Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What is the Hope of Advent?

We are on a journey toward Christmas.  It is a season called Advent.  It invites us to consider our callings as the people of God, to look inwardly and consider what distractions and issues need to be dealt with so that we can love God and love neighbor.  In the spirit of Advent, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) offers a brief video message.  It features, among others, the thoughts of Sharon Watkins, our General Minister and President, as well as, the elected leadership of the church.  I invite you to watch, consider, and offer your own thoughts about the hope of Advent.  What are your hopes for this coming year as we walk the path set before us.  As John the Baptist shouted, taking his cue from Isaiah:  "Prepare the way of the Lord:  Make his paths straight."  (Mark 1:3; Isaiah 40:3 CEB)

Transforming Relationships: Spiritual Friendship (Bruce Epperly)

What role does Christ play in our own relationships with one another?  Is there a deeper spiritual relationship that connects our spirits with each other?   Bruce Epperly explores these and other questions through the lens of Celtic spirituality, using the Celtic concept of anam cara or soul friend.  May we find union with one another through Christ, our soul friend.  Read, enjoy, respond.  


Transforming Relationships: Spiritual Friendship
Bruce G. Epperly

Celtic spirituality views life as a process of dynamic and evolving relationships.  Our lives emerge from our environment and shape the world beyond ourselves. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserts, the whole universe conspires to create each occasion of experience.  While, as Whitehead also notes, religion begins with solitariness, our spiritual growth is nurtured by creative and loving relationships, persons whose care mirrors our spirits and enables them to grow.  The Celts spoke of anam cara, spiritual friend or soul friend, as essential to the spiritual adventure.

St. Brigid, the feminine spirit of Celtic Christianity, is reputed to have said that “a person without an anam cara is like body without a soul.”  The Celts believed that spiritual relationships awaken us to our fullest potential.  Originating from the image of “one who shares a cell,” the Celtic vision of the anam cara evolved to become “one who shares a soul.”   Our anam cara is our soul friend, the person who shows us the mirror of God in our own lives.
In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates suggests that each person has an eternal mirror.  Children of the same god, to use Plato’s language, or soul friends, mediate to one another the essential wholeness and beauty that joins their spirits.  Whether the anam cara is of the same or other gender, they are your “other soul,” the embodiment of your spiritual pilgrimage in the unique life of another.  When you discover the one you know as anam cara, you have a sense that you are one in spirit, connected by a deep awareness, and that you no longer have to explain yourself or apologize for who you are.   You are known, loved, and accepted without condition.  Though soul friends have their own unique voice, they share a common spiritual melody.
In the Celtic tradition, Christ was known as the perfect anam cara.   Christ is the intimate companion, whose love enables us fully to love the self we are becoming. Christ mirrors our deepest yearnings and brings them to wholeness.  Christ as anam cara reveals to each soul its greatness.   In experiencing the Christ as anam cara, we discover our true destiny as fully human embodiments of the divine wisdom.   Christ is constantly knocking on the door of our souls and our lives are transformed when we say “yes” to his invitation.

Our human anam cara is our own personal Christ-figure, and the nearest thing to divine revelation in everyday experience.  In knowing and being known, the Divine Eros gives life to both friends.  Passionate in its mirroring and support, anam cara is, in the spirit of Plato’s Phaedrus, a friendship that enables us to grow wings and fly to the heavens. As the mirror of Christ, the human anam cara inspires and lures us toward adventures of creativity and self-awareness.   The Christ in us grows wings and flies.

Passionate without possessiveness, anam cara frees us to be fully ourselves in a holy relationship, which serves as the catalyst for the healing and transformation of all our relationships.   In its greenness, it restores our spirits and gives us new life.
Your anam cara, or spirit friend, may be your husband, wife, or friend of the same or other gender.  Regardless of the social relationship, the vocation of anam cara is to promote beauty and love in the world.  Anam cara has as its mission service to all creation and transformation both of ourselves and the planet.  In seeing the Eternal Beauty in another, our eyes are opened to beauty in all things.  From that personal vision of beauty, we are inspired to be seek shalom and wholeness in our relationships and corporate lives.
As a holy and green relationship, anam cara compels each soul friend to aim at the highest ethical and spiritual values.  Holy friendships, such as anam cara, enhance our marriages, parenting, and creativity, when it is lived out as the meeting of divine centers whose fullest expression does not necessitate physical proximity or sexual union.  It neither “toils nor spins,” nor competes with other relationships, but heals everything it touches.  Anam cara inspires the muse within us to create freely and with abandon, whether poetry, sermons, books, music, or tales told at bedtime. Whether or not anam cara is joined with marriage, its embodiment is chaste and holy.  Anam cara as holy relatedness vows to bring out the beauty in the other and to nurture the wingspan of the beloved friend in her or his context.   The Divine Eros incarnate in anam cara friendships creates an environment that nurtures spiritual and creative quantum leaps.

According to certain strands of early Christianity, Christ reveals himself uniquely to each person.  There are as many revelations of Christ as there are persons.  The anam cara, embodying the Christ we share with another, is the image of God whose eyes stare deeply into our own and show us our true self.   In knowing and nurturing the soul of another, our own souls grow in stature and soar.  (This essay is adapted from The Center is Everywhere: CelticSpirituality for the Postmodern Age, Parson’s Porch Books, 2011.)

