Great is Thy Faithfulness

The Bible tells us that Jesus was on the cross for six hours. The Gospel of Mark tells us that “They divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him” (Mark 15:24–25).  By the Jewish reckoning of time, the third hour was 9 am. This is when the crucifixion began. Then the Gospel of Matthew tells us that “from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour” (Matthew 27:45).  Again, by the Jewish reckoning of time, this darkness lasted 3 hours, from 12 noon to 3:00 P.M. At the end of that time, “when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice,” the Gospel of Matthew tells us that “he gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). Jesus was on the cross for six hours, from 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon.

During these six hours the four Gospels tell us that Jesus said 7 things.  The “Seven Last Words of Christ” are frequently the focus of the church’s attention and devotion on Good Friday, the day Christ died.  In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for churches to have three-hour long Good Friday services, from noon to 3, during which seven preachers from seven churches preach seven sermons based on the “Seven Last Words of Christ” –

  1. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
  2. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
  3. “Woman, behold your sonBehold your mother.” (John 19:26–27)
  4. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
  5. “I thirst.”  (John 19:28)
  6. “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
  7. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

35 years ago was first time that I was asked to be one of those Good Friday afternoon preachers.   The service was at the First Christian Church of Houston, and the last word of Christ they assigned me to preach was #7, the last “last word” from the cross – “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  I was glad to get this word because it was already an important part of my spirituality. 

One of my spiritual role models is Charles de Foucauld, the late 18th early 19th century French Catholic Priest who lived a hidden life of sacrifice and service in the Muslim world, believing that quietly doing good and being kind to people was the most powerful way for us to bear witness to the saving love of God in Christ for us.  And so, he moved into Muslim communities in the Middle East where he could love his Muslim neighbors in specific and concrete ways. He died as a martyr doing exactly this in 1916 in Algeria, and was announced as one of the Church’s newest “Saints” by Pope Francis in May of 2020.

The entire spirituality of St. Charles de Foucault can be distilled in his prayer of abandon, a prayer that I have frequently prayed and pondered from the beginning of my Christian life until now –

“Into your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.”

Charles had Christ on the cross in view when he wrote this prayer of his own personal abandon to the care and purpose of God.  It was clearly an echo of that last “last word” of Jesus Christ from the cross – “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  As Charles explained, “It is the last prayer of our Master, of our Beloved… (and) may it be ours… not only as the prayer of our last moment but (as the prayer) of all our moments.”

In my preparation for that sermon that I preached on Christ’s last “last word” 35 years ago in Houston – “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”- I learned something that I’ve never forgotten. Jesus didn’t just come up with those words on the spot in that moment on the cross. In saying them Jesus was quoting Scripture, Psalm 31 to be exact.  “Thou art my rock and my fortress,” Psalm 31 prays, “for thy name’s sake lead me and guide me.”  “Take me out of the net which is hidden for me,” it asks, “for thou art my refuge.” And then it voices a final trust with the words, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit; thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God” (vs.3-5).

It has been suggested by some that the words of this Psalm were the ancient equivalent of the familiar children’s bedtime prayer – “Now I lay me down to sleep.”  Right before entering into the fearful darkness of the mysterious night, Hebrew children used Psalm 31 to name the hidden dangers that lurked in the dark shadows, to claim God as their keeper, and to consciously place themselves in God’s care.  In His last dying moment Jesus used the words a bedtime prayer that He would have learned as a little boy on the knees of His mother to put Himself into the hands of His loving Father.

“Into your hands I commend my spirit” was a prayer of “basic trust.”  The psychologists tell us that this is the first and most important thing that has to get settled for us in our development as human beings. We’ve got to decide whether or not we think that there’s someone or something out there who cares about us and who will meet our basic needs?  

It begins in infancy. When we’re hungry will someone come to feed us?  When we’ve made a mess will someone come to change us?  When we’re cold or afraid will someone come to take care of us?  When we cry out will someone come to comfort us?   When someone does, then we learn trust.  When someone doesn’t, then we learn mistrust.  And whether we trust, or mistrust affects everything else in our life. It shapes how we approach the world and how we form our relationships.  

When there’s mistrust, we feel abandoned and alone, and we’re almost always anxious and afraid.  But when there’s a basic trust, then we can face the future unafraid because we know that there’s someone there who really cares about us and who always has us and our needs in mind and heart. Psalm 145 is a Psalm about basic trust.  It’s thesis is the second half of verse 13 – “The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.”  That’s not a bad way to summarize everything that the Bible is trying to tell us.  The God who is there is a faithful and gracious God, and a faithful and gracious God is a God who can be trusted.

Israel’s faith rested on a specific encounter with God.  God showed up and spoke to them in their history.  When they were slaves in Egypt, God set them free, and then at the foot of Mount Sinai God entered into a covenant relationship with them.  In Exodus 34, part of that story, in what has been called one of the most important passages in the Bible about who God is, the nature of the God who rescued Israel from bondage was laid out in a series of propositions in Exodus 34:6-7 –

“The Lord [is] merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”
(34:6-7)

In Psalm 145 the Psalmist quoted these verses as the basis of his belief in the faithfulness and graciousness of God.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The Lord is good to all,

and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (8-9)

Biblical faith rests on the fact of God’s self-disclosure. God does things that show us who He is, and God talks to us telling us things about Himself.  But we are not just left with these bare statements and the decision to believe them or not. We are invited to take them out for a test drive.  We are encouraged to “taste and see that God is good” (Psalm 34:8). And so, in support of this claim that God is gracious and faithful, the Psalmist told us about some of the gracious and faithful things that God had done for him –

14 The Lord upholds all who are falling,
    and raises up all who are bowed down.
 15 The eyes of all look to you,
    and you give them their food in due season.
16 You open your hand,
    satisfying the desire of every living thing.
17 The Lord is just in all his ways,
    and kind in all his doings.
18 The Lord is near to all who call on him,
    to all who call on him in truth.
19 He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;
    he also hears their cry, and saves them.
20 The Lord watches over all who love him,
    but all the wicked he will destroy.

At one of the first churches I attended after my spiritual awakening the pastor didn’t just carve out space each week in the worship service for people to share their prayer requests, he also called each for “praise reports.”  He wanted people to talk about how God had shown up in their lives and provided for their needs that week. He knew that we would all come to trust the faithfulness and graciousness of God the more we heard stories of how God had been faithful and gracious to people we knew and loved who were sitting with us in church.  

David Miller, a Mennonite theologian, talks about this as the spiritual discipline of learning how to “track God.”  

“He employs the analogy of hunters, who often rely on clues to help them find wild game. A tuft of hair on a thorn bush, scratches on the side of a tree, a torn leaf – all point to the presence of animals passing through. So, too, (he says) God leaves subtle but visible clues. There are signs that God has been passing through an area, that God has been at work in a life.”

This is what the Psalmist was doing in Psalm 145.  He had “tracked” God.  He told us that he knew God was faithful and gracious not just because the Bible told him so, but also because he had also personally seen evidence of God’s faithfulness and graciousness in his own life and world. He’d seen God upholding the falling and raising up the bowed down. He’d seen God opening his hand to the needy and being just and kind in his dealings.  He’d seen God draw to those near those who cried out to him and watch over them who needed him.  In other words, it was the Psalmist’s very own experiences of God’s faithfulness and graciousness that were the most convincing arguments in support of his belief that God is faithful and gracious.

It’s not enough for us just to be told that God is faithful and gracious, we need some actual experiences of God’s faithfulness and graciousness if we are going to learn how to trust Him.  I’ve read that during WW 2 a group of orphaned children who had been rescued and were being cared for had real trouble going to sleep at night. Even though they had more than enough food to eat and people who truly cared about them, at bedtime each night they became terribly anxious and afraid. They had been deeply traumatized by their experiences during the war, and so they became greatly agitated when they were put to bed at night, fearful that they would wake up in the morning and find themselves hungry and alone all over again.  Nothing that anyone said could reassure them that they were safe and that things would be fine in the morning.  Finally, somebody came up with an idea. As the children were put to be at night, they were each given a piece of bread, not to eat but just to hold. With that piece of bread in their hands, those children began to sleep soundly.  That piece of bread was tangible proof that they would have something to eat in the morning.  It was not enough just to be told that they were going to be okay, they needed some concrete evidence.

Each week in my spiritual tradition we go to go to the Lord’s Table to break bread in remembrance of Christ’s body broken for us, and to pour a cup in remembrance of Christ’s blood shed for us.  Every week the Lord’s Supper tells us that God is faithful and gracious, and every week the Lord’s Supper provides us with an actual experience of God’s faithfulness and graciousness. 

It is the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup in remembrance of Christ’s loving sacrifice for us that assures us that there is in fact someone at the heart of the universe who can be trusted, and when we know this, then we don’t have to be anxious or afraid ever again because we know that the One who is there is the One knows all about us, deeply  cares for us, and always has us and our needs on His mind and in His heart.

The Lord is faithful in all His dealings.

The Lord is gracious in all His doings.

The Lord can be trusted completely.

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Living, Thinking, and Acting from the End

One of the best essays about the Bible that I’ve ever read was written by Paige Britton, a lay woman who describes herself as a self-taught, “grass roots” theologian. Her essay on the Bible that I found to be so insightful is called “Reading Between the Trees: The Bible from Beginning to End.” Her basic argument is that the Bible, for all its different stories, authors, books, and ideas, is really just telling one story, a story that unfolds between two trees – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 2:15-17, and the tree of life in Revelation 22 that brings healing to the nations. She writes –

“Two trees, planted by God the Creator and Redeemer at the beginning and end of the Bible like bookends on a shelf. Whatever we decide to do with the pages between the trees will make either sense or nonsense out of the bookends. Do we read in the Bible one story, or many? Is there a deliberate path from that first tree to this last tree, a progressive revelation that explains this shift from exile to homecoming? Or are the trees just random props in a series of disconnected stories, stories that are maybe myths, maybe symbols, maybe do-it-yourself moral instruction, depending on the mood that strikes me as I read? How am I to read this Bible, between these two trees?”

