Why I am Welcoming Advent more this Year than Ever Before
Adam Hamilton, the Pastor of the largest United Methodist Church in the United States, writes that before a church does anything else it must first answer the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” Clearly, there’s an assumption being made with this question, namely that the church has something to do with Jesus Christ. That in some way, He is instrumental to the church’s life and mission.
On the road to Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked His disciples “Who do people say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” And Jesus received this answer, adding the cryptic “And I also say to you that you are Peter and upon this rock I will be my church” (Matthew 16:13-19). The interpretive question is – “What is the rock upon which Christ is building His church?” There are two traditional ways of answering – Peter himself is the answer that our Catholic brothers and sisters affirm. They teach that the church is built on him as the first among the equals that were the Apostles, and John 17:20, Ephesians 2:20, and I John 1:1-5 can all be cited as further evidence in support of this position.
There is no question that Historic Christianity rests on the claim of apostolic witness. The canon of the New Testament to preserve the original apostolic voice, the emergence of Bishops in the life of the church as a continuation of apostolic authority, and the production of creeds to capture the essence of the apostolic teaching, were all ways of making sure that the church would forever be “Apostolic” as one of the marks of her life. Indeed the church is built on an apostolic foundation, and this is what our Catholic brothers and sisters are affirming in their identification of Peter as the rock on which Christ will build His church. But the way that Protestants in general, and we who are Disciples in particular, have answered the question about the rock upon which Christ will build His church has been to identify it with the confession that Peter offered rather than Peter himself, a confession that did not arise from his own intellectual capacities or processes, but rather, that arose from a flash of revelatory insight given by God Himself. Here is a classic statement of the argument from John MacArthur –
Peter is from petros, a masculine form of the Greek word for small stone, whereas rock is from petra, a different form of the same basic word, referring to a rocky mountain or peak. Perhaps the most popular interpretation is therefore that Jesus was comparing Peter, a small stone, to the great mountainous rock on which He would build His church. The antecedent of rock is taken to be Peter’s divinely inspired confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (http://www.gty.org)
I Corinthians 3:10-11 and I Peter 2:4-8 can both be mustered in support of this position. Christ is the foundation upon which the church is built. This is the position that I was taught in Christian College, and that still holds considerable sway in my soul.
But at the end of the day, I’m not sure that either position is really wrong. It seems to me that the rock upon which Christ is building His church is the witness of the Apostles about who Jesus Christ is, and what it is that Jesus Christ has done for “us and our salvation.” Because I believe in Jesus Christ through the Apostles’ word (John 17:20), I find it hard to figure out with any real precision as to where the Apostolic office ends and where the Apostolic witness begins, and so I’m not particularly interested in that old Catholic/Protestant kerfuffle anymore. No, what I am so much more interested in these days is what theologian Gabriel Fackre says currently afflicts the church, something he calls “Christological heart failure.” By this he meant the church’s increasing hesitation to overtly name Jesus Christ as the basis of her inspiration, the content of her creed, the source of her salvation, the center of her reflection and the spring of her actions.
In contrast to Adam Hamilton’s first question, I find Christ missing from so many of the church’s teachings, appeals, publications and programs these days. He’s just not there. And I suspect that He’s gone missing by the same process that J. Mack Stiles describes as “assuming the Gospel.” He says that this doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual process. First the gospel is accepted. Then the gospel is assumed. Then the gospel is confused. Then the gospel is lost, and I wonder if Jesus hasn’t gone missing at church by this very same process?
“You may have heard the story of the Mennonite Brethren movement. One particular analysis goes like this: the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments.”
“Assumed Evangelicalism: Some Reflections En Route to Denying the Gospel”
It feels and sounds for all the world to me like we are at real risk these days of becoming a third generation church when it comes to Jesus. Right now it’s all about the “entailments,” the inferences and implications, and not Jesus. Now, understand, I’m not against the entailments, the inferences and the implications at all, it’s just that I’m just concerned that as they’ve seized the spotlight on stage of the church’s attention that Jesus Christ who is the One who forces us to think through all of those entailments, inferences and implications when He becomes our Lord, has been pushed to the margins of the church’s life.