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious LivingPhilippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Word of Comfort -- Advent Reflection on Isaiah 40

1 Comfort, comfort my people!
   says your God.
2 Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
      and proclaim to her that her
      compulsory service has ended,
   that her penalty has been paid,
   that she has received
   from the LORD’s hand
   double for all her sins!

 3 A voice is crying out:
“Clear the LORD’s way in the desert!
   Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
4 Every valley will be raised up,
   and every mountain and hill
   will be flattened.
   Uneven ground will become level,
   and rough terrain a valley plain.
5 The LORD’s glory will appear,
   and all humanity will see it together;
   the LORD’s mouth
   has commanded it.”

 6 A voice was saying:
   “Call out!”
And another said,
   “What should I call out?”
All flesh is grass;
   all its loyalty is
   like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass dries up
   and the flower withers
   when the LORD’s breath blows on it.
   Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass dries up;
   the flower withers,
   but our God’s word
   will exist forever.

 9 Go up on a high mountain,
   messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout,
   messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
   say to the cities of Judah,
   “Here is your God!”
10 Here is the LORD God,
   coming with strength,
   with a triumphant arm,
   bringing his reward with him
   and his payment before him.
11 Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
   he will gather lambs in his arms
   and lift them onto his lap.
   He will gently guide
   the nursing ewes.

            (Isaiah 40:1-11 Common English Bible)

            This passage of scripture has inspired hymns are arias.  It gave a foundation to the good news of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1-8).  It is a reminder to us, as we take the journey of Advent toward the celebration of the incarnation that God is faithful.  Flesh is like grass and like the grass it will wither and fade, but God’s Word will remain.  We all know the reality of fleeting friendships.  We’ve experienced times when those we thought we could count on disappeared when the situation got rough.  If we take the story of Jesus to the concluding chapters of his story we know that on the day of trial and death, with few exceptions those closest to him fled.  Life is like that, but God is faithful.  God is like the shepherd who tends the flock, gathering the lambs into his arms and guiding ever so gently the nursing ewes. 

            This word we hear from this prophetic voice is directed to the people of Judea who have been experiencing exile.  They have felt abandoned, and yet here is a call to get ready, to take up the task of preparing the way for the Lord God.  It is a calling for us in the interim to declare the goodness and the faithfulness of God to the world.  With this word, we may offer comfort to the neighborhood!   

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Road to Missional -- Review

THE ROAD TO MISSIONAL: Journey to the Center of the Church (Shapevine).  By Michael Frost.   Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 2011.   152 pages.

            The term missional has taken on a life of its own, having entered the stage where no one really controls its meaning.  Originating from within evangelicalism, and influenced by the writings of Leslie Newbingin, today folks of every theological and ecclesiological stripe have adopted the term, often meaning different things by it.  Thus, a left of center mainline Protestant church like mine might have something different in mind than would a conservative evangelical church.  Indeed, even the sorting out of the Emergent movement has led to some redefinition of the word, with the more conservative elements of that movement now taking hold of the term missional to define themselves over against the more “liberal” Emergent Village folk.  As is often true, when a term gets such broad usage, a pronouncement will be made declaring that the term is now passé and the movement is near death.  Michael Frost, an Australian missionally oriented Evangelical, suggests that rather than the missional conversation being over, it likely has yet to have even started.  The problem, in his mind, is that it is treated as an add-on, a new technique of church growth, when it is really about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

            The title of the book is telling, for it speaks to the author’s concern that most churches claiming to be missional are likely pre-missional.  They could be on the way, but it’s likely they’ve not arrived.  With that in mind Frost, who is vice principal of Morling College in Sydney, Australia and author of a number of missional-related books (some in partnership with Alan Hirsch), seeks to correct our understandings of the movement.  According to Frost, a missional congregation must embrace a “wholesale and thorough reorientation of the church around mission” (p. 16).  It isn’t a “flavor” to add into an existing paradigm of church.  With this definition, it would appear that most of our congregations would be better off defining themselves in a journey toward being missional, for most are not yet missional.  In part, that might be true because they are still coming to grips with what it means to center one’s church in mission. 

            The book is brief but covers a lot of territory.  Frost begins by addressing the evangelical community and reminding them that mission is more than evangelism.  It is instead, embracing the mission dei (mission of God), that is – it is alerting the world to the universal reign of God (a definition of mission he takes from David Bosch).  It involves evangelism, but the goal isn’t adding persons to the seats in our churches, but participating in God’s work of transforming the world.  He spends considerable time engaging those who would limit mission to evangelism, suggesting that it should involve an intertwining of evangelism and social justice.  This concern leads him to reengage evangelicals in seeking to understand what it means to evangelize – arguing for what he calls slow evangelism – and discussing the issue of marketing.  This has, of course, been a major topic of conversation for some time as we seek to understand what it means to share faith in an increasingly consumerist context, arguing not only for slow evangelism (inhabiting the gospel) but for the benefits of going small.  In other words, if you choose the missional route, which calls for living the faith incarnationally, it’s likely that you won’t grow to mega-proportions. 