David Naugle, Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dallas Baptist University, has written about the “bits and pieces” mentality that afflicts so many of us in the church and world these days. Nothing touches. Nothing connects. Nothing relates. There’s no big picture, no organizing narrative, no big idea, just a random series of events, experiences, and encounters that each stand alone. Paige Britton’s argument is that what’s in the Bible has point. It all goes somewhere. In “Little Gidding,” T.S. Eliot wrote – “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” And that, it seems to me, is the trail of the story that the Bible tells.

The end brings us back around to the beginning. The new Jerusalem in Revelation 21 is just Genesis 2’s Garden of Eden in different clothes. This end is always in sight. Every story, every character, every idea we find in the Bible moves us just a little bit further down the road to the destination. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote – “The Church of Christ bears witness to the end of all things. It lives from the end, it thinks from the end, it acts from the end, it proclaims its message from the end.” The question, at least in my mind, is how do we get to that end? What’s God’s part, and what’s ours? Does the end come gradually or cataclysmically? Do our efforts effect incremental change in ourselves and the world until we wake up one morning and the Kingdom’s come, or does it break in upon us from the outside as the sudden work of God alone? Do we “build” or “bring” the Kingdom by our ministries of evangelism and social justice, or do we receive the Kingdom as the gift of God?

How we answer these questions will go a long way in determining what we think the church should be doing and where we should be investing ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ.  Broadly speaking, the church has offered two answers – Premillennialism and Postmillennialism.

I remember a Sunday School class that I attended at the big downtown Disciples church when I was a freshman in Christian college. Some disastrous global event had taken place the week before, and there were people in class that morning celebrating it as a “birth-pang” of the coming Kingdom (Matthew 24:8). Instead of grieving the human loss and suffering that had occurred somewhere far away on an epic scale, my friends were giddily fitting that tragedy into their end times calculations and concluding that what it meant was that Jesus would be back even sooner. It didn’t feel right to me.

These were the days of Hal Lindsey’s “The Late, Great Planet Earth” (Zondervan, 1970) and Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” (First Released in 1970) with its gloomy refrain –

“Life was filled with guns and war

And everyone got trampled on the floor.

I wish we’d all been ready.

Children died, the days grew cold,

A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold.

I wish we’d all been ready.”

These are all pieces of a perspective on where history is going called “Premillennialism.” The “Millennium” refers to the thousand-year reign of Christ mentioned in Revelation 20. Christians have had different understandings of what this “Millennium” means. Some have taken it literally, others symbolically. Some understand it to take place in heaven, others here on earth. But almost all of us connect it in one way or another with the Kingdom the coming of which Jesus Christ told us to pray (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2).

Based on their reading of the book of Revelation, Premillennialists believe that things are going to go from bad to worse as history plays out, and the more difficult things become the more hopeful Premillennialist Christians become. As Jesus told His disciples in the Olivet Discourse in Luke 21:28 –

“When these things (famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars) begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.”

Because they believe that we cannot not stop the flood of evil from rising in this world, Premillennialists look for God in Christ to break into history to rescue us in a final climactic saving act when things have sunk to their moral and spiritual lowest.

This was the position of Billy Graham, the popular “Left Behind” series of novels and movies, the Scofield Reference Bible, Bible Churches, and many if not most American Evangelicals. This was the position on the end times and last things that I was exposed to first after my spiritual awakening, and for the longest time thought was “the” Christian position. So pervasive was the teaching of this position in the circles that I ran in as a young Christian, that it remains a kind of conditioned spiritual response for me even today. When I hear reports of bad things happening, just like my old friends back in Christian College, I instinctively wonder if it means that our final salvation “draweth nigh”? I don’t stop with that thought anymore, but it still crosses my mind.

The most objectionable result of Premillennialism, if you ask me, is the way it can stifle moral outrage, seizing the heart and staying the hand of compassion. The Marxist critique of religion, how it is the opiate of the people that dulls our sensitivity to injustice by delaying its remedy to the blessed hereafter, pie in the sky in the sweet by and by, lands its best shot, it seems to me, on Christians of the Premillennialist stripe.

In the Premillennialist Bible Church where I was baptized in high school, social service was encouraged while social justice was eschewed. We prepared food baskets for distribution at Thanksgiving, collected toys for poor children at Christmas, and volunteered at the homeless shelter downtown all as preludes to evangelistic opportunities, but we never asked why there were hungry people, poor children, and homeless men on the streets, or what changes needed to happen socially, politically, and economically to address their causes.

Activist churches and Christians who were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, and the first stirrings of creation care in those days were dismissed at my church as misguided. More than once I heard it said from the pulpit and in Sunday school that they were just “polishing the brass on the Titanic.” This world is a sinking ship, and our task, I was told, was to get as many people as possible into the lifeboat of salvation and not to waste our time trying to make cosmetic improvements to the ruined ship that was going down. When I couldn’t accept this idea any longer, the theological pendulum swung and I found myself in the opposite corner, in a church with Postmillennial roots.

After my spiritual awakening in the mid-1960’s I drank deeply from the wells of “Premillennialism.” It made me spiritually passive and pessimistic. It left me with a dystopian view of the world and feelings of despair over the possibility of ever effecting any real change.  It excused me from responsibility for my neighbor (except evangelistically) and it fostered in me an escapist expectation of Jesus coming back to save me from the mess. 

In his commentary on trusting God, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther said that what Jesus said in Matthew 6:19-34 about not being anxious over what we should eat or what we should wear should not be taken as an invitation to personal or social irresponsibility. “God wants nothing to do with the lazy, gluttonous bellies who are neither concerned nor busy,” Luther wrote. “They act as if they just had to sit and wait for God to drop a roasted goose into their mouth.” When I realized that my Premillennialism was contributing to me becoming and doing this spiritually, to sitting around just waiting for Jesus to “drop,” I moved on.

Where I wound up next was in a spiritual tradition with a “Postmillennial” legacy. If Premillennialism pessimistically says that there’s nothing we can do to bring the Kingdom, then Postmillennialism optimistically says that it’s going to be our effort and effectiveness with the things that Christ left us to do when He went away that will gradually build the Kingdom. For 36 years, Alexander Campbell (1788 – 1866), one of the founders of the Movement to which my church belongs, edited and published a periodical called “The Millennial Harbinger.” “Millennial” refers to the coming Kingdom, and a “Harbinger” is “a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of another.” Our founders thought that what they were doing would help to usher in the Kingdom. Because Jesus said that the unity of the church would serve as evidence of the truth of the Gospel (John 17:20 – 21), Alexander Campbell believed that working for the unity of Christians would increase the evangelistic effectiveness of church, and that by more people becoming Christians, the Kingdom would come. They saw their movement as a harbinger of the millennium. This is “Postmillennialism.”

The refrain of the hymn “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations” (Words and Music: H. Ernest Nichol, 1896), #484 in the “Chalice Hymnal,” describes how Postmillennialism envisions the Kingdom coming –

“For the darkness shall turn to dawning,
And the dawning to noonday bright;
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth,
The kingdom of love and light.”

This is the “law of gradualness.” It says that things don’t burst on the scene fully formed. They unfold slowly, step by step, gradually over time. As another hymn we sing puts it – “First the blade, and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear.” It’s said that this is “the method of God and the experience of God’s people in Scripture,” and so rather than looking for the Kingdom to break in upon us from the outside as a sudden, final, cataclysmic event as in Premillennialism, Postmillennialism looks for the Kingdom’s “developmental unfolding and incremental expansion slowly (even imperceptibly) over time in the historical long run” (postmillennialworldview.com/2021/04/20/the-gradualism-principle/).  And rather than just being helpless victims in history’s long descent into darkness and despair à la the Premillennialist model, in Postmillennialism we have real agency, we are God’s “fellow workers” (I Corinthians 3:9). Through ministries of evangelism and social action the world gradually gets “Christianized.”  

In one of his songs Wayne Watson, the CCM artist, expressed the optimism of the Postmillennial model –

“One day Jesus will call my name.
As days go by, I hope I don’t stay the same.
I wanna get so close to Him that it’s no big change,
On that day that Jesus calls my name.”

And that’s still my aspiration, for me, for you, for the church, for the world. I want the Gospel to make a difference.  I want the Gospel to change things.  My frustration comes with the lack of progress I see.  In fact, it’s worse than that right now.  From where I sit it looks like we’re losing ground. And so just as I had to move on from Premillennialism, so I had to move on from Postmillennialism as well. Like Goldilocks who found one bed too soft and another bed too hard before finding the bed that was “just right,” so I found the Premillennialism too pessimistic and Postmillennialism too optimistic before finding the millennialism that was “just right.”

I had a professor in Christian College who when asked one day in class if he was a Premillennialist or a Postmillennialist answered, “I’m a Promillennialist.” When we asked him what that meant, he smiled and answered – “I’m for the Kingdom however and whenever it comes.” I am too.

I deeply appreciate what Scotty Smith, Pastor of the Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, has written about millennialist arguments –

“No a-millennialist is going to pout if the pre-millennialists are right. No post-millennialist is going to have his feelings hurt if a-millennialism proves to be more consistent with the unfolding of the history of redemption. Pre-millennialists are not going to high five one another for a thousand years in the face of dejected post-mils and a -mils, should their view on these matters be realized in history. The good news is that all Christians are going to enjoy fully everything won us by our blessed Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, no matter what our position on the millennium is.”

In a formula that’s familiar to lots of us, there are some essentials in Christian teaching that demand the unified affirmation of all faithful Christians. And there are some non-essentials in Christian teaching that allow for a rich diversity of interpretation among Christians. But in all things, we need to love each other, those with whom we agree, and especially those with whom we disagree, because such love is one of the clearest essentials of Christian teaching of them all. I’d put the Kingdom and its coming into the essentials bin, and I’d put the different ideas about how that Kingdom’s going to come into the nonessentials bin.

