April 28, 2010

Apocalypse of Love

by Brian Volck
Revelation 21:1-6; John 13: 31-35

“Behold,” says the One who sits on the throne, “I make all things new.” God dwells with humanity. Tears, pain and mourning are no more. It sounds wonderful. Sign me up.

“I give you a new commandment,” says Jesus to the Eleven: “love one I have loved you.” What lovely and inspiring words.

Take time, though, to read the fine print: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Loving one another hasn’t been Christianity’s strong suit, however much we talk about it.

There has never been a time in Christian history since Luke wrote Acts where the people were of one heart and mind. Christian divisions have rarely been civil. Many have been deadly. It’s not terribly persuasive to lecture others on the necessity of love when our hands drip fresh blood.

I don’t need to recite the long history of Christian divisions, nor need I outline the ugly divisions within our separated traditions today. You know them as well as I.

We’ve made a horrible mess of God’s household, the oikoumene. I don’t wish to disparage decades of earnest and difficult work, but Christian ecumenism today remains more promise than reality. It’s far easier to cancel anathemas than to reconcile ways of living. Call the latter costly ecumenism, and pray for that.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zossima warns “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Love, like peace, is difficult. Ask someone who has been married more than twenty years. Mutual subordination is not a natural practice. People who claim their marriage has always been happy either lie or feebly conceal an uneasy hegemony.

I don’t know how to love you as Christ loves us. If you do, please clue me in.

In the mean time, what’s to be done with this new commandment? Commandments aren’t issued for default behaviors. You can blame biology or the Fall, but lying, sexual betrayal, killing, and covetousness are quintessentially human. Perhaps I can learn, through a lifetime’s effort, how not to harm my neighbor, but don’t ask me to do the impossible and love him, too.

The more I reflect on this new commandment, the more I apprehend it apocalyptically, a revelation of something already here, yet hidden from human sight. If you ask why I love my wife, I’ll give you dozens of reasons, none of which truly answers your question. In the end, I love by faith and grace; not by sight, knowledge or certainty.

Pray for that faith and grace in all things. Pray that your neighbor will show you how such faith, such grace is lived. Pray for the apocalypse of love.


April 22, 2010

In Unity We Lift Our Song

by Jenny Willams
John 10:22-30; Revelation 7:9-17

One of the many blessings in my life has been the gift of church music.  I grew up in a family who valued music and in a church that valued music. Because I was reared in a high steeple church, I was privileged to be exposed at a young age to string ensembles, handbell choirs, professional singers, and an organist who is a professor of organ music in a prestigious university music program.

When life took me away from home, I got to experience other kinds of church music.  I served a church in North Carolina which had a teenage show choir and a men’s quartet who sang southern gospel music.  I served a church in a small town in West Virginia whose pianist played every hymn in a gleeful, upbeat bluegrass style. I visited a Melkite church in Zababdeh in the West Bank, who sang their entire liturgy a capella.

These experiences contribute, I’m sure, to why the future depicted in John’s vision sounds so glorious to me:  countless numbers of disciples from all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages will join together in perpetual worship, singing glorious praises to the triune God. 

That they are singing is, I think, significant.  There is no Heavenly Muzak playing in the throne room, no recordings of babbling brooks or birdsong to calm the masses.  The people are not listening to song—they are making music, putting their bodies into their life of praise. 

I owe my love of church music to the people who taught me to sing.  I’m grateful for my parents and grandparents, with whom I saw in the pew during my childhood, and who heeded John Wesley’s direction to “sing lustily and with a good courage.”  I’m grateful for Rae, a church member who was my piano teacher and also directed our church’s children’s choir.  I can still remember her hand movements that, as she taught us Natalie Sleeth anthems, indicated we should try to adjust our pitch lower or higher. I’m grateful for Miss Nute, a church member who was the director of the choral programs at my public high school.  She urged us on in excellence in a capella pieces and somehow got away with teaching sacred music to the choir. I’m grateful for Diane, the director of the African-American gospel choir at my college.  She patiently taught us white kids who were in the choir to learn how to express our faith more freely in song than we were used to. 

I learned to sing because of the people whose voices I could listen to and try to follow. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.”  (John 10:27)  We only can sing the song of life because we are learning it from the one who was there when the music began.  To learn how to sing it ourselves, we have to follow him.

