like us."

This is clearly seen in the pedagogical practices of explicitly Christian professors who do not seem to feel comfortable to speak as Christians when teaching, even or especially when teaching Christian theology to predominantly Christian students, apparently for fear of assuming the "we" of the church does not apply to the "we" of the classroom, or of speaking on behalf of "Christians" when the views of Christians are neither monolithic nor fixed.

I assume at the outset that the heart and the concerns from which these practices spring are legitimate and sincere, and are grounded in a desire to welcome and not to exclude, to inspire conversation and not to tell others what they do or should believe. And to the extent that this is true, the intent is highly laudable and in many ways truly Christian in origin.

However, beyond tolerance, the truly Christian virtues that ought to ground our pedagogical practices in the classroom are twofold: hospitality and truthfulness. The two are interrelated because one cannot be hospitable apart from the truth, nor truthful apart from welcome of difference. Because Christians believe that Jesus is Lord, and the character of that Lordship to be of one who came without coercion or exclusion, but welcomed all to the table and refused even to kill his enemies, the truth of fullest human communal interaction -- conversation and pedagogy being two of the chief practices in this case -- must involve both the truth of who we are before God and one another and the refusal to silence or coerce the difference of the other.

I believe that if these virtues were to become the grounds and bounds of Christian education, the limited space created by mere tolerance would expand into the wide breadth of honest speech and welcomed learning; it would also, in a straightforward manner, become more coherent. If, for example, a Christian professor refuses to "represent the tradition" separate from her own views, or actually openly commits herself to a particular tradition of belief, or does not assume in language or content that "we" all must have "something" in common more core than our various religious "divisions" -- this names the truth of the situation much more clearly and directly, and simultaneously opens up new avenues for conversation because, the reality of our relations to one another having been named aloud, we can now move forward in learning together without playing the part of a lie.

(I should also note that this strategy pushes back against the Enlightenment notion that we may simply lay out the options before individuals and allow them to pick and choose, with their supposedly reliable rational faculties, what they happen to believe to be the best choice. No: tell me exactly what you think, and trust me enough to know that I will not simply internally imbibe your view into a pale imitation, but instead will now be better formed by your acknowledgment of particular locatedness vis-a-vis my particular location, and together we will both learn from each other. There simply is no objective "space" between us in which we can step and see the truth. Let us take positions, argue and talk, and love each other as we learn.)

To offer one concrete suggestion, I would be delighted if professors would begin each semester in their various classes by offering the bullet points (or story) of their basic theological assumptions. In this way every student would know from the outset where the professor is coming from, and perhaps in smaller classes even every student could share where he or she is coming from as well. If the professor is ambiguous regarding the Christian faith, or Jewish, or a secular humanist, or whatever -- all the better! Speak the truth aloud, let people inside of your own particularity -- from which you cannot escape, even with tenure -- and relate to one another henceforth with the walls of professor-student power politics broken down, even if only partially.

I should conclude by sharing that this is not some abstract principle for me, but a pedagogical commitment I intend to practice in the future, as I am planning to go on to doctoral work after my MDiv and eventually hope to teach as a professor. And if I were to get up in front of a class today, I would say that I am a Christian by virtue of confession of faith in Jesus and membership in a local church community, holding in general to much of the essential orthodox tradition. More particularly, for the sake of class discussion and straightforward accountability in conversation, my basic set of assumptions about what it means to be a Christian are as follows:
  • Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen, is Israel's Messiah and Lord of the cosmos.
  • Ecclesia names that community called and gathered by the Holy Spirit in discipleship to and worship of this same Jesus.
  • Christian Scripture has compelling authority and abiding truthfulness.
  • We are not bystanders in relation to these claims: it matters profoundly what we think, say, and do vis-a-vis God, Jesus, church, Scripture, history, and tradition.
Much is missing from these stated assumptions (Trinity, Israel, eschaton, sacraments, narrative, salvation, gender, race, religious pluralism, violence, prayer, etc.), and they are intentionally ambiguous in their stated content. But ideally this small example offers a window into the possibilities that this sort of up-front-ness offers, both for the health and education of a seminary, or any other, classroom, as well as for the honesty and welcome those with somewhat or even radically different assumptions can experience in the context of learning Christian theology.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Dana Gioia

I had the gift of hearing Dana Gioia's plenary address at Lipscomb's Christian Scholars Conference in Nashville last June, and in that address he performed a handful of his poems for the audience. I say "performed," because they were not merely readings, but in the truest sense were wholesale and towering performances. He clearly had his poems memorized and, just so, internalized, and like a monologue or soliloquy in a play delivered them to us with extraordinary grace, wit, and energy.