            The tipping point in the book is the chapter on the cross as a missional paradigm (chapter 4).  What does it mean for the church to live under the cross, not just in terms of Christ being savior, but living the life of the cross?  It is, he argues, more than a call to piety, but to living sacrificially.  This idea reemerges later in the closing chapter on incarnational living, where he speaks to the reality that living in the neighborhood can be not only sacrificial but entail suffering for others. 

            It is in chapter five that he begins to really connect with me; for it’s here that he brings in the call to bring into the missional conversation reconciliation, justice, and beauty.  He draws these three tracts from N.T. Wright, but they are the aspects of the missional calling that most truly attract those in the mainline.  We need to be reminded that part of the mission involves the use of words and announcing the reign of God.  We’re too attached to that Franciscan mantra about using words if necessary!  Frost reminds us that the heavenly reign of God overlaps with our earthly existence.  It is complete, and yet it continues to unfold.  In the course of bringing shalom/peace to the earthly realm, God seeks to do three things:  1) restore relationships, both the divine-human relationship and the relationships we have with one another; 2) reestablish justice, that is work toward the goal of restoring a just and equitable society; 3) rediscover beauty.  

            It is the third component that really grabs me.   I think that the first two are readily understood, especially for those who embrace social justice as part of our calling, but we may wonder what beauty has to do with the missional calling.  The answer has to do with God’s interest in beauty – as seen in nature, but also in the creativity of those who bear the image of God.  He writes:
Those of us who have embraced faith in the universal reign of God through Christ look for expressions of beauty everywhere, whether they be a stunning sunset, a painting by a grand master, a gorgeous piece of music, or a delicious meal.  I think the primary way they lead us back to God is through the profound sense of gratitude one feels when partaking of such beauty.”    (p. 112).      
And just to be clear, he doesn’t have in mind just religious art/music or that created by “saints.”  There is beauty to be found in the works of Mozart and Led Zeppelin, and this beauty is a sign of God’s kingdom. 

            The key to understanding this missional calling is to understand that God’s temple is the world itself.  It’s not the church building that is God’s temple – it is that place where God is active and working, and that is not just within the building – though God can work there as well!  But the point is – God is not just at work transforming the church, God is seeking to transform the world and we’ve been invited to participate. 

            In the final chapter, Frost reminds us that missional life is incarnational.  It is an invitation to inhabit the neighborhood.  That could involve moving into a neighborhood where ministry is to be engaged in, such as an urban environment.  But whether or not we move into a new place, we can and should be a missional presence in our neighborhoods.  This is true for us as individuals and as churches.  This is really an argument against having such a regional vision that one ignores the community in which we live – and just to be clear, that includes suburban communities.  Our calling is to embody Christ’s presence in the neighborhood, a calling that includes a willingness to suffer as Christ suffered.  It is also a call to be engaged long term and not just for the moment.  So the question is – where is Christ present and engaged in ministry in your neighborhood?

            I will admit that at first I wasn’t sure what to make of the book.  Being that I’m post-evangelical and my congregation struggles with evangelism, we needn’t be reminded that mission involves more than words.  We probably need to add words to our mission, but, as the book continued on I discovered that there is much wisdom here.  In fact, I find the three dimensions of missional life very helpful – relationships, justice, and beauty.  There is much to meditate upon here, especially in the later chapters (depending on your starting point).  It is also helpful to remember that it’s easy to use words like missional as a sort of spiritual seasoning.   A little dash of this and that and we’re ready to call ourselves missional.  It is, of course, much more than that.  So, if you’re on the missional journey, and you’re still seeking to understand what this all means, then you will find this a very helpful book.  I’ve read a lot of missional books, and this is one of the more accessible ones.   It doesn’t tell the whole story, but it may be a good place to begin. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Church and the Crisis of Community -- Review

THECHURCH AND THE CRISIS OF COMMUNITY:  A Practical Theology of Small-Group Ministry.  By Theresa F. Latini.   Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.  Viii + 243.

            It’s no secret that there’s a crisis of community brewing.  I expect that this crisis has been underway for as long as I’ve been alive, and it shows no signs of ending any time soon.   Simply the time of Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone offers us a fairly succinct summation of our situation.   It’s not just that we’re no longer joiners, but we’re finding it ever more difficult to create deep and abiding relationships with others.   Although the church “should” be different, reality suggests that it isn’t.  There have been any number of attempts at rectifying this reality, including the embrace of small group ministries, but have these been successful?  Or, are they simply another attempt at developing church growth strategies?  And even if successful at building relationships, have these attempts simply reinforced our tendency to join with those most like ourselves?  That is, have our church-related small groups simply become social clubs of the like-minded, and thus part of the problem?