Francis Schaeffer said that there are “circles and cliffs” in Christian teaching. He said that “the Christian doctrinal and intellectual position lays down a circle rather than a (single) point.” There’s room to move within a circle. To illustrate this, he wrote about the Westminster Assembly in England that was charged with the task of writing a Confession, a Catechism, and a Directory for Worship that better reflected the Reformed convictions of many in the Church of England between 1643 and 1653. Schaeffer explained –

“Men with varying views in regard to doctrinal detail (for example, eschatology – the doctrines of the end times and last things) met together for a long time. What they did was to make certain statements that encompassed all the views that they agreed were faithful to the Scripture. In other words, when the Westminster Confession of Faith was framed, men with slightly different views in detail agreed that they could subscribe to this Confession. It laid down a circle in which (with their differences of doctrinal detail) they could move with freedom.”

But this circle also created cliffs. As Schaeffer explained –

“The statements of the Confession… were meant to be a limit inside of which were those (general) propositions which were accepted as faithful to Scripture and outside of which were those which were unacceptable in the light of Scripture… The edge of the circle was an absolute limit past which we ‘fall off the edge of the cliff’ …Thus there was a definite form, but within this form there was freedom for some variation.”

Because my faith is more informed by the ecumenical creeds than by a denominational confession, what I see as the cliffs are four foundational affirmations –

“And he shall come again, with glory,

to judge both the quick and the dead;

Whose kingdom shall have no end…

And I look for the Resurrection of the dead,

And the life of the world to come.”

Within the circle that these four affirmations create, there is room for Premillennialism and Postmillennialism, and personally I’m glad that my pilgrimage of faith brought me to and through both perspectives. Having been on the inside of both Premillennialism and Postmillennialism, I find that I am now in a good position to appreciate the passions and concerns of both perspectives, to steer clear of their weaknesses and distortions, and to advance their big ideas into the ways that I try to faithfully live, think and act “from the end,” as Bonhoeffer said that Christians do.

From Premillennialism I have taken the promise that God’s saving work in Jesus Christ involves a future, final, climactic event, and that our salvation, both personally and cosmically, will be forever incomplete until that event happens, until Christ comes again. Premillennialism made me a futurist. My “blessed hope” is “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:12-13). “Maranatha!” “Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus!”

From Postmillennialism I have taken the recognition of our real agency as human beings who know what God intended and where God is taking things, and the urgency of an activism that joins in on the project of God. We don’t bring or build the Kingdom, but we can certainly become signs of it by ordering our lives, the church, and the world by its vision and with its values. We are to be the presence of the future. As Dr. King famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and that’s the kind of Postmillennialism that I have embraced.

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An “American Seder”

The church doesn’t really know what to do with the Fourth of July.  How do we reconcile patriotism with our heavenly citizenship as Christians? Where does worldly nationalism fit into the eternal Kingdom of God?  Where do we draw the line between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs Christ?

In an essay written years ago, Rabbi Michael Lerner has suggested that communities of faith like ours use their day of worship closest to the Fourth of July each year as an opportunity to express their gratitude for that which deserves to be celebrated in America, namely the spiritual foundations of this country: the conviction that every human being is created in the image of God and therefore is equally valuable and equally deserving of a social, political, and economic opportunity.  It is this central biblical value that is at the heart of what is best in America and that deserves to be celebrated in a worship service that takes place in conjunction with our national birthday.

Rabbi Lerner suggests that a good model for this kind of observance in worship might be the Passover Seder, the annual gathering at which the story of Jewish liberation is told and retold each year.  An American Seder could celebrate all that is good in America, most significantly the ideal of freedom.  This country has created democratic expectations and hopes; and even though many of these promises have yet to be entirely fulfilled here in America itself, these ideals have nevertheless had a revolutionary impact throughout the world.  An American Seder could remind us of our deepest truths and our highest aspirations as a country, and give us time to think about what we might do to preserve these values that are under such assault these days, and about how to extend them to the places and people in America who are still on the outside of their promise and who want to come in.

Taking Rabbi Lerner’s advice, over the years I developed and offered “An American Seder” on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July in the churches I served. Drawn from many sources, this was my attempt to navigate the fine line between a legitimate patriotism that was consonant with my true citizenship in the Kingdom of God where Jesus Christ is Lord, and the fawning mawkish nationalism that is idolatry. I offer it here for your reflection and use as the Fourth of July falls on Sunday this year.  Remember, a Seder is a home-based, family-oriented, dinner table centered observance. This American Seder is best observed by family and friends gathered around a shared meal.  This would be a perfect picnic table ritual in your backyard this Sunday evening.

 

THE PILGRIMS

 A Song

O beautiful for pilgrim feet whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness.
America! America!  God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.

The Story

Leader 1: Our story as a nation begins with the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620.  Now listen to the telling of “The Pilgrim Story” in the words of William Bradford, the second Governor of Plymouth Plantation.

All: Departing.

Reader 2: The time having come when they must depart…they left that good and pleasant city, which had been their resting place for nearly twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.

All: Landing.

Reader 1: Being brought safely in sight of land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean…they now had no…houses— much less towns—to repair to…it was winter… sharp and severe, and subject to fierce storms…

 All: Surviving.

Reader: 2 Squanto stayed with them, and was their interpreter, and became a special instrument sent of God for their good, beyond their expectation. He showed them how to plant their corn, where to take fish and other commodities, and guided them to unknown places, and never left them till he died….

All: Thanking.

Reader 1: Ought not the children of their fathers rightly to say: Our fathers were Englishmen who came over the great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord,and He heard their voice, and looked on their adversity.…

The Sign – Five Kernels of Corn

It was very cold for the Pilgrims that first winter. Food was in short supply. Some days, they had only five kernels of corn to eat. When spring came, the Pilgrims planted the remaining corn and they got a good hravest in the fall. Every Thanksgiving thereafter, the story goes, the Pilgrims would start their meal with five kernels of corn on their plate.  At Thanksgiving the five kernels of corn was a reminder that many had nearly starved because of lack of food.  Each pilgrim would stand up and one by one pick up each kernel of corn and share five things they were thankful for on Thanksgiving. This tradition has been passed on from the early times.

Today five kernels of corn have been placed in front of you to remember the suffering and spirit of the Thanksgiving of our Pilgrim ancestors. Before eating them, go around the table and let everyone take turns sharing five blessings for which they are grateful.

A Prayer

O Lord our God and heavenly Father,
in your indescribable mercy
you have provided food and drink
for the nourishment of our weak bodies.
Grant us peace
to use these gifts from your hands
with thankful, reverent hearts.
Let your blessing rest on these your gifts,
to our comfort and sustenance.
Grant, good Lord,
that as we hunger and thirst for this food for our bodies,
so may our souls earnestly long after
the Bread of eternal Life,
Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Source: Freely modified from George Webb, “Short direction for the daily exercise of the Christian,” London 1625. (acollectionofprayers.com)

THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

 A Song

 My country,’ tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing;

land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride,

from every mountainside let freedom ring!

 The Story

 Reader 1: Most nations cannot claim a specific birth date. America can. Abraham Lincoln, in his famous Gettysburg address of 1863 put it this way:

All: “Fourscore and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Reader 2: President Lincoln was referring to the Declaration of Independence endorsed at the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, by 56 men who knew that signing it was an act of treason punishable by death.

Reader 1: Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of this revolutionary document. It contains the principles that guide our ideas about government to this day.

Reader 2: “We hold these truths to be self-evident:

Reader 1: that all men are created equal

Reader 2: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights

Reader 1: that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Reader 2: That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

Reader 1: it is the Right of the People to… institute new Government…

Reader 2: And for the support of this Declaration

Reader 1: with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence

 All: we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

 A Sign – A Cup of Tea

As Europeans developed a taste for tea in the 17th century, rival companies were formed to import the product from the East Indies. In England, Parliament gave the East India Company a monopoly on the importation of tea in 1698. When tea became popular in the British colonies, Parliament sought to eliminate foreign competition by passing an act in 1721 that required colonists to import their tea only from Great Britain and to pay all taxes imposed on imports.  When the colonists protests went unheeded, on the evening of December 16, 1773, a group of men calling themselves the “Sons of Liberty” went to the Boston Harbor. The men were dressed as Mohawk Indians. They boarded three British ships, the Beaver, the Eleanor and the Dartmouth, and dumped forty-five tons of tea into the Boston Harbor. The East India Company estimated its losses at nearly 9.7 thousand British pounds — that amount of money represents the equivalent of 18.5 million cups of tea  This massive amount of tea turned the water in the harbor brown for several days.  The Boston Tea Party was one of the seminal events that triggered the American Revolution.   This morning pour a cup of tea at your table and talk about the courage that must have been involved in this act of civil disobedience.

 A Collect for Independence Day (Book of Common Prayer)

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

THE CONSTITUTION

 A Song

O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears. America! America! God shed His grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

 The Story

Reader 1: It is one thing to declare a new nation, another to govern it. After nine months of fierce debate, the Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788. It tells us how the founders wanted our country to be governed and how future generations could adapt the original laws for changing times.

Reader 2: It distributes the powers of government across three branches: the legislative (the House of Representatives and the Senate), executive (the President), and judiciary (The Supreme Court). The system is designed to ensure that all opinions are heard in a national debate. It also prevents any one branch of government from becoming too powerful.

All: “We the People of the United States

Reader 1: in Order to form a more perfect Union

Reader 2: establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense

Reader 1: promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity

All: “Do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”

Reader 1: The Second Continental Congress passed ten amendments to the Constitution on December 15, 1791 called The Bill of Rights. It protects individual and states’ rights from federal government intrusion. The best known amendment may well be the first:

All: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Reader 2: Seventeen more constitutional amendments have been added since 1791. They reflect the values and beliefs of the majority of the people. America remains vibrant as long as everyone obeys the law—or chooses to properly challenge it. This is our strength.