This was one of the poems Gioia performed for us. It was my second favorite, but for whatever reason I cannot find the one that stuck in my soul and which I was quoting for days. When I come upon that one, you will have it here; until that day, enjoy "The Litany."

The Litany

By Dana Gioia

This is a litany of lost things,
a canon of possessions dispossessed,

a photograph, an old address, a key.
It is a list of words to memorize
or to forget–of amo, amas, amat,
the conjugations of a dead tongue
in which the final sentence has been spoken.

This is the liturgy of rain,
falling on mountain, field, and ocean–
indifferent, anonymous, complete–
of water infinitesimally slow,
sifting through rock, pooling in darkness,
gathering in springs, then rising without our agency,
only to dissolve in mist or cloud or dew.

This is a prayer to unbelief,
to candles guttering and darkness undivided,
to incense drifting into emptiness.
It is the smile of a stone Madonna
and the silent fury of the consecrated wine,
a benediction on the death of a young god,
brave and beautiful, rotting on a tree.

This is a litany to earth and ashes,
to the dust of roads and vacant rooms,
to the fine silt circling in a shaft of sun,
settling indifferently on books and beds.
This is a prayer to praise what we become,
"Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return."
Savor its taste–the bitterness of earth and ashes.

This is a prayer, inchoate and unfinished,
for you, my love, my loss, my lesion,
a rosary of words to count out time's
illusions, all the minutes, hours, days
the calendar compounds as if the past
existed somewhere–like an inheritance
still waiting to be claimed.

Until at last it is our litany, mon vieux,
my reader, my voyeur, as if the mist
steaming from the gorge, this pure paradox,
the shattered river rising as it falls–
splintering the light, swirling it skyward,
neither transparent nor opaque but luminous,
even as it vanishes–were not our life.

Friday, August 6, 2010

What Was John Howard Yoder Working On When He Died?

In his "Introduction" to For the Nations, Yoder references two different seeds for future work he planned on expanding and publishing in the future:
Page 7, note 18: "A set of more explicitly missiological writings is contemplated as a further volume in the present series."

Page 9, note 21: "A fuller text on [Constantine] and the events of the fourth century is in preparation."
Furthermore, while Andy Alexis-Baker has happily disproved the rumor, begun by Jim Wallis, that Yoder was hard at work in his last year of life on sanctifying a world police force, Hauerwas has referenced Yoder's late but passionate engagement with and work on issues of state discipline and capital punishment.

As it has become a bit of a cottage industry to publish handsome posthumous editions of Yoder's pamphlets and low-key or hard-to-find books, I'm even more curious about what else Yoder may have been working on that we have yet to see. Is there nothing more? Is there a good deal more? How much progress had he made on his projected Constantine and Mission books by his death? Are there outlines, chapters, or essays? Have they been published, are they still being edited, or have they not been suggested for publishing?

I would gladly welcome anyone with knowledge pertaining to these or other Yoder-related questions and curiosities to offer thoughts, direction, or answers.

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Update (8/11/10): Myles emailed me this link to Notre Dame's website for Yoder, which I recall having been to before, complete with PDFs for download of articles and essays yet to be published.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Koinonia and Abundance: A Sermon on Mission, Hospitality, and the Cup of Sharing

For audio or video of the sermon below, click here.

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O God,
you are our God;
earnestly we seek you
as thirsty people long for water
in a dry and weary land.

O God,
you have carried us as on eagles’ wings
from the land of scarcity and want.
You have brought us up
in the power of your Spirit
into a land flowing with abundance.