            Theresa Latini, a Presbyterian minister and Associate Professor of Congregational and Community Care Leadership at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, seeks to address this crisis of community and the ways in which the church has sought to address it through the development of small groups.  The book under review offers a rather exhaustive analysis of the crisis of community that has been burgeoning in our society.  She also seeks to offer us a way of looking at small groups through a theological lens that will help correct some of the deficiencies present in the many small groups that exist in our local churches.  She brings to this discussion a Reformed/Evangelical perspective that has been informed by her engagement with the theology of Karl Barth.
This book is a revision of Latini’s Princeton Ph.D. dissertation in Practical Theology, and as such it is an academic treatise – much in the same vein as Tony Jones’ The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement (Jopa Productions, 2011).   If you’re looking for a brief introduction to small group ministry or a how-to guide, this book is likely not what you’re looking for.  It is written first and foremost for the academy, for theologically sophisticated readers.  You don’t need a M.Div. to read it, but it wouldn’t hurt. 

There are a number of hints that this book emerged from a dissertation, that start with her explication of her mentor’s description of four tasks of practical theology (descriptive-empirical, interpretive, normative, and pragmatic) that one will go through in engaging ministry/ecclesial issues.  Using Richard Osmer’s four tasks, she explores the way in which three practices interrelate -- Divine practice, ecclesial practice, and societal practice.  In this context small groups are the ecclesial practice, which serves as the intersection where God’s work of reconciliation (Divine practice) encounters “the yearning for community in the United States (societal practice).  Small groups have been developed to respond to the crisis of community, but the question is whether this has been an effective response.     

She undertakes this task informed by a Neo-Barthian practical theology.  Having read her book along with Tony Jones’s, I’m assuming that the Princeton Ph.D. students in Practical Theology are asked to choose a theological vantage point upon which to build their work (Jones uses Moltmann).  An epilogue to the book provides a rationale for this choice, while an appendix provides an introduction to her research methodology. 

The book begins with a discussion of the current crisis of community in society and then moves on to the role of small groups in responding to the crisis.  She notes that the church has been the major source of small groups, which include Sunday school classes, bible studies, self-help groups, and special interest groups (e.g. political, advocacy, hobby, book discussion).   Not only has the church been a major player in developing groups, but this move to small groups has altered the structure and even the meaning of our ecclesial practices.   Christian education and pastoral care, to name two areas, have in many cases moved to small groups, with lay persons taking increased roles in leadership.  There are both strengths and weaknesses in this move.  For instance, she points out that while persons might develop a deeper sense of faith, that faith may become more subjective.  They may re-embed social ties, enabling people to become more connected to community where these ties may not be very strong.  There is another area, which is understandable, but worrisome – that is the tendency toward homogeneity in small groups.  There is a tendency for these groups to strengthen ties among those of like-mind or background.  Indeed, many, if not most, of these groups are rooted in some form of affinity, whether socio-economic, ethnicity, education, interests, gender, age – and there is a danger here that it undermines a sense of connection across more diverse lines.  This reality also tends to lead to avoiding discussion of social issues.
Part of her work in this project involved looking at specific small group programs, and she looked at six congregations (either Reformed or Presbyterian) to see how they organized their small groups.  The six ranged in size from 250 to 12 persons and included both urban and suburban congregations.  All of these congregations worked at providing leadership training and even created the materials for use in the groups – that is, these were for the most part highly structured contexts.
This sociological analysis is brought together with Karl Barth’s understanding of koinonia, which Latini notes, includes not just fellowship, but such Barthian ideas as mutual indwelling, participation, coinherence, and coexistence.  It is, she says, multi-dimensional, involving five interlocking relationships – within the Trinity, within the person of the incarnate Christ (divinity/humanity), between Christ and the Church, among church members, and between church and the world.  The Holy Spirit serves as the “mediator of communion” in all five relationships, binding together each of these relationships.  The question then becomes – how does this understanding of koinonia enable small groups to respond to the crisis of community.  She suggests that her Barthian understanding of koinonia is expressed in three modes – gathering, upbuilding, and sending.  As to the first mode, her focus is on the relationship with Christ, which is the foundation for koinonia.  In the upbuilding mode, the focus is on the relationships within the church, and finally the sending mode looks to the koinonia with the world.  The role of small groups in fostering the upbuilding relationships would seem self-evident, but what is key is the role that small groups can play in fostering koinonia with the world Her hope is that small groups not only build community within the church but enable connections with the world, meaning that these groups need to have openness to those outside and see themselves as self-sufficient in themselves.  As the book continues she explores the role that small groups play in creating contexts for healing and offers strategies for implementing small groups that can break out of the homogenizing tendencies of so many small group ministries.  This is the pragmatic dimension of Osmer’s four tasks.
The goal in developing this practical theology of small group ministry, with multidimensional koinonia as the foundation, is the living into a church that is “a countercultural, humanizing, missional community.”  It is a community where “saints and sinners” experience deep intimacy with one another crossing the traditional societal boundaries, expressing the way of the cross.  She writes:
When small groups nurture generosity, compassion, and openness to the world and find creative ways to witness to God’s love in both word and deed, they help the church fulfill its vocation of participating in Christ’s ongoing ministry of reconciliation unto koinonia.  Furthermore, when small groups practice multidimensional koinonia, they participate in God’s transformation of the crisis of community in late modernity (p. 180).
In other words, small group ministry is not simply an end in itself with the goal to making the church grow.  It is instead a key means through which God engages in transforming the world.  For those of us who are exploring the call to be missional, this is a helpful and hopeful resource.