Reader 1: We give thanks that we have the freedom to gather here in worship this morning.

Reader 2: We give thanks that we can say what we want to say, without looking over our shoulder to see if we are being reported.

Reader 1: We give thanks that we can vote so that each one of us has a voice in America.

Reader 2: On this Fourth of July Weekend, we give thanks for those who founded our country with these documents full of values that continue to inspire us.

 All: We give thanks for the bounty and blessings in our lives and for the privilege, responsibility and honor of being Americans.

 A Sign – Anadama Bread

The City Tavern of Philadelphia was the political, social, and business center of the new United States. The City Tavern witnessed more pivotal events in our nation’s history than any structure in British North America. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Paul Revere all ate regularly there.  Called the “most genteel tavern in America” by John Adams, it was the favorite meeting place of the Founding Fathers and was the unofficial site of the First Continental Congress  in 1774.  In 1777 the first Fourth of July was held there. And in 1778 the Constitutional Convention held its closing banquet there.

One of the staples of the City Tavern menus was a hearty New England bread that was a part of every meal.  This morning as you share a slice of bread at your table talk about what it would have been like to be at the dinner table with our founding fathers.  Who would you have most liked to meet?

A Collect for the Nation (Book of Common Prayer)

Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

THE EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION

A Song

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one community of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

Join hands, disciples of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
All children of the living God
Are surely kin to me.

The Story

Reader 1 – Hannah Johnson, the mother of a Northern Black soldier fighting in the Civil War wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln saying: “When you are dead and in Heaven, in a thousand years this action of yours will make the Angels sing your praises.”

Reader 2 – What she had reference to was the Emancipation Proclamation that President Lincoln announced in September of 1862 as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war.

Reader 1 – Three months later President Lincoln officially declared that “all persons held as slaves… shall be forever free of their servitude and never again held as slaves.”

Reader 2 – A less than perfect document, the Emancipation Proclamation nevertheless “captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the Civil War.  After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom.”

Reader 1 – And while the freedom that was promised in 1863 through the Emancipation Proclamation officially became part of the Constitution in 1868 with the 14th Amendment that guaranteed citizenship and equal protection under the law to Americans black and white, it would take another hundred years – until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – to find full legal expression for African Americans.

Reader 2 – The Civil Rights Act of 1964 stands today as the most comprehensive legislative measure ever passed in our country to try to wipe away racial discrimination from every arena of national life – from the voting booth, from the public school room, from all places of business and employment.

Reader 1 – But changing laws are always easier than changing hearts, and so our national struggle  to realize the dream of social and economic equality for all continues to unfold in stories of  pain and healing, tears and laughter, progress and set-backs, success and failure.

Reader 2 – And it remains incumbent upon us in the community of faith who know that God has made from one blood all the people of the earth (Acts 17:26) and who pays no attention to the differences of gender, nationality or race when it comes to the provision of salvation full and free in Jesus Christ to be an anti-racist, pro-reconciling people.

A Sign – Yams

For weeks, months, sometimes as long as a year, they waited in the dungeons of the slave factories scattered along Africa’s western coast. They had already made the long, difficult journey from Africa’s interior — but just barely. Out of the roughly 20 million who were taken from their homes and sold into slavery, half didn’t complete the journey to the African coast, most of those dying along the way. And the worst was yet to come. The captives were about to embark on the infamous Middle Passage, so called because it was the middle leg of a three-part voyage — a voyage that began and ended in Europe. The first leg of the voyage carried a cargo that often included iron, cloth, brandy, firearms, and gunpowder. Upon landing on Africa’s “slave coast,” the cargo was exchanged for Africans. Fully loaded with its human cargo, the ship set sail for the Americas, where the slaves were exchanged for sugar, tobacco, or some other product. The final leg brought the ship back to Europe.

Chained in the hold of the ships that carried them to America, the Africans ate mostly yams during the middle passage.  For a ship loaded with 500 slaves there would need to be 100,000 yams, roughly 200 per person.  But many ships stocked much less than this.  The yams would be thrown among the Africans randomly, and far fewer than could sustain life.  As many as 1/3 of them died on the passage.

This morning there are raw yams at your table.  As you taste what was the staple of the Middle Passage, quietly ponder the utter depravity of “America’s original Sin” – slavery, and its lingering effect – racism.

A Prayer for Racial Justice (www.catholiccharitiesusa.org)

God of justice, In your wisdom you create all people in your image, without exception. Through your goodness, open our eyes to see the dignity, beauty, and worth of every human being. Open our minds to understand that all your children are brothers and sisters in the same human family. Open our hearts to repent of racist attitudes, behaviors, and speech which demean others. Open our ears to hear the cries of those wounded by racial discrimination, and their passionate appeals for change. Strengthen our resolve to make amends for past injustices and to right the wrongs of history. And fill us with courage that we might seek to heal wounds, build bridges, forgive and be forgiven, and establish peace and equality for all in our communities. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL

A Song

This land is your land, this land is my land from California, to the New York Island

From the redwood forest, to the Gulf Stream waters, This land was made for you and me

The Story

Reader 1: We’re all thankful to be Americans today.

All: Some of us are here because our forefathers and foremothers fled oppression.

Reader 2: Others came here to make a better life for themselves and their families.

All: Some came against their will as slaves.

Reader 1: Others were here for thousands of years and helped or fought the newcomers to their native land.

All: But no matter how we got here, we all benefit today from our founders’ belief in our right to be free.

Reader 2:  Much has been said over the years about the diversity of the American people and the vitality and resilience of the American character. Well, that character isn’t centered around any one religious denomination — for in our country there are many religions; everyone has a right to worship God as he or she chooses. It isn’t based on any one ethnic group or race — for our people come in all shades and shapes, and we remain dedicated to the proposition that all of them are created equal. 

Reader 1: Our national character is based on a common identity with a single ideal, a shared value that overcomes our differences and unites us as a people. What has made us a nation is our love of liberty and our realization that we’re part of a great historic venture, an experiment in freedom to test the ability of people to live together in freedom, respecting the rights of others and expecting that their rights, in turn, will be respected.

Reader 2: Our vision of liberty is reinforced by shared symbols and experiences. Perhaps the strongest image of them all is the one that for millions of Americans was their first glimpse of America — that Statue of Liberty.  And on its base, it proclaims –

Reader 1:  Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch…

All: “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Emma Lazarus “The New Colossus”)

A Sign – Kindling a Light

126 years ago today the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor.  A gift from the French people, the statue recalls our alliance with France during the Revolutionary War.  It was to serve as a visible symbol of America’s guiding principle: the universal liberty and equality of human beings.

Officially titled “Liberty Enlightening the World,” the statue’s name, along with the torch born in her right hand, remind us of America’s mission: to be a city on a hill and a shining beacon of liberty for the world.  As John Quincy Adams proclaimed on July 4, 1821, the United States is the “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.”

At each table there is a candle in a candlestick.  As the last act of our American Seder, have someone light the candle as a symbol of the beacon of liberty we are called to be as a people, as someone else reads the Emma Lazarus poem, “The New Colossus” that is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty  (there is a copy at each table) –

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

A Prayer for Refugees (www.xavier.edu)

Lord God, help us to remember those who tonight will go to sleep unfed and unwelcome, strangers in foreign lands, people who have fled for their lives and are far from their homes. We lift up to you those who are escaping persecution and conflict, having fled death, torture or ruthless exploitation. So many carry wounds, mental and physical. So many have suffered greatly. Lord Jesus, give us more of your compassion for their plight, soften our hearts to their situation, and help us follow your lead in seeking justice and mercy on their behalf. We pray for an end to the wars, poverty and human rights abuses that drive desperate people to become refugees in the first place. We give thanks for people working in troubled countries and ask for more of your blessing so we can bring life, dignity and hope to those that remain. We thank you that you are Lord of all the earth and all its people are loved by you. We pray these things in the name of your Son who was himself born into the troubled life of a refugee. Amen.

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Rivers and Reservoirs (Acts 13:1-4)

One of my treasures is a first edition of Thomas Kelly’s book A Testament of Devotion. Thomas Kelly was a Quaker.  If I wasn’t a Disciple, I’d have to give some serious thought to being a Quaker. I value their spiritual point of view that highly. 

A Testament of Devotion was published in 1941, the year that Thomas Kelly.  He was 48 years old.  Thomas Kelly died the very day that Harper & Brothers told him that they wanted to publish some of his writings.  He told his wife that it was “the greatest day” of his life, and then that evening, while drying the dinner dishes, he suffered a massive heart attack and died almost instantly. His good friend and colleague, Douglas Steere, another Quaker, gathered up some of Thomas Kelly’s best essays and submitted them to Harper & Sons for publication.  They became this book, a book that is considered by many to be one of the great spiritual classics of the 20th century.

One of the essays in A Testament of Devotion is called “The Light Within.”  This is the idea that is right at the very center of the Quaker experience. They say that the Living Christ stands at the door of every human heart knocking, wanting, waiting to come in.  They insist that Jesus Christ is not to be known as an idea, as a person from ancient history, but as an immediate companion and friend, in fact that’s what Quakers call themselves – “Friends.”

The way that Thomas Kelly described this experience of letting Christ in has become part of the architecture of my soul.  It frames the way that I think about who God is, and how God works, and what God wants. He said that the “Light Within” involves two distinct movements.  First, God pulls us out of the world and deep into His heart where we learn that we are loved and that we are His.  And then, when that’s firmly established, God hurls us out of His heart and back into the world where we are asked to help Him bear its hurts and hopes with the same infinitely tender love with which we know ourselves to be loved by Him.