We who learned to sing in the context of church choirs know that while singing is a craft that requires personal attention, the goal of our individual efforts is to join well with others in a corporate endeavor.  We take our different gifts, our different voices, and make music together. We have to follow not only the director but listen to each other to make beautiful music.  The singing of the heavenly throng is unified by their focus on the triune God.  What makes the music of both the earthly and heavenly multitudes possible is the voice of the Lord.  We can only sing together because he leads us.   

On earth, the sheep hear His voice.
In heaven, the Lamb hears ours.  

To God and to the Lamb, we will sing!


April 15, 2010

Struck Blind on the Damascus Road

by Jake Wilson
Acts 9.1-20

The conversion of Saul provides us with the New Testament example of a conversion experience.  Saul’s transformation from a persecutor of the Lord to an Apostle continues to serve as a word of hope to the sin soaked conscience of those who feel that truly their failings are too great to be forgiven.  The story of Saul’s conversion gives narrative power to the concept of being “born again” from John 3 or becoming a “new creation” from 2 Corinthians 5.

The power of this experience transformed the murderous Saul and immeasurably impacted the Christian faith.  Indeed powerful personal experiences of God have dramatically altered the direction of ‘the Way’ more than once. Remember that Luther shuddered under the righteousness of God until he came to understand the true meaning of the phrase, at which time he said “I felt that I was altogether born again, and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”  We can also call to mind the conversion experience of John Wesley who claimed his heart was strangely warmed and recorded in his journal “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” (Italics original)

That we live in a cultural age in which rampant individualism is one of the primary forces working against the witness of the Church should not cause us to completely abandon the langue of a conversion experience.  Powerful personal encounters with the risen Christ do occur as Luther and Wesley help us remember.  Still, if we are to proclaim the Gospel responsibly in our current cultural climate the preacher must temper the language of individual experience with a much thicker understanding of conversion. Fortunately, the text takes us in just such a direction.

For example, Saul’s conversion marks a change of communities.  The text indicates this in a number of ways.  Fruitful contrast may be drawn between ‘The Way’ of vs.2 and ‘his way’ of vs.3 (ESV; The TNIV reads ‘his journey’).  Saul is on his way, with orders from the leaders of one community, before his direction is changed and he joins The Way where he receives a new brother and is initiated into a new community through the laying on of hands, receiving the Holy Spirit and baptism.

While Saul’s conversion does represent a powerful personal experience, this personal encounter is not for Saul’s sake but for the healing of the nations.  As Jesus makes clear in vs.15, Saul is to become God’s Apostle to the Gentiles.  The power of this encounter is not Saul’s inner experience but God’s determination to see that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (Phil. 2.9-11)

It is also important to note that Saul’s conversion is not a heroic individual decision.  The language of asking Jesus to become one’s “personal Lord and Savior” is completely foreign to this encounter.  This was not Saul’s choice.  Rather he was struck down by Jesus, calling to mind the words of Hebrews 10.31 “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

In Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age, Brad Kallenberg offers a definition of conversion as “the change of one’s social identity, the acquisition of a new conceptual language, and the shifting of one’s paradigm.” (32)   All three of these aspects are present in the text.  Saul’s social identity changes as he moves from one community to another.  He begins to learn a new language as he confesses Jesus as Lord even before he understands what such a confession might mean.  And his paradigm is radically altered as he comes to see that the Jesus who was once a failed messiah is truly the Son of God (vs. 20).  All of this stems from the power of this road to Damascus experience.  Nevertheless the significance of the event, as would eventually be the case with Luther, Wesley and countless others, transcends Saul’s individual experience. 


April 09, 2010

Speaking Out

by Mark Ryan
Our readings for this week show both the irrepressible quality of the good news about what God has done for Israel in Jesus Christ (Acts 5) and why that is so—that is the divine origin of the irrepressibility (John 20:19-31).

To begin with the scene in Acts 5:27, the text asks us to imagine a dramatic conflict where the revelation of God comes crashing up against the conventions—ideologies, really—that hold societies in place. “Did you not hear our orders?” asks the High Priest, with the implied further query, “don’t you know it is we who are responsible for common sense and good order around Jerusalem?”  That those representing ideology and good sense are the leaders of the Israel ought to trouble all of us who claim that our Christianity is central to our identity. Religious ideology here is more pointedly opposing itself to God’s plan than any mere secular kind. Perhaps we can imagine another form of conversation more common today with equally satanic results: “C’mon, you guys are good Christians who love the Church. Do you really think it’s appropriate to cause such a stir?” If Peter was somehow the vehicle of Satan in earlier text (Mark 8), here his reply is as frank as piercing in its truth: “We must obey God rather than men.” Perhaps unlike his rebuke of Jesus in Mark for failing to conform to his expectations for a messiah king, when he talks here it is clear that his speech has the character of witness. In fact, he seems to recognize that it is not his talk merely but that very spirit God breathed onto them.