Early in my preparation for ministry I was told by a trusted mentor that if a sermon could be preached without a reference to Christ, or if an action could be taken by a church without any serious consideration being given to Christ, then that sermon and that course of action would be far less than Christian. I guess this is why I’m just so startled by the absence of “Jesus talk” in so much of what I read and hear coming from the church today. Whatever else Jesus Christ meant about that rock upon which He would build His church, I believe that He meant that He Himself would be foundational to what it means to be a Christian, and one of my core convictions is that when we’re clear about this as Christians individually and as a church corporately, then all of those other things that tear at the fabric of our unity will begin to get rightly ordered. Not automatically, mind you. It still takes work, the hard work of an “in-the-process-of-being-sanctified” imagination and conscience. But it is work that is gladly taken up as part of our response to Christ, and it is work that is sustained by Christ’s indwelling and empowering Spirit in us, which is to say that it is work that is done collaboratively by us, and God in us. And my, how this work needs doing these days.
The tensions we feel at the church I serve about what it means to be truly welcoming, and about what it means to be compassionate and just, and about just how inclusive and diverse we should be in our worship life, and about the best ways to reverse the “graying and thinning” trend that we are experiencing in our membership, all of these “controversies” and “challenges” get framed differently when they become less about us and what we want, and more about Jesus Christ and what He wants. When we have clarity about Jesus Christ, I believe that we will then get better clarity about who we are supposed to be, and what it is that we are supposed to be doing as His disciples. This is why I am welcoming the arrival of Advent this year more than ever before.
It struck me with some force last Sunday morning as our worship service began with the singing of the somber “O Come, O come, Emmanuel.” This Advent hymn is based on something that was sung in the monasteries of the Middle Ages in the dark days right before Christmas. Each evening from December 17 to December 23 a different monk, beginning with Abbot and then descending through monastic rank and order down to the most recently arrived novice, would lead the whole community in a sung petition for the Savior to come. The structure of these petition was always the same.
It began with an acclamation of some aspect of the Savior they needed to come – His wisdom, power, authority, faithfulness or mercy. That acclamation was always famed by the same invocation – “O Come.” “O” is such an evocative word. It’s loaded with emotional depth. This is not some academic exercise, it is borne of felt need. We desperately need this Savior to come. This is a cry from the heart. And so the third part of this nightly sung prayer in the monasteries before Christmas was a supplication that arose out of the aspect of the Savior that was named in the acclamation. “Wise One…come and teach us.” “Liberating One… come and free us.” “Bright and Shining One… come and enlighten us.” “Powerful One… come and reign over us.” “Companioning One… come and save us.” As Oliver Treanor writes in his wonderful little book on the “O Antiphons” (Seven Bells to Bethlehem – Gracewing – 1995) –
These petitions are not composed for aesthetic pleasure or for mere literary appreciation. They are carefully planned to articulate the very real need of the whole of mankind, a fallen race which, though redeemed, is not yet fully saved. What they request corresponds to the state of the human condition as revealed in Scripture and confirmed by the experience of every thinking person. The antiphons are the fruit of the Church’s prolonged examination of conscience. (15)
If the prior question to everything else that the church says and does is “Who is Jesus?” then the season of Advent is a four week season that gets carved out of our lives as Christians and churches at the very beginning of every new church year to give us some space for a sustained reflection to this crucial question, and the “O Antiphons” are a carefully structured way for us to go about this process prayerfully. More than ever I believe that the church needs Jesus Christ, and so this Advent I am making the “O Antiphons” part of my daily spiritual practice, and I invite you to do the same.
The version I am using is the one that appears in the Chalice Hymnal (#120) right across the page from the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (#119). This version comes from the liturgical life of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa (Anglican).
- Antiphon 1 – O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of the Law, the people await you, their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God!
- Antiphon 2 – O Wisdom, you came forth from the lips of God Most High and you reach from one end of the universe to the other, powerfully and gently ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence!
- Antiphon 3 – O Adonai and Leader of the house of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the flame of a burning bush and at Sinai you gave him the Law: Come with your outstretched arm to save us!
- Antiphon 4 – O Root of Jesse, you stand for a sign to the peoples; before you kings are silent, and Gentiles pray with longing: Come now and set us free!
- Antiphon 5 – O Key of David, and Ruler of the House of Israel, you open and none can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead out of the prison house the captives who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!
- Antiphon 6 – O Morning Star, you are the splendor of eternal life; you are the dawning sun, the Sun of justice: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!
- Antiphon 7 – O King of the nations and the fulfillment of their longing, you are the Cornerstone and you make all one; you formed us from primeval clay: Come, and save us!
As I make this Advent Journey of Faith using the “O Antiphons” as my road map to the heart of God made visible and tangible in Jesus Christ this year, I will be using my “Soundings” blog between now and Christmas to share the discoveries I make as I try to answer the question afresh – “Who is Jesus?” I invite you to join me on this journey of discovery. DBS +