Thomas Kelly wasn’t the first Christian thinker to talk like this about our experience with Christ. Back in the 12th century St. Bernard (1090 – 1153) talked about these same two aspects of the spiritual life as rivers and reservoirs.  He said that the love of God fills us up – that’s the reservoir, and then the love of God flows out of us – that’s the river.  His big concern was that too many Christians try to be rivers without first being reservoirs.  Rivers move water along, but without a reservoir constantly gathering that water, the river will soon run dry. “If you are wise,” Str. Bernard said, “you will be a reservoir before becoming a river.”  But as with most things, there is an equal opposite mistake that we can make.

50 years ago, a preacher I was listening to had us open our Bibles to the maps in the back, and to find one that showed Israel.  He pointed out that Israel has two inland bodies of water, the Sea of Galilee in the North, and the Dead Sea in the South. He told us that the Sea of Galilee is blue and beautiful, teeming with life and activity.  But the Dead Sea is, well, “dead.” It’s murky and smelly, lifeless, and surrounded by desert. And the difference between them is that the water that gathers in Sea of Galilee in the North flows out through the Jordan River and winds up in the Dead Sea where it has no outlets and so it just sits there and stagnates.

“The Sea of Galilee is a conduit,” that preacher told us, and “the Dead Sea is a container.”  To be spiritually vital we’ve got to be both reservoirs and rivers. We’ve got to receive and release. As one of the worship choruses we used to sing back in the day put it, “Freely, freely you have received, freely, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). This is the rhythm of Biblical spirituality. We open our hands to receive the gifts that God so freely offers us in Christ, and then, from those same open hands, we share the gifts that we have received with others.  We need to be reservoirs that receive and rivers that share. This is true for us as individual Christians, and for us as churches.

Acts 13:1-4 may be the most important “River and Reservoir” passage in the Bible. New Testament scholars like to say that these verses are one of the “hinges” of salvation history. The book of Acts begins with a preview of the story it tells. Acts 1:8 says, “You will receive power [the word here in Greek is the word for “dynamite” – an explosive, earth-moving force] when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Pentecost is when the Holy Spirit was poured out in fullness on those first Christians. That was the event of Pentecost, but Pentecost is also an ongoing experience. Pentecost opened the faucet through which the Holy Spirit continues to flow into our lives today, and it’s the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence that has empowered the church’s mission of witness and service from her front doorsteps to the ends of the earth.   

Acts 13:1-4 is the pivot on which the church turned from witnessing and serving in its own neighborhood – Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria – to witnessing and serving at the ends of the earth.  Before Acts 13, Christianity was just a subset of Judaism, a handful of Jews who believed that in Jesus of Nazareth the promised Messiah had finally come.  But after Acts 13, Christianity became a global community drawn from every tribe and tongue and people and nation who believed that Jesus Christ was the Lord and Savior of the whole wide world. In Acts 13:1-4, the reservoir that was the church in Antioch became the river that has been flowing to everyone, everywhere, ever since.

Now, as far as churches as reservoirs go, the church in Antioch was just about as good as they get, in fact, E. Stanley Jones argued that the church in Antioch is the pattern for the church that we should all be using to take stock of how our churches are doing! The church in Antioch got started when some of the Jewish followers of Jesus in Jerusalem got scattered in the first persecution after the stoning of Stephen.  When it began to thrive, the church leaders in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to check it out, and what he found was a vibrant community of faith.  Barnabas recruited Paul to come and join him in teaching and leading these new believers in Antioch, and Luke tells us that it was there in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were called “Christians” for the very first time (Acts 11:26).

Michael Green, the British New Testament scholar, said that this name “Christian” was an adaptation of what the followers of the Emperor Augustus called themselves. People who were loyal and devoted to Augustus were known as “August-ians,” and so it was only natural that the people who were similarly loyal and devoted to Jesus Christ would be called “Christ-ians.”  As Dr. Green wrote, Jesus Christ was their “one overmastering passion” – “They kept speaking of Christ, kept working for Christ, kept trying to please Christ, acting as they thought Christ would have acted… They were consumed with a passion for Jesus Christ.  He was the Lord; he was their first love; nothing else was so important to them.”

The Christians in Antioch were totally committed to knowing Christ and to doing His will, and so, in Acts 11, when a visiting prophet told them about the suffering that their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem were about to face because of an impending famine, Luke tells us that they immediately took up an offering and had Barnabas and Paul take it to them (11:27-30).  50 years ago, it was said that when the folks at the YMCA saw a human need, they would pray about it, and then they’d go out to do something about it. In contrast, it was said that when the church saw a human need, they would pray about it, and then form a committee to discuss it. The very first story that we’re told about the church in Antioch is a story about a church that responded to a human hurt in a most Christ-like ways. The second story that we’re told about the church in Antioch is about their prayer meeting in Acts 13 when the Holy Spirit turned their reservoir into a river. The first story set the table for the second story.

“Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them,” the Holy Spirit told the spiritual leaders of the church in Antioch (13:2). Now, I can’t imagine that this news would have been received with much joy. Their reservoir was hitting on all its cylinders. It was a spiritually gifted, socially diverse, proactively generous, spiritually aware, and faithfully obedient church. They were Christians, men and women, boys and girls devoted to knowing Christ and making Christ known. And so, they prayed, and they fasted, and they worshipped, and when the Holy Spirit showed up, they listened.  They knew who it was that was speaking, and they were prepared to do what was said.

Personally, I’m a big fan of stability.  I’m one of those “a place for everything and everything in its place kind of people.” I get anxious when parts and pieces begin to shift around.  I like the church as a reservoir, and as a general rule, we reservoir people don’t like change. But the Holy Spirit does.  As Pope Francis told the church right after his election – “The Holy Spirit annoys us. The Spirit moves us, … (the Holy Spirit) pushes the church to move forward. [But] we want the Holy Spirit to calm down. We want to tame the Holy Spirit, and that just won’t do. The Holy Spirit gives us consolation and the strength to move forward and the moving forward part is what can be such a bother. People think it’s better to be comfortable, but that is not what the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit brings.”

Eugene Peterson told the story about how he had his church in perfect running order one summer before he left for his annual vacation. A few weeks later, when he got back, he said the place was in turmoil. And so, Eugene Peterson did what he was trained to do as a pastor, he started putting out the fires and managing the conflicts.  But this time, he said, one of his elders pulled him aside and asked him a rather pointed question, “How do you know that this upheaval isn’t the work of the Holy Spirit?”  Reservoir people can miss the rivers that God creates.

When the church in Antioch got the word that the Holy Spirit was calling Barnabas and Paul, two of their most crucial and beloved leaders to another work in another place, we’re told that rather than getting upset, they fasted, they prayed, they laid their hands on them in blessing, and they let them go instead.  When St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Founder of the Society of Jesus, the “Jesuits,” was asked what he would do if he was told that he had to shut down his Order and end its work, he famously said with fifteen minutes of prayer, he could be at complete peace with it and would move on, and that’s because he understood that our systems and structures don’t exist for themselves. Reservoirs gather water not just to get bigger, but to feed the rivers of the Spirit wherever they go next.

For me, the takeaway from Acts 13:1-4 is the pushy Holy Spirit and the fearless, faithful church in Antioch. John Howard Yoder, the great Mennonite Theologian from the last generation, liked to point out that the church in Acts never sat down to strategize her mission, to work out the logic and logistics of it all.  No, Professor Yoder said, the church’s mission was subject entirely to the Holy Spirit’s initiative and empowerment. In the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit was always pushing the church past its present borders and across the thresholds to those who were standing just beyond its doors.  

The Holy Spirit creates reservoirs in order to fill the rivers that flow bringing life and love everywhere they go and to everyone they touch. In John 7:37-39, the promise of Pentecost was made to us in these very terms. Jesus said – “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” This is the reservoir movement of the Spirit.  This is the pulling into the heart of God to be loved part. We can’t give away what we don’t have, and so we’ve got to be reservoirs first.  And then, when we are full, Jesus said that “out of our hearts will flow rivers of living water.” This is the river movement of the Spirit. This is the hurling from the heart of God and back into the world part.

Distribution not just accumulation is the Spirit’s strategy. We become reservoirs in order to be rivers. “Overflow,” that’s what theologian Michael Green said that churches and Christians are supposed to do. “Overflow” – it “gives just the right nuance” he said. We are supposed to be “so full of joy about Jesus Christ that it overflows just as surely as a bath that is filled to overflowing with water.”  And we can when “freely, freely we receive” and then “freely, freely give.” That’s how it works. This is what the Holy Spirit does.

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“There’s More to Do…”

The book of Acts is the Gospel of Luke, Part 2.

The Gospel of Luke begins with Luke explaining himself, explaining what it was that he wrote, and why he wrote it – Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us,  just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,  it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (1:1-4)

The Gospel of Luke presents itself to us as a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us,” based on what “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” were saying about them, written down in “an orderly account,” that its readers might be “informed” and “know the truth.” My expectation when I open the Gospel of Luke and read it is that I am going to be told about something that Jesus Christ said and/or did, and why it matters.

The book of Acts begins with a quick glance back before a steady moving forward – “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach,  until the day when he was taken up…  And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ He said to them… ‘you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.’ And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (1:1-2; 4-5; 8-9)

The Ascension (Christ’s “lifting up”) and Pentecost (the “coming upon you” of the Holy Spirit) is what propels the church forward and outward in mission (“and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth”). And what is that mission? It is to be witnesses to what Jesus Christ says and does.  The Gospel of Luke is about what Jesus “began to do and teach,” and the book of Acts is about what Jesus continues to do and say through the Spirit-prompted ministry of the Church. This is the significance of John 20:21-23, one of the versions of the “Great Commission” – “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

Greater Things?