O God,
in your Son, the Messiah,
we have glimpsed your kingdom come:
we have glimpsed a world
where the poor are fed,
where addictions are healed,
where loneliness is finished,
where death itself is dead and no more.

O God,
we confess these things as our hope,
but we see the world you love in agony.
We see children hungry, and not enough to go around;
we see families divided, and wounds yet unhealed;
we see broken hearts, and the anger fear breeds.

O God,
that you would send us out,
that you would send us out
into the world you have already redeemed
with good news for all people—
the incredible good news
that you are on the way,
that the kingdom of welcome for all
has a banquet prepared
whose host has put death behind him forever.

O God,
make us your people
and send us into your beloved world
whose end is not destruction,
but new creation.

And now, God, to that end
I pray that you would pour through me
the gift of preaching,
that these old words would speak afresh to us today,

that the word of God
for the people of God
might call forth thanks to you, O God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Summer Recap: Mission, Cup, Communion

This summer we’ve been talking about one thing: mission. And the way we’ve visualized that together, in connection with the World Cup, is through the image of the “cup” in Scripture. In June we talked about God as missionary, and thus about the cup of salvation given to us freely in Christ. In July we talked about the church as missionary, the church as a missionary community, and about the cup of communion we share together in Christ. And today we begin our final summer month on mission, and we will be focusing on the individual believer as missionary, and the cup of sharing, the cup of sharing Christ with others.

For the past four weeks, we've been walking through the meaning of communion, culminating a couple weeks ago in a service devoted to the Lord's Supper, to sharing the meal together. This notion of communion is crucial for understanding the nature of both the Lord’s Supper and the church. On the one hand, we commune with God in the bread and the cup, and this is Christ’s promised presence to us—but at the very same time, this is communion with one another, as members of the body broken for us.

It is profound mystery: together we are the body of Christ—and we partake of the body of Christ in the Supper—and as we partake, we remember the body of Christ on the cross—looking forward to the return of Christ in his risen body. All at once, past present and future come together in a shared meal, through which God is present to us and by which we are knit together as one people.

Koinonia in the New Testament

But in looking at this notion of “communion,” there is still another side to be explored. In the original language the word we translate for “communion” is koinonia, and at its most basic level, it simply means “sharing.” This word is at the heart of the gospel, but in the New Testament it is used in a variety of contexts with a wide range of meanings. So follow along as we look at some of the different ways the word is used, particularly by Paul.

Sometimes it names believers sharing life together:
Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship—koinonia—to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Sometimes it names sharing life with God:
1 Corinthians 1:9: “God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship—koinonia—with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

2 Corinthians 13:14: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship—koinonia—of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
Sometimes it weaves together life with God and life with one another:
1 John 1:3: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship—koinonia—with us. And our fellowship—koinonia—is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.”
Other times it names sharing partnership in ministry:
Philippians 1:5: “...I always pray with joy because of your partnership—koinonia—in the gospel from the first day until now...”
As we've seen, it names sharing the meal together:
1 Corinthians 10:16: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a sharing—koinonia—in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a sharing—koinonia—in the body of Christ?”
Finally—and this is where we’ll be focusing—it names sharing of ourselves and of our means with others:
Romans 15:26: “For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution—koinonia—for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem."

2 Corinthians 8:4: “[The Macedonian churches] urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing—koinonia—in this service to the Lord’s people.”

2 Corinthians 9:13: “People will praise God ... for your generosity in sharing—koinonia—with them and with everyone else.”

Hebrews 13:16: “And don’t forget to do good and to share with others—koinonia—for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”
Eucharist and Abundance: The Meal and the Overflowing Cup

So summing up, we might put it this way: Koinonia is God’s gift to us of sharing in his life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—not alone, but sharing it together in community: through conversation and service, ministry and worship, and especially through the Lord’s Supper. But even then, the sharing is not meant for us alone, as in a closed loop, but rather is an abundance, an overflowing to share with the whole world.