If you’re looking for a quick reading introduction to small group ministry or a how-to manual, you’ll likely want to look elsewhere.  This is not light reading and it’s not a how-to manual.  It does offer some strategies for developing small group ministries, but the focus here is on developing a sound theological rationale for small group ministries that will address the crisis of community existing in the United States.  It is a reminder that the tendency for small groups to become gatherings of like-minded folks so as to reinforce their like-mindedness is not the Divine intention.  With this trinity of modes of existence -- Gathering/Upbuilding/Sending – reflecting the koinonia that exists within the Trinity that is God, we are invited to join with God in the work of transformation.  In developing this theology, Latini notes that Barth’s focus on divine action needn’t preclude human participation.  As to the role that Barth’s theology plays in this book, one needn’t be a full-fledged Barthian to make sense of the book or embrace its insights.  She does a nice job of laying out principles that can be accessed from a number of theological vantage points, but Barth’s Trinitarian perspective offers a helpful foundation for her ideas. 

So, if you’re looking for a resource that will help you develop a solid theological foundation for small group ministry, that seeks to move us away from subjective interiorism toward an engagement with the world, then this book might be what you’re looking for.  If you’re interested in developing a small group ministry that will keep small groups connected with the broader congregation, support its mission, have a theological foundation, impact the world outside the church, and embrace the kinds of diversity present in the world, then Latini’s book will be of interest and value.  Just remember that it began life as a doctoral dissertation and thus some of the trimmings of such an endeavor remain present in the book.  If you take this into consideration you will find a very thoughtful and useful expression of a practical theology that is truly practical, missional, and needed at this moment in time.  

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Church Leadership in the New Testament

Fourth essay in series on Developing a Theology of Ministry

           In my tradition (Disciples) there was a long held belief that the New Testament provided the church with a fairly straightforward vision of church leadership.  Just go to Acts and perhaps the Pastorals and you’ll have what you need.   That vision has proved to be rather simplistic, especially since a close reading of the New Testament reveals a rather varied understanding of church leadership. 

            Having already noted the post-apostolic developments of Ignatius, I’d like to step back for a moment and look at that variety present in the New Testament.  We might ask ourselves, what do these developments have to do with the contemporary church?  There are those who wish to reproduce the New Testament church, but many of us feel that this is a dead end.  So, what might we take from our engagement with the biblical text for today?

It seems rather clear that from a NT perspective, ministry begins with the whole people of God.  Whatever forms of leadership may develop, they emerge out of a common call to ministry of the whole people of God.  We see this clearly developed in Paul's description of the church as a body (1 Cor. 12:14-31).  This description clearly suggests that the whole people of God have been gifted for and called to ministry. 

            But, what is ministry?  The Greek term diakonos can be translated in a variety of ways, but its most important nuance suggests the role of being a servant.  Thus ministers are servants of God and the people of God.  The biblical model for Christian ministry is found in the person of Jesus, who demonstrated that servanthood defined diakonia, even the servanthood of the cross. Whatever we have to say about ministry and the relationship between ordained and non-ordained forms of ministry, we need to realize that servanthood and mutuality stand as the founding principles.

            Further, we can say that because Christ stands before God as our high priest, we have the right of access to God as priests for ourselves and priests for one another (Heb. 10).  This principle of a royal priesthood, so eloquently defined in 1 Peter 2:5-9, eliminates the clergy as necessary priestly intermediaries between God and the people of God.  

            When we look at the New Testament we discover that no church order dominates and that all seem to emerge in ways appropriate to its cultural context.  This should give us insight into how we might create structures that are culturally appropriate but that reflect the ministry of the whole people of God.

            Although scholars have disabused us of the idea that we can simply turn to Acts and find the New Testament church order, what is found there should at least offer us something to reflect upon.  According to the Acts narrative, the Jerusalem church was led by the Twelve or the Apostles.   According to this tradition Jesus chose eleven of the twelve prior to his death, while Matthias replaced the disgraced Judas.  According to Acts 2:42 and 6:2-4 these twelve men (yes, they were men, but is this prescriptive or descriptive?) formed the primary teaching ministry of the earliest Jerusalem church.  Of the twelve, Peter and John seem to stand out, with the rest falling into the background.  One of the Twelve is arrested and executed early in the life of the church and does not seem to have been replaced (Acts 12:1-2).

            Acts 6 describes the selection of seven men of the Spirit to provide for the needs of widows in the church, especially from the Hellenistic Jews.  The reason this group is set aside stems from the Twelve's need to teach rather than "serve tables."  They were chosen because the demonstrated the presence and power of the Spirit in their lives.  The church's first martyr came from this group, Stephen (Acts 6-7).  Another member of this group, Philip, took the gospel to the Samaritans and to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8). 

            If the Apostles are said to be the earliest leaders, it is interesting that before too long the primary leadership role goes to James the brother of Jesus.  When and why isn’t really described by the text, but as time goes on the Twelve recede and James comes to the forefront.  According to the Pauline letters there will be conflict between James and Paul – or at least between Paul and certain persons who claim to represent James.  A détente is established at a council described in Acts 16, over which James presides.  But James appears to be assisted by elders, who are mentioned along with James and the Apostles as leaders of the church (Acts 15:4, 22).   