This act of speaking out of witness, and the revolutionary political implications it carries reminds me of how the politics of liberalism has made a more restrained, even coerced speech, its end.  However noble intentions, philosophers like Jurgen Habermas have sought to find the “transcendental conditions” of our practices of arguing in order to show us the rules that govern our talk. On the one hand, this is better than some accounts of the grounds of human ethics and politics for it avoids the solipsistic self of some earlier accounts. However, one notes in these traditions a great desire to place limits on speech, and especially what can be said “reasonably.” In the end, they fall in love with, well, conventionalisms. It should have been no surprise that such an account of speaking should have led a leading philosopher like John Rawls, at least in his early work, to suggest that religious persons had to domesticate their speech by translating it according to strict standards before entering the political conversation.

How different is the Logos of God in the New Testament and the speech of those chosen to continue its work by speaking! One recalls earlier attempts to silence God’s Word, such as the occasion of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. If you put a cork in one outlet it pops up in another, perhaps the political version of wac-a-mole.

Now, as our Trinitarian theology hopes to make clear, the death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s speech foremost and not our own. But the crazy thing is that we are called somehow to take part in speaking God’s Word. “We are witnesses of these things, as is the holy Spirit that God has given to those who obey him.” What could it mean to be called, as members of the Church, to take part in God’s speaking of the Gospel of Christ? To answer this, it is a great resource that Peter’s refusal to stop speaking out comes in the same chapter of Acts that gives us an extraordinarily vivid depiction of what Gerhard Lohfink calls the vita apostolica, the living-and-being together of the disciples. As Lohfink notes, the newness of this community represented in the way they newly become completely dependent on and responsible for one another is an integral part of Easter’s reality. The complete dependence of this community on the Holy Spirit for its identity, its life, is what the text seeks to highlight for us when it tells us of what happened to Ananias and Sapphira. “Why,” Peter asks Sapphira, “did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” (Acts 5:9)

If it is only in the light of God’s own Spirit in us that we can explain the honesty and courage that accompany the speech of the disciples, we must also acknowledge that their revolutionary speech had a home in a revolutionary polity, the community whose source is Jesus’ breathing out of his Spirit. Perhaps when our own speech as Christians becomes halting and hesitant, we should remind ourselves that we need a speech therapist. Our texts suggest that only the life of the ekklesia can play speech therapist when we want to re-learn how to utter God’s logos after him. 


April 01, 2010

Grounded Hope

by Debra Dean Murphy 
Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24; John 20:1-18

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  (John 20:15)

Let us not mock God with metaphor, / analogy, sidestepping transcendence; / making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the / faded credulity of earlier ages: / let us walk through the door. (Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike)

John the Evangelist sets the resurrection story in a garden, grounding Easter’s hope in, well, the ground. “The tree of life,” Vigen Guroian observes, “still stands in the midst of the garden.” No pie in the sky here; Easter is earth tended, mended and renewed, and a body alive again.

John Updike the poet reminds us that our hope lies not in nature’s rhythms of birth, death, and new life (comforting as they may be), nor in traditions handed down from learned teacher to disciples, but in the scandal and embarrassment of a resurrected body:

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

“Ours,” Updike says, not “mine.” The hope of resurrection is not that of Plato’s singular immortal soul; it is not the promise of a post-mortem spiritual existence in a far-off heavenly realm. The hope of resurrection is that the material creation in all its fullness participates—now partially, then perfectly—in newness of life, in communion with the Source of all that is. Heaven and earth are joined, through the mystery of Jesus’ rising from the dead, in the shalom of God.

The disobedience that occurred in the first garden was the burden Jesus bore in Gethsemane’s garden. In Easter’s garden, the burden has been rolled away. His broken body, now restored, makes of us a body, his body: “it was as His Flesh: ours.”  And through the gifts of the good earth, grain and grape, harvested by human hands, we take, bless, break, and share his body, becoming what we already are.

We are grounded in this hope, nurtured by these gifts, sustained for the work and witness we are called to: go and tell; be and do; live mindfully, patiently, peaceably in the joy of the resurrection. “This,” we profess this day with the Psalmist, “is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”