Since we have been talking about “the cup” this summer, the words of Psalm 23 are especially meaningful here:
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
God has prepared us a table, and our host is Christ the Lord. Our meal is nothing short of life itself: the body and blood of Jesus. At this table there is no hoarding, no more for some and less for others, no scarcity to secure ourselves against. Rather, there is abundance, enough for all, and more than enough—for in Christ our cup overflows. But this abundance is not meant for us alone—this overflowing is not just more for us. At this table all are welcome, and no one is excluded, for it is the table of God’s koinonia, the Father’s sharing all of himself with us through Christ and in the Spirit.

Hospitality and Mission: Welcoming to the Table

In this picture, salvation isn’t distant or far away, isn’t disembodied or purely spiritual—salvation is right here and right now, earthy and ordinary—salvation is a meal. Salvation is sitting at the table of the Lord, with the risen Christ as our host. But if salvation is a meal—and if this meal is marked by God’s own koinonia—and if there is more than enough to go around—and if our host is himself the one who ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners—what else is there to do but to go out and invite others to this extraordinary meal!

In this way, being sent on God’s mission is not limited to practices like Sending and Supporting Missionaries or Planting Churches—though those things are certainly included. If salvation is sitting at the Lord’s table, mission can be summarized in one word: Hospitality. Mission is nothing more and nothing less than offering to others the hospitality that God has offered to us in Christ. Mission is welcoming others to the table of the Lord.

In the story of Jesus—in his life, death, and resurrection—God has made us an unconditional promise: that his love goes all the way to death, and even in death his love cannot be conquered. The gift of the Holy Spirit is God’s down payment on the fulfillment of that promise on the last day, when the kingdom comes in full. As we wait and long for that day, we have one question before us: Will we be people of God’s unconditional promise—and therefore will we live lives of love for others all the way to death? If we will, our task is simple: with the love of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, to welcome others unconditionally as God has welcomed us.

In other words: To be people of the holy hospitality of the triune God.

Matthew 10: Sending of the Twelve

To get a sense of what this looks like concretely, we're going to look at Matthew chapter 10. This is the time when Jesus sent the Twelve disciples out for the very first time, and his words to them are no less words to us, and serve as a kind of filling out of the Great Commission. So hear these words as Christ himself addressing you directly as his disciple:
"Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give...

"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

"Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me, but those who stand firm to the end will be saved.

"Students are not above their teacher, nor servants above their master. It is enough for students to be like their teacher, and servants like their master. If the head of the house has been called demonic, how much more the members of his household!

"So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

"Whoever publicly acknowledges me I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever publicly disowns me I will disown before my Father in heaven.

"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—your enemies will be the members of your own household.'

"Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

"Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes someone known to be a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and whoever welcomes someone known to be righteous will receive a righteous person's reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is known to be my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly be rewarded."
Disciples Sent: Allegiance, Gift, Welcome

There’s a great deal for us to hear in these words from Jesus, but let’s focus on a few key aspects. Ultimately, this passage has to do with three things: discipleship, allegiance, and being sent. We might ask: Who or what is a disciple? How do you know one? The text answers: A disciple is one who is sent by Jesus into the world with good news to share. But what characterizes such disciples in their mission in the world? Giving to others as freely as they have received.

Having seen how to recognize a disciple—what defines, what constitutes discipleship at all? What is discipleship in the first place? Discipleship is utter and complete allegiance to Jesus as Lord—over against all competing claims to the thrones of our lives.

And according to Jesus, what kind of allegiance is this? Allegiance that refuses to defend ourselves against aggressors. Allegiance that stands firm in the face of persecution. Allegiance that calls a crucified Messiah Master—and no other. Allegiance that has no fear of those who can kill the body. Allegiance that openly confesses Christ, no matter the consequences. Allegiance that clings to Christ over father or mother, son or daughter, nation or party, race or class, district or zip code. Allegiance that takes up a cross and walks the road to Golgotha.

That is the allegiance that defines disciples of Jesus Christ.

We may seem a long way off from the warmth of hospitality at the Lord’s table, but in Scripture and in the story of Jesus, you don’t get one without the other. There is simply no kingdom apart from a cross—no Christ apart from a cost—no reconciliation apart from the truth—no resurrection apart from death. We will be and indeed already are citizens of God’s kingdom, members of Christ’s body, welcome guests at the Lord’s table—but the holy hospitality of God’s koinonia is a suffering love that not only goes to the end for us, but calls us to that love as well.