            There is another church that figures prominently in the early sections of Acts, and that is the church of Antioch.  This church seems to be composed of a mixture of Gentile and Jewish Christians, and it’s this church that commissions Paul and Barnabas as missionaries.  It’s also where the believers first came to be called Christians (Acts 11:26).  We’re never told when this church came into existence, but from this account one would assume that it occurred rather early on.  In Acts 13:1-2 we read that the church in Antioch had both Prophets and Teachers.  Nothing is said in Acts about elders or deacons in Antioch.  Paul and Barnabas appear to be part of the leadership structure that seems somewhat charismatic in orientation. 

            Paul is described as the founder of the churches in Greece, Macedonia, and Asia Minor, and information on those churches we have not just Acts, but also Paul’s own letters.  It would seem that Paul continues to have a supervisory role in these churches, even after he moves on to start another church.   Even if it’s not institutional authority, his influence appears to be quite important. 

            Regarding the nature of authority in these churches there seems to be quite a degree of difference between individual churches.  From the Corinthian letters we can see that at least that church had a somewhat "charismatically" orientated sense of ministry organized around the concept of spiritual gifts.  Eduard Schweizer notes that there was "no fundamental organization of superior or subordinate ranks, because the gift of the Spirit is adapted to every church member."[1]  As one looks at the description of the church in 1 Corinthians 12 one sees this sense of gift-based ministry.  On the other hand, as one looks at the Pastoral Epistles, which are post-Pauline, one sees a much more formalized sense of ministry – one of the reasons why this has been deemed post-Pauline, since elsewhere there appears to be a more charismatic and less formal structure. 

            The most potent example of a charismatically organized church could be found in Corinth.  In his letters to this church, Paul instructs the church how to properly make use of the gifts given by God.  Eduard Schweizer makes the astute observation that in the letter to this church, Paul addresses not the leaders, whom we know nothing about, but the church as a whole.[2]   Here ordination does not seem to be a central concern.  Rather leadership is something that is demonstrated through involvement in the life of the church.  Those persons who have demonstrated effective use of spiritual gifts are to be followed.  Unfortunately the Corinthians had put the emphasis on certain gifts of the Spirit that tended to emphasize spiritual ecstasy rather than service to God and humanity.  Schweizer comments:
It is not because a person has been chosen as prophet or presbyter that he may exercise this or that ministry, but on the contrary, because God has given him the charism, the possibility is given to him, through the church order, of exercising it.[3]
            The Philippian letter doesn’t speak too directly about church order, but Paul does open the letter by addressing the bishops/elders (episcopoi) and deacons of the church of Philippi. 

            The Ephesian letter, which is likely post-Pauline (though one can make an argument for it being Pauline), offers a look at a more formalized structure, with five orders of ministry (giftedness) spoken of:  Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers (Eph 4:11-13).  The Ephesian church also seems to have had elders, a fact mentioned in Acts 20:17, where we find Paul meeting with the elders from Ephesus at Miletus.

            The most detailed descriptions of ministry come from the Pastoral Epistles, which is quite likely post-Pauline.  In these letters, the author(s) address questions of leadership qualifications.  Two primary offices are discussed, that of eldership and the diaconate.

            In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 "Paul" provides the qualifications for overseers or elders (episkopos).  In later developments episcopal ministry will be equated with that of bishops.  The focus of this letter is on personal and moral qualifications for ministry.  Elders should be able to teach and manage their own finances as well as the church's.   The word episkopoi, from which we get the word episcopacy (bishops), it’s helpful to remember that it’s used here in the plural, and thus no monarchical episcopate quite yet (1 Tim 3:1; Tit 1:5-7).   While some would distinguish between those with the ministry of oversight (episkopos) and that of eldership (presbuteros) there does not seem to be any difference in office.  In Titus 1:5 we find “Paul” directing Titus to appoint elders (presbuteros) for the churches in the cities of Crete, which at least suggests that by this time there was some form of outside supervision of the various churches. 

            In addition, the author suggests that these leaders should receive some kind of financial assistance, possibly so they can devote more time to the church's ministry than would be allowed if they had to earn their entire way outside the church (1 Tim 5:17, 19). 

            The second office mentioned in the Pastorals was that of deacon (1 Tim 3:8-13).  The Greek word is diakonos, which can be translated as minister or servant.  Paul describes himself as a diakonos (Col. 1:17, 23, 25) and he calls Phoebe a diakonos as well (Rom 16:1).  Again the emphasis is on personal qualifications rather than on defining responsibilities.  It is possible that they were entrusted with overseeing the church's work of social service or perhaps they oversaw the financial side of church life.  Little else is known.                  

            In 1 Tim 5:3-16 the ministry of the widows in the church is discussed.  Qualifications are laid out – just as for those called to be elders and deacons.   According to this passage a widow had to be older than 60, the widow of one man, have a reputation of good works, have raised children, shown hospitality to strangers, washed the feet of strangers and assisted those in distress.   There does not seem to be much difference in role from that of the diakonate.  This person, now alone in the world, is to be supported by the church and now has the ministry of intercession. 