Jesus “continues” working by the Spirit in the life and work of the church, and this is what frames what surely must be one of the most astonishing things that Jesus Christ ever said.  Right after telling His disciples that He is “the way, the truth, and the life,” how people “come to the Father” (14:6), Jesus was directly challenged by Philip (14:8). “Show us the Father,” Philip blurted out, “and we shall be satisfied!” Jesus was disappointed that Philip had to ask this. How could Philip have been with Jesus for all that time, and Philip not seen God in Him? Jesus cited the “works” that He’d done as the clues about who He was (14:10-11).  In the Gospel of John the works Jesus did are called “signs” to make this very point.  And it was in this discussion of His works that Jesus said, Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12).

“Greater works?” Really? Just think about the mighty “works”/”signs” in the Gospel of John that Jesus did –

  • Changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-11);
  • Healing the royal official’s son (Jn 4:46-54);
  • Healing the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (Jn 5:1-15);
  • Feeding the 5,000 (Jn 6:5-14);
  • Walking on water (Jn 6:16-21);
  • Healing the man born blind (Jn 9:1-7); and
  • Raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:1-45).

What could be “greater” than this? So, the right question is – “What did Jesus mean when He spoke of the greater things that we would do as His disciples?” And as you would expect, there are a range of answers.

Signs and Wonders

Some say that the “greater” things we will do as Christ’s disciples are in fact “signs and wonders” just like those that the Gospels report Jesus Himself as having done. The public ministry of Jesus Christ was accompanied by signs and wonders attesting it (Acts 2:22), as was the ministry of the early church (Hebrews 2:3-4). There was a pattern to the church’s proclamation of the Gospel in the book of Acts. Something miraculous – a sign or wonder – would happen creating an audience and some expectation. The thing that happened would then be explained as an expression of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, seated at the right hand of God, present by indwelling presence of the Spirit, and coming again. And finally, people would be invited to receive Jesus Christ as their own Lord and Savior through repentance and faith. 

It’s hard to read the New Testament and not see this pattern at work, but equally clear are the New Testament’s criticisms of those who were constantly seeking after signs and wonders (Matthew 12:38-41; 16:1-4; John 4:48; I Corinthians 1:22), and its praise for those who believed in Jesus Christ without needing to “touch” and “see” (John 20:29; I Peter 1:8-9). The complexity of this for me as someone who tries to take Scripture seriously has led me to adopt St. Augustine’s nuanced position on these kinds of “special experiences.  He said, “I do not seek them, and when they are present, I do not reject them, but I am prepared to do entirely without them.”  If John 14:12 is not the carte blanch for the miraculous that some Christians take it to be, a summary demand for bigger and better spectacles, then there must be a way of understanding the “greater” of which Jesus spoke as meaning more than just perpetually punching up the “wow factor” of the things that accompany and attest the Gospel’s advance.

The Multiplication of Ministry

And so, another way that Christians have understood Jesus’ “greater” in John 14:12 has come from reading it more quantitatively than qualitatively. Instead of taking “greater” to mean “better,” lots of Christians through the centuries have taken the “greater” of John 14:12 to mean “more.” Acts 10:38 is my favorite summary verse in the Bible about the public ministry of Jesus Christ. Preaching to the household of Cornelius the Centurion in Caesarea, the Gospel’s first Gentile congregation, Peter explained that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” so that He could “go about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.” 

Jesus going about doing good was just one person working really hard every single day to make people whole.  When Jesus called the 12 to join Him, the work of doing good and making people whole was instantly, exponentially increased.  The work of the Kingdom expanded from one person touching the lives of the people in His radius with God’s power and compassion, to 12 people touching the lives of the people in their radii with God’s power and compassion. That’s “greater,” a twelve-fold increase.  After the resurrection but before Pentecost, Luke tells us that Jesus had 120 followers in Jerusalem (Acts 1:15), that’s a ten-fold increase of the work of the 12.  120 people touching the lives of the people in their radii with God’s power and compassion; that’s “greater.” And then, before the day of Pentecost day was through, Luke tells us that 3,000 souls were “added’ to the church (Acts 2:41), and that meant 3,000 people joining the 120 in the work of touching the lives of the people in their radii with God’s power and compassion in Jesus Christ.

The statisticians tell us that there are 2.38 billion Christians in the world today. If we took “greater” to mean “more,” imagine the multiplication of ministry that would ensue. 2.38 billion Christians touching the lives of the people in their radii with the power and compassion of the God we know in Jesus Christ.

Science and Technology

Other Christians have taken a much more philosophical approach to the meaning of the “greater works” that Jesus said we who are His followers would do.  Did you know that since 1582 there has been a working observatory at the Vatican? The Vatican observatory is not just for show.  It is a modern working astronomical observatory engaged in major scientific research with Universities all around the world. The mission of the Vatican Observatory is to show the world that the science and religion are not enemies.  But the argument is bigger than that. The Church likes to say that modern science is related to Christianity “as a child is to the womb out of which it came forth and with full vitality.” The idea here is that there is something about Christianity that stimulates and nurtures scientific discovery and human creativity.

One of the first things that Christians have historically confessed about God is that God is “the Maker of the Heavens and the Earth.” When human beings were created, the stories at the beginning of Genesis tells us that this God who is the “Maker of all things Visible and Invisible” instilled capacity and delegated responsibility to “keep and till the earth” and “to subdue and have dominion over creation” to His human partners. But among the adverse consequences that the Fall brought was a disordering of creation (3:17-19), and part of the redemption that Christ brings is the healing of creation. We sing about this at Christmas –

“No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

A way of understanding God’s saving work in Christ is as the restoration of the shalom of creation. The pictures of everybody and everything fitting together in a web of mutual interdependence and productivity that makes for cosmic well-being that the stories of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis paint are the template for the wholeness that God in Christ by the Spirit is moving the universe toward, and this means that Christianity is not just about church and “religion.” The truth that Christianity claims and proclaims touches everything. As Abraham Kuyper (1837 – 1920) famously put it, ““There’s not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not exclaim, ‘Mine’!”  And so, the Vatican has a working observatory. Every advance in human knowledge, every scientific discovery, every expression of creativity and beauty, every technological advance that makes life better for humanity and the cosmos is part of the “greater” that Jesus said we would do because we are His. As Abraham Kuyper put it – “…By research and reflection, humanity penetrated through the very essence of nature and learned to put the powers hidden within her into service… blessing thousands simultaneously in all their distress and diseases… [And so] Jesus – knowing what He would bring about and establish in and through us through later development – told his disciples that they would perform things that were greater than those visible in his miracles.”

The Salvation of Souls

Finally, there are those Christians who take the promise of the “greater” things that Jesus said we will do as His disciples than He Himself did in the days of His public ministry as a reference to the soul work of the Great Commission – preaching the Gospel and making disciples. The gift of salvation that comes by faith that we get to offer people is the “greater” work gave us to do. This is the perspective of the first temptation of Christ in the wilderness.  Jesus could have spent every day turning stones into bread and feeding physically hungry people, but as He told the adversary, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4// Deuteronomy 6:16).

 This same temptation played out in the Gospel of John after the feeding of 5,000 (6:1-14). The people liked this Jesus, the one who filled their hungry bellies with bread and fish, and so they conspired to take Jesus “by force to make him king” (6:15). Jesus “withdrew” from them, and when He showed up again on the other side of the Sea of Galilee it was with the message that it wasn’t enough to “labor for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life” (6:27). Just as their fathers could eat their fill of manna in the wilderness one day, only to be hungry again the next day, so Jesus said that He came not just to satisfy a temporal, transient need, but rather to provide “the bread which comes down from heaven, that a person can eat and not die” (6:50).

Leon Morris (1914 – 2006), the noted Australian New Testament scholar, explained this perspective well when he wrote – “We may profitably ask ourselves, ‘What work on earth is greater than the salvation of souls?’ When a person is healed of a physical complaint that person’s life is enriched for a few more years. But when a soul is saved something has happened that lasts through eternity. [In John 14:12] Jesus is saying that on the basis of his finished work of salvation the church would go forth in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring many, many more people into salvation than Jesus did during the years of his ministry on earth.” As St. Augustine noted, “When the disciples preached the Gospel, nations believed!”  And what could be “greater” than that?

Conclusion

So, what are the “greater” things that Jesus said we would do as His disciples after He had gone away and sent the Holy Spirit to be our “Helper”? There is no single answer, I think because the answer is not just one thing.  Even the promise was plural.  Jesus didn’t say “a greater work” (singular) we would do, but “greater works.” We should not limit the promise or narrow the possibilities.

In the 1980’s when a class on “Signs and Wonders” became an “event” at Fuller Theological Seminary, the Trustees commissioned a panel of scholars to explore “ministry and the miraculous” to help them better understand and interpret the meaning of what they were experiencing.  Their report, as you would expect, factored the importance of the promise of “greater” works that Jesus made in John 14:12 into their conversations and considerations, and their conclusion (edited by Lewis Smedes) stands as an example of the kind of intelligent and reverent balance that made Fuller the first seminary I attended. “We cannot say for sure what Jesus meant,” it begins, and then it weaves a way to understanding that honors the diverse ways that the church has faithfully lived with and into this promise –

“We note that compared by any ordinary standard of equivalence, the healings reported by contemporary healing ministries hardly qualify as ‘greater works’ than Jesus did. But we may well believer that the total scope of healing in all the medical and psychiatric hospitals, sanatoria, clinics, and all other institutions that Christian believers have been enabled by the Spirit to build and operate around the world probably have indeed brought about countless times as many healings as our Lord performed during his brief sojourn with us on earth. And it may also be true that spiritually motivated movements of social reform  have improved the living conditions of people to a quantitative degree far greater than the occasional physical healings our Lord performed as testimonies to his messianic office. So, in terms of effects on earthly lives of people, the believing community has, without claim to the miraculous, done ‘greater works’ than Jesus did.