We have received such love, freely—will we also freely give it to others?

The Cup of Cold Water: Surprise on the Way

Notice the way Jesus’ commissioning concludes. Initially we had planned for this month’s theme to be the “cup of cold water,” meaning, “the cup of cold water given to others in Jesus’ name.” It had a nice symmetry to it, it's a biblical phrase. But you may have caught why we didn’t do that. Because at the end of the passage, who is the one welcoming? Who is the one giving the cup of cold water? It is not the disciple who welcomes or gives—it is the disciple who receives!

Here Jesus surprises us—he is not calling us as disciples to these things, though they are certainly worthwhile. Rather, Jesus is telling us that when we go out in mission, there will already be people eager to welcome us and provide for us—just because we are his disciples! This is Jesus’ promise the other direction: that those who offer hospitality to his disciples will not lose their reward.

What does this mean for mission? It means that this is no human work—this is God’s action! It means that we are joining in what God is already doing in the world he loves. It means that we do not set out fearfully or expecting rejection—according to Jesus, he already has friends ready to welcome us on the way! It means, finally, that God is going to surprise us—we go to share abundance with others, but sometimes just these others will share God’s abundance with us.

On “Home” and the Mission Field

At this point you might be wondering: In all this talk of mission and sending and discipleship, nobody’s sending me to, say, Yekaterinburg, Russia—nobody’s calling me a missionary. Fortunately, Jesus addresses this very thing in his instructions to the Twelve.

First and foremost, he was sending Israelites into Israelite towns and cities—in other words, Jesus was sending his disciples back home. So apparently, to be in mission is not limited to going halfway around the world—though that too is part of the call.

Put simply: To be in mission is to be sent by Jesus. And if a disciple is one who is sent by Jesus into the world with good news to share, then to be in mission is to be a disciple, and to be a disciple is to be in mission. To be in mission is to be sent by Jesus.

Now in this case, it might be our language that trips us up; so let’s try some new vocabulary. In ordinary conversation, you might call your neighborhood, city, or country “home”—or at the very least, you probably don’t refer to is as a mission field. But one step into missional language might be to call these places in which we find ourselves, not first “home” or “where we work” or “where we live,” but instead: the places to which God has sent us—or better, the people to whom God has sent us.

Of course, if we believe it’s an accident that we are where we are, or that God is not a God with a mission, or that God has not sent each of us as part of his mission—none of that language really makes any sense at all. But if we do believe that God reigns, if we do believe that God has a mission and the church is his missionary people, if we do believe that each and every disciple is sent by Christ in the power of the Spirit—then there is nothing else to say than that, wherever we are, the living God has sent us there.

A Commission of Koinonia

In that spirit, I want to conclude this morning with what we'll call a commission of koinonia, a commission of sharing:

Go—go from here to your homes and jobs, to your families and friends, in the name and the love of the One who gave himself for all the world.

Go—go into the world which God made good, which God sustains at every moment, which God has redeemed in Christ, and which God will make new on the last day.

Go—go into the world for which Christ died, for which you are also called to give your own life, as the few called to suffering servanthood on behalf of the many.

Go—go into the world that is not your home, but is the place to which God has sent you, the people to whom Christ has sent you in the freedom and power of the Holy Spirit.

Go—go into the world that is your home, for though you may be just a-passin’ through, at one time God himself came a-passin’ through—and we wait not to leave, but for him to return.

Go—go in the sure hope that a day is coming when all will be well, when God will be all in all, when the kingdom of God’s love will triumph, once and for all.

Go—go into the highways and byways, into the dark corners and hungry homes, and share from the abundance you yourself have received at the Lord’s own table.

Go—go into this hurting, suffering, aching world and welcome others with the holy hospitality of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—remembering that at this table, all are invited.

Go. Go in love, go in peace, go in joy. Go with God, go with haste, go in song.

Go as disciples of the risen and coming Lord.

And go in faith that you will not be alone.