            The office of elder is mentioned in several other books.  The author of 2 John and 3 John addresses himself as an elder, as does Peter (1 Pet 5:1).  Peter also advises his readers to be subject to their elders.  James 5:14 provides a further job description, as the letter encourages the church to call on the elders to pray and anoint the sick for healing.  Finally in Revelation 4:4, 10 we find described the twenty-four elders in heaven who sit on twenty-four thrones and worship God. 

            So then – what does this quick look at New Testament church orders suggest to us as we develop our own contemporary theologies of ministry?  What might we take with us into the present? 

          [1]Eduard Schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament, (London: SCM Press, 1961), 99.
          [2]Schweizer, Church Order, 101.
          [3]Schweizer, Church Order, 102.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Ode to Black Friday

It's Black Friday and I slept in!   I may wander out later on today, once the crowds have subsided to look for a few items on my shopping list, but so far I've avoided the mass rush.

Black Friday highlights the dilemma that we face as people of God, especially we who are concerned about social justice and equality.  We hear the prophets speak so clearly about the dangers of consumerism.  Consider these words from the prophet Amos, one of the earliest Hebrew oracles on record:

  • 4 Hear this, you who trample
  • on the needy and destroy
  • the poor of the land,
  • 5 saying,
  • “ When will the new moon
  • be over so that we may sell grain,
  • and the Sabbath
  • so that we may offer wheat for sale,
  • make the ephah smaller,
  • enlarge the shekel,
  • and deceive with false balances,
  • 6 in order to buy the needy for silver
  • and the helpless for sandals,
  • and sell garbage as grain? ”
  • 7 The LORD has sworn
  • by the pride of Jacob:
  • Surely I will never forget
  • what they have done.
  • 8 Will not the land tremble on this account,
  • and all who live in it mourn,
  • as it rises and overflows like the Nile,
  • and then falls again,
  • like the River of Egypt?f  (Amos 8:4-7, Common English Bible)

But, before we go out and "Occupy the Mall" and protest by yelling at shoppers trying to find a good deal on a big screen TV, let us remember that our economy is built on a consumerist basis. If we don't buy, then people don't have jobs, and if people don't have jobs they don't buy.  I agree that it's a rather endless cycle, but this is the nature of the beast.  Remember too that most retailers, those stores that most all of us shop at, will likely make a good portion of their earnings over the next few weeks.  If they don't do well, they will lay off workers, shut down stores and more.

So, what do we do?  How do we push our economy forward in a way that is just and equitable?   I have to admit, I'm not a Marxist.  Capitalism has many flaws, but it does allow people freedom to express their creative energies in ways that Marxist economies, to this point, have not.

 So, if we are to be faithful to the prophetic call to "to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God" (Mic. 6:8 CEB), what shall we do?  Occupying the Mall simply doesn't cut it in my mind.  So what else might we do?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Time To Tear Open the Heavens? A Lectionary Meditation

Isaiah 64:1-9

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Mark 13:24-37

Time to Tear Open the Heavens?

In the Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass) , an effort is made by Lord Arseniel to tear a hole into an alternative reality, which could be “heaven?”  One can argue as to whether this is an atheist treatise or not, or whether the alternate reality is heaven, but the series did tap into this long-standing human desire to find a way into heaven on our own terms.  If given the opportunity, many would love to storm heaven and gain access to the riches of the divine realm.  It is an idea that goes back in the biblical story at least to the story of Babel and its tower.  Of course, there is another side to this story, and that is God’s comings and goings, and the prospect of God coming into the world and bringing the rod of  judgment.  In some of the more apocalyptic texts, the vision is that of God tearing open the veil separating the heavenly and the earthly realms, and when this happens there will be no question as to whether God is both ruler and judge.  Such apocalyptic imagery still grabs the attention, especially for those who embrace the idea that God is radically separate from our reality, but on occasion visits us supernaturally.  
Such imagery has mythic dimensions, and for those of us who are increasingly uncomfortable with an interventionist model of divine presence, we must wrestle with the implications.  Do we, especially at a season like Advent, ignore the imagery or do we find new ways of appropriating the vision?  As we wrestle with these questions, the issue of judgment remains present.  How do we envision God’s relationship to us?   Is there something to fear from God?   Because we know that Christmas is on the horizon, do we miss the darker tones of the Advent texts, such as the ones that mark this first Sunday of the Advent season?  

The question that Advent raises each year concerns our readiness to face God.  It is a time of penitence and preparation.  It is a call to be alert to the presence of God in our midst, and with this alertness a recognition that all might not be right with our lives.  Hanging over the Advent season is another issue – the reality that we live between two advents.  Thus, even as we prepare to celebrate one, we are aware that another may befall us.  So, are we ready?  Will we be wise stewards of the gifts that the master has left with us?  