In promising ‘greater works than these,’ Jesus may also have been putting a higher value on the spiritual effects of what the church would do than he did on his miraculous healings of bodies that, in any case, got terminally sick again, and died.  He promised his disciples  that thjeir witness would bear fruit unto eternal life (see John 5:20; 6:28f; 16:7-11; 20:22, 23). He promised, through the (fruit of the womb of the) Virgin Mary, that the hungry would be given food to eat, the lowly would be lifted up, and the unrighteous powerful and rich would be scattered and sent away empty (Luke 1:47-53).  It may have been in such senses as these, that his disciples were to do greater works than Jesus.

…Some Christian expectation of miraculous divine intervention in life existed almost continuously from the time of the apostles to the Reformation. …[But] this expectation, when separated from the context of [redemptive] suffering, led rather easily from a sober and responsible faith to superstition and exploitation, from liturgical prayer to quasi-magical tricks. The Reformers of the church believed that preoccupation with miracles seduced believers from the heart of the gospel’s spiritual message and moral mandate, and they returned the churches to the heart of the matter, justifying faith and sanctifying obedience.

…The priorities of the gospel call for the proclamation of forgiveness and for seeking justice, doing mercy, and walking humbly through life in stride with the victorious and compassionate Savior. Perhaps it was with such priorities in mind that both Jesus and Paul depreciated popular craving for signs.  And it must have been at least partly out of the same true sense of priority that the great Reformers, Calvin and Luther, and the great evangelists, Whitefield, Finney, Moody, Fuller, and Graham, among others, were blessed with life-changing and epoch-transforming spiritual power but who yet never encouraged miraculous healing as a public feature of their historic undertakings for God.”

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More

There’s always more.

This morning (Monday, June 7) I read a John Henry Newman sermon as part of my sacred reading – “God the Sole Stay for Eternity.” Where I felt the “tug” was where he wrote –

“At the end of millions of years, I shall find in Thee the same, or rather, greater sweetness than at first, and shall seem then only beginning to enjoy Thee: and so on for eternity I shall ever be a little child beginning to be taught the rudiments of Thy infinite Divine nature.”

This was the same “tug” that I felt in church yesterday morning. It was a morning of incredible music at church (it always is – praise God for the musicians – they speak the language of God). As my pastor said, “sometimes you hear music, at other times you feel music.” Yesterday we all felt the music in church, and it felt like the Holy Spirit to me.

Two scriptures were insistently brought to my mind by the Spirit yesterday as I was gathered with God’s people under the Word, around the Table, and bathed in the power and beauty of the music of church yesterday morning, John 14:12 –  “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father,” and John 15:12-13 – “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

More!

That’s what these verses are telling us.

There are “greater things” to do.

There’s more truth to be known.

One of the very first things that I learned in my formal study of the Bible in Christian College was that Scripture unveils God’s truth gradually. We don’t get it all at once. No single verse, no single book, no single moment in salvation history dumps the full load. Hebrews 1:1-3 makes this clear –

“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.” 

Biblical Revelation is progressive. Glimpses in the Old Testament become gazes in the New Testament.  The hints and hunches we get from the Old Testament become the big ideas of the New Testament, and among the last things that Jesus told us was that the Spirit is given because there’s more to even those big ideas that we were given in the New Testament.  They have implications and applications that are still unfolding. God didn’t check out when Jesus went away. The Spirit was sent to continue the conversation, to deepen the insight, to advance God’s redemptive purpose.  In seminary this idea was framed as the “already and not yet” of our salvation. Things have happened. God has spoken and acted in decisive ways with the result that things are well underway. We know where it’s all going, what it is that God wants, and how it is that God is going about getting there.  That’s the “already.” But it’s not finished. There’s more to come, and that’s the “not yet.” 

Deism is the spiritual perspective that postulates a good God who sets things up, sets things in motion, steps back to let things play out on their own, and who will only step back in at the end to assess how we did.  I know lots of “New Testament Deists” (in fact, I have had a tendency in this direction myself). With the New Testament in our hands, we think that we’ve got it all even though the New Testament that we hold in our hands tells that we don’t! 

There’s more.

There’s always more. 

There’s more to do. 

There’s more to know.

The Spirit is the agent of that “more.”

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Trinity Sunday

Today is “Trinity Sunday” on the Church calendar. Since the 14th century the Church in the West has used the first Sunday after Pentecost to think and talk about how the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of Life,” and Jesus Christ who was “born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised on the third day, and ascended into heaven,” “fit” together with the one God, “the Father Almighty,” the “Maker of heaven and earth.”  Trying to explain how the God of “one substance in three persons” works (See: www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/athanasian-creed) is what most churches around the world will be attempting to do today. But not the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  It will be the unusual congregation in my church family that so much as mentions the fact that today is “Trinity Sunday.”

The churches of the Stone/Campbell Movement have had an interesting relationship with the historic doctrine of the Trinity. We baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19), and we bless you with the words, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:14), but we would really rather not use the word “Trinity.”  I discovered this at one of the first worship services I ever attended at a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  It gave me real pause when it happened and was almost  enough for me to move along on my journey to find a church where I “fit.”

We stood to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” as the worship hymn at the beginning of the service in that church, as sturdy and standard a hymn as there is in the church’s repertoire. The key was pitched just right, the accompaniment was well-paced, the words were familiar, the singing was enthusiastic, and I easily joined in –

“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty…”

And then it happened. Just as I opened my mouth to sing the familiar words of the last line of the first stanza – “God in three persons, blessed Trinity!” – that Disciples congregation I was visiting sang instead was – “God over all, and blest eternally.” I didn’t see it coming. Confused, I asked the pastor about it afterwards, and he patiently told me that as a New Testament Church that was trying to speak where the Bible speaks and to be silent where the Bible is silent, that they preferred using Biblical language when talking about Biblical things, and since the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, he said they tried not to use it.  He told me that they didn’t deny the fact that we experience the Biblical God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “We will baptize and bless you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” he told me, “because that’s what the Bible does.”  But since the Bible never explains just exactly how this works, how God can be “one in three,” that minister told me that, not wanting to say more than the Bible says, they were “content to live with its mystery.” In time I found that I could live with it too, and have been now for more than 50 years. 

In a doctoral seminar on developments in contemporary theology that I took during my

studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, when the class got into the weeds one day in a discussion about the Trinity with my Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Catholic peers arguing over some of the finer points of theology, I sat back as a spectator and smugly made the observation that as a Disciple I was comfortable with the mystery of it all, to which our professor, Dr. Alan Lewis of blessed memory, quickly replied, “that, or you’re theologically lazy!” I can see why some might conclude this of my church family. There’s a silence born of ignorance and sloth, from the refusal to think hard and speak clearly.  But there’s also a silence born of humility and reverence. There’s a whole tradition of Christian spirituality, the apophatic tradition, based on it, and I’d like to think that this is what accounts for our silence as a church.

I just love Psalm 131. It may very well be my favorite Psalm of them all.  As someone who’s faith has relentlessly sought understanding and who has tried to love God with all the strength of my mind, I find Psalm 131’s admission and image strangely reassuring –

“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”

In 1273 when he was fifty years old and after having written hundreds of works, and while he was still working on his masterpiece, the “Summa Theologica” (“Summary of Theology”), Thomas Aquinas went to the chapel to pray one day, came back, and never wrote another word.   When pressed to explain this, all Thomas Aquinas would say was that “everything that I have written seems like straw to me compared to those things that I have seen and have been revealed to me.” Theologian Fred Sanders explains, “Thomas received a visionary moment of clarity, and saw the object of his theological reasoning in a way that made further writing inadequate.” Dr. Sanders writes further –

“Once, at the beginning of his work ‘Opusculum De Creaturis Spiritualibus’ (‘The Perfection of Spiritual Beings’), Thomas had given a rough reason of why theologians do what they do: ‘Not being able to do the work of the angels in choir, we can at least write about them.’ As he drew near to the destiny of doing the work of the angels gathered around God, perhaps the task of writing out theology, which was always a kind of compensation anyway, became less urgent.”

I’d like to think that my church’s principled reticence to say more than the Bible says about God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is an expression of this same appreciation for mystery, modesty, and devotion. Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662), the French mathematician and mystic who was so much more interested in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the God of experience and relationships) than he was in “the God of philosophers and theologians” (the God of ideas and arguments) liked to say that “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”  And I’ve found this to be true of my Trinitarianism. The idea of God as a Trinity is just as confusing and complicated to me as it probably is to you. I read a lot of theology, and I can honestly say that there are ways of thinking and talking about God as Trinity that make my head hurt.  But my experience of God as a Trinity is something that is deeply meaningful and profoundly moving to me. 

Irenaeus of Lyons (130 – 202 AD), one of the Apostolic Fathers (the second generation of early church leaders after the Apostles) said that we can think of Jesus Christ as God’s “right hand,” and the Holy Spirit as God’s “left hand.” His point was that the God of Scripture is ambidextrous.  This was his picturesque way of talking about how the one eternal and invisible God becomes present and active in our world, and it has helped me make sense of my own relationship with God.

My Trinitarianism is functional. To use a business analogy, God the Father has the vision, God the Son is in production, and God the Spirit oversees sales.  Saving us is God’s idea. The saving work was actually done by Christ in His incarnation, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. And the application of that salvation to individual human hearts as well as to social systems and structures is what the Holy Spirit does.  This understanding of God frames every theological discussion we have about where God is and what God is doing. And so, while we may not talk about it being Trinity Sunday in worship today, when we gather around the Lord’s Table, as we do every Lord’s Day as a church, to break bread, pour a cup, remember Christ and Him crucified, and give thanks, it will be within this Trinitarian framework.

The “Preamble” to the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a creed-like confession with a Trinitarian flow to it (“In Christ’s name and by his grace”— “in God, maker of heaven and earth” — “In the communion of the Holy Spirit”), says that we do two things at the Table of the Lord – “we celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.” Since the days when a denominational “Panel of Scholars” reviewed the life, faith, and work of our church (1956-1962) in order to better position us as an ecumenical partner in the community of churches, it has been customary for us to think and talk about the Lord’s Supper using two words – “remembrance” and “presence.” 