On this first Sunday of Advent we hear the words of Isaiah (the third emanation of this prophetic tradition).   This passage presents us with a two-edged sword.   It holds out the promise of judgment on the enemies of Israel – granting to the people of God some hope that their cause will be honored – but a recognition that judgment could be visited upon them as well. There is this imagery at the start of the passage describing the tearing open of heaven, so that God might come to earth and render judgment.  The mountains will quake and emit fire, so that the enemies of God will tremble at God’s presence.  There’s something to cheer in this, if you’re on God’s side (or so we are led to believe).  God looks kindly on those who do what is right, but will visit divine wrath on those who do evil.  So, the question then is – where does one find oneself in relationship to God?   Isaiah offers a word of confession on behalf of this people:     “We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag. All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away” (Is. 64:6 CEB).   Recognizing their position before God, the author of this prophetic word acknowledges that they are but clay and God is the potter.  We are the work of God’s hand – this is a word of reminder to God – so don’t hold our sins against us – this is a plea for mercy.  Recognition that one stands before God needing divine mercy, enables the one who waits, to wait in hopefulness.

In these opening verses of Paul’s letter, we hear the great Apostle offer thanks to God for the grace that God has bestowed upon this church.  And the grace that has been bestowed has made them rich in gifts that enable communication and knowledge and testimony.  Indeed, Paul says of the Corinthians that not one gift is missing.  Of course, if you continue reading you’ll discover that this is a rather dysfunctional community of faith.  They are rather fractious, and they are divided over spiritual gifts, over morals, over what kind of meat to eat, and yes, they experience the effects of social stratification.  If one knows the rest of the story, one may wonder why Paul begins his letter in this manner.  Lenora Tubbs Tisdale, asks this very question, but finds in the way in which Paul commends them, despite the realities of their experience, a word of hope and reconciliation.  As she notes, Paul not only expresses his own sentiments, he expresses God’s perception of this people.  God is the provider of the grace that sustains and empowers them.  Tisdale writes:

“Paul’s uplifting tone in this passage reminds us of a temptation in preaching social justice: to leave people with a clear vision of how far short we have fallen in doing what God requires (hence, with a lot of guilt), but without much encouragement or grace to move toward God’s vision.  The encouragement and grace in this text is a theological antidote.  Yes, we fall short. . . . Yes, we get more entangled in our own internal church fights than in the quest to bring God’s justice to a hurting world.  Yes, we are paralyzed by fear.  But this is not the last word.”  [Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B , WJK, 2011, p. 4].

 We may fall short.  We may be sinners.  But the gifts and graces of God are present in our midst.  Thus, even as we are called to look inwardly and discern the stain upon our lives, there is also the call to engage with God’s desires for the world.  As Paul tells the Corinthians, we may now use these gifts so that we might bear witness to the one who is coming.  Indeed, these gifts will confirm their testimony that God is faithful and has called them into partnership with Christ.

Mark lacks an infancy narrative and any other marker of where he comes from.  He just appears before John and receives his commission.  Thus, in this cycle, which makes use of Mark’s gospel we start with Jesus’ apocalyptic vision of what is ahead for the people of God.  This passage from Mark 13 begins with a vision similar to that of Isaiah, but it is seemingly even more dramatic.  There is much foreboding in this announcement that a day will come, after the suffering ceases (perhaps thinking of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE), when the sun and the moon will go dark, the stars will fall from the sky and the planets will be shaken (do you see in this an ancient cosmology present?)  It is at this moment, that the Son of Man or the Human One, will be seen coming in the clouds with great power and accompanied by the hosts of heaven who will gather the chosen ones from the far corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.  This will be an event like no other.  You won’t be able to miss it.  But the question that always stands out in moments like this is – when will this happen?  Of course, we all want to know the time and place so we’ll be ready.  We can put it on our calendars, and with our modern electronic devices, we can set the calender to remind us ahead of time, just in case we forget.  But there is no such possibility here.  No one knows the time, not even the Human One.  So you just have to always be on the alert.

But there will be signs, but you have to be watching carefully.  Consider the fig tree, for instance, when its branches become tender and it begins to sprout new leaves, then you’ll know that summer is near.  So it is with the coming of the Son of Man.  It sounds so simple, but the warning signs seem rather subtle.  You have to be alert and watching.  You can’t be complacent.  

To further reinforce this sense of preparation, Jesus tells another of those stories about a master going off on a trip and leaving everything, from the finances to the family, in the hands of his servants.  He seems to have a lot of trust in them, but will they merit it?  Each servant has a job and the doorkeeper is charged with keeping on the alert, because you don’t know when the head of the household will return.  What is interesting is that the passage begins with this apocalyptic vision of the sky darkening and the planets falling, but now Jesus suggests that all of this could happen under the cover of darkness, at midnight or at the break of day.  You just don’t know.  In another place, Jesus speaks of the Son of Man coming like a “thief in the night.”  If you’d known the thief was coming, you’d be prepared, but you don’t know.  So, you always have to be on the alert, because you don’ want to be discovered having fallen asleep.  

And so as we begin the Advent journey, we seek to be on the alert, aware that we fall short of God’s desires, and yet there is also this word of grace.  We can’t forget that word of grace that Paul speaks to the Corinthians, because God speaks it to us as well!