The Lord’s Supper is an act by which we “call to mind the reality for which it stands.” The bread broken helps us to remember Christ’s body that was broken; the cup poured helps us to remember Christ’s blood that was shed. And the Lord’s Supper is also a way for Christ to actually be present and for us to participate in the fullness of the salvation that He so freely provides. Using Irenaeus’ analogy, at the Lord’s Table each week God uses both His right hand (The “remembrance” of Christ’s saving work) and His left hand (The continuing  “presence” of the Spirit) in His encounter with us to provide for us, refashion us, and equip us for the mission of witness and service that God puts in our hands.

What happens at the Lord’s Table each Lord’s Day begins in the heart of God. Barton Stone (1772 – 1844), one of my tradition’s founders, told the story – “A father provides plentifully for a large family of children. Some of them may know the means by which the father got the provisions – others may not so well know, and the youngest may scarcely know anything more than that the father’s love provided these things. Yet they all eat and thrive, without quarreling about the means by which the provisions were obtained.  O that Christians would do likewise.” This is the baseline of the Trinitarian shape of our weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper – “the father’s love provided these things.”

What happens at the Lord’s Table each Lord’s Day is based on who Christ is and what Christ came to do. In his presentation of the theology of the Lord’s Supper from his British Pentecostal tradition, Jonathan Black discusses the passionate exchanges between church leaders about whether leavened or unleavened bread, one loaf or little crackers, white wine or red wine, one cup or many cups, drinking from the cup or dipping into the cup are the right practices for a proper Communion service. It seems like such minutiae. But Jonathan Black defends such attention to detail on the grounds that since the Lord’s Supper was given to us by Christ to help us remember what He did for us, the way we do it matters. “At the Table we see the Cross,” his Apostolic tradition explains, and so getting the details right is just part of telling the story faithfully.  If we come to the Table to remember with thanksgiving the saving acts of Christ, getting those saving acts straight matters.

And what happens at the Lord’s Table each Lord’s Day depends on the Holy Spirit’s enlivening and empowering presence. It’s not just ancient history that we recall when we come to the Lord’s Table, but an encounter with the Living, Loving God that we expect, and it is the Holy Spirit who “makes our meal of bread and cup more than just a remembrance of a crucified Jesus,” as Richard Floyd explains, “but a celebration of the living Christ still present among us… it is the Spirit who makes Jesus our contemporary.”

It is quite likely that the word “Trinity” will not be said even once in church this morning. The fact that this is Trinity Sunday will probably pass without notice even though it’s been on the Church calendar now for some 700 years. But we wouldn’t be there in church without the Trinity, without the Loving God coming to us in Christ and the Spirit to rescue and restore us, and at the Table, to the eyes of faith, the Triune God will be present in our thanksgiving of the Triune God’s saving work.

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The Holy Spirit Catechism

The link to the “Holy Spirit Catechism” at the end of my last “Soundings” didn’t work – this one does:

A Holy Spirit Catechism (1).docx – Microsoft Word Online (live.com)

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“On Being Filled with the Holy Spirit”

In his familiar essay on “How to be Filled with the Holy Spirit,” A.W. Tozer (1897 –1963) said that the first thing that needs to happen in the process is that we need to become “convinced that being filled (with the Spirit) is part of the total plan of God in redemption; that it is nothing added or extra, nothing strange… but a proper and normal… spiritual and right operation of God, based upon and growing out of the work of Christ in atonement.” Unless and until we believe that being filled with the Holy Spirit is something that God wants for us and that we actually need as Christians, then it seems to me that it will be highly unlikely that we will bother doing the seeking, asking, and knocking that Jesus said was involved in God’s giving of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:9-13).

The way that Tozer advised us to actually go about getting to the “point of conviction” on this matter was by taking the time to read and meditate on what the Scriptures say about the Spirit and the experience of the Spirit’s infilling of believers. “Faith comes from the Word of God (Romans 10:17),” Tozer reminded his readers, and so rather than relying on the “suggestion, exhortation or the psychological effect of the testimony of others who have been filled,” we “should not press the matter nor allow ourselves to fall victim to the emotional manipulators intent upon forcing the issue” until we are persuaded by the Scriptures that the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit is part of the normal Christian life.

I find this to be sound advice on any matter of faith. From childhood on I’ve prayed that the “Blessed Lord who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning” would “grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,” that thus be informed, formed and transformed by the realities to which they bear witness (Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, the Book of Common Prayer). This is precisely what Tozer said we should do in the process of being filled with the Holy Spirit, but just as soon as we agree with him that this should be the way of moving forward, we are confronted with a problem. The Bible is a great big book that’s not always easy to read with understanding. So, what’s the best way to navigate what the Bible says about the indwelling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians and the church?

When I travel, I like to have a good map with me that I can look at to anticipate what I’m going to find on the road ahead of me and see in the country around me. One of my favorite things to do is to go over to the AAA office and get the maps of places that Mary Lynn and I plan to visit.  We made a couple of these trips right before the pandemic hit.  But for the past year all I’ve had are my maps.  I’ve studied them.  I’ve traced routes. I’ve imagined places. I’ve built lists of things that I want to do and see. But a plan is not a trip, and a map is not the road.  I find that the very best map is the one that’s right beside you in the car as you’re driving down the road that it’s folded open to!

A “catechism” (from the Greek “κατηχέω” – “to teach orally”) is a content “map” to what the Bible teaches. It’s a lousy substitute for the Bible, but it can be a helpful tool for navigating your way through what’s in the Bible.  Because we’ve not been particularly adept at “reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting” what’s in the Bible for ourselves with the result that it isn’t informing, forming, and transforming us very much as Christians, getting an accurate map to help us undertake a journey through the Word just might prove to be one of the most important things that we could possibly have, and because being filled with the Holy Spirit is such an urgent and indispensable part of New Testament Christianity, as A. W. Tozer observed, I have put together a “Holy Spirit Catechism” to help people navigate what the Bible says about the necessity and possibility of experiencing the indwelling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in them. It’s a map and not the road, but I think that it can help guide someone who hears the Scripture’s offer of “another Helper,” and who feels their own deep need for just such a One in their lives on where to turn in Scripture to be convinced that the experience of being filled with this Holy Spirit is for meant for them.

A Holy Spirit Catechism.pdf

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“I Believe in the Holy Ghost… the Giver of Life”

Some people take communion and all they get is a bite of bread and a sip of juice. Some people get baptized and all that happens is that they get wet.  The Church has known that this could happen to us right from the very beginning, and so we were warned in 2 Timothy 3:5 against holding to “the form of religion” while denying its “power.”

The definition of a sacrament that I was taught as kid in the Catechism from the Book of Common Prayer was that it’s “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” Church history shows that we’re pretty good at fussing and tussling over the outward and the visible while remaining largely oblivious to the inward and the invisible. This explains why, as E. Stanley Jones put it, it’s just so easy for someone to get outwardly into the church without being inwardly in Christ.

There’s a petition in the Church’s traditional Communion prayer that’s designed to keep the inward and the invisible at the forefront of our attention in the action at the Lord’s Table.  It’s called the “epiclesis.” The word literally means “invocation.”  The “epiclesis” is a prayer that invokes.  It’s prayed right after the Words of Institution (“The Lord Jesus on the night when Christ was betrayed took bread…”). The “epiclesis” is when we specifically ask God to send His Holy Spirit so that the bread and wine might become for us an actual sharing in the body and blood of Christ. This is what it sounds like in the Anglican tradition – “We pray you, gracious God, to send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant. Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”

It’s the presence and action of the Holy Spirit that potentially makes what we do at the Lord’s Table each Sunday morning a true “communion” (from the Latin: “com” – “with, together” + “unus” – “oneness, union”). It’s the enlivening work of the Spirit that transforms ordinary pieces of bread into the bread of eternal life (John 6:53-58). As Jesus told His disciples, “It is the Spirit that gives life” (John 6:63).

This connection between the Spirit and life looms large in the Biblical imagination. It’s not without reasons that when it was time for the church to sort out what it believed about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, that the very first thing they affirmed was that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of Life.” There’s little doubt that the Biblical thought behind these words is what Genesis 2:7 describes – “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”

In both Hebrew and Greek, the Biblical languages, “breath” and “Spirit” are words that are “always related, and sometimes even synonymous.”  To underscore the force of this animating connection, George Montague, the very fine Catholic Scripture scholar from down in San Antonio, often asks his students to hold their breaths for just as long as they possibly can.  He writes, “as one by one they let go in this gentle contest, they are reminded of just how precious their breath is and how utterly dependent upon it they are… to breathe is to live.”  In the spiritual life the Holy Spirit is this “life-breath.”  The Holy Spirit is “the giver of life.”

We can trace this idea throughout Scripture – It’s the breath of God that causes Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones to live again (Ezekiel 37), it’s the wind of the Spirit that pushes us to regeneration (John 3:3-8), the Risen Christ “breathed on” His disciples before sending them out to offer people forgiveness (John 20:21-23), the Holy Spirit came “upon all flesh” as “a mighty rushing wind” on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:2), the sacred writings which are able to instruct us for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus are “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:15-16), and the two witnesses in the book of Revelation (symbols of the believing community – Spiritual Israel and the Church?) who are left for dead in the middle of the street are raised up when “a breath of life from God entered them” (Revelation 11:11).

This is what the Holy Spirit does. “The life-breath of the Spirit blows on everything, bringing life from death, beauty from ugliness, and peace from confusion” (Clark Pinnock). The Spirit takes our dry, dusty lives, our empty words and meaningless rituals, our lifeless institutions with their tired systems and structures, and breathing on them, the Spirit creates new possibilities for the church’s life and mission while opening us up to depths of love that we would never have imagined possible before the Spirit blew through.

“Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew,
That I may love the things you love, and do what you would do.

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