That They Might Be One

26 11 2007

After Paul’s escorts had taken him to Athens, they came away with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible. While he was waiting for them in Athens, his spirt grieved at the sight of so much idolatry. So he began to engage in discussion with the Jews and converts to Judaism in the synaggue, and also daily in the town square with whoever happened to be there. Even philosophers among the Epicureans and Stoics engaged him in discussion. Some asked, ‘What is this scavenger trying to say?’ Others said, ‘He sounds like a promoter of foreign gods,’ because he was preaching about ‘Jesus’ and ‘Resurrection.’

They took him and led him to the Areopagus on the Hill of Ares and said, ‘We would like to hear more of your ideas. For you bring some strange notions to us; we would like to know what they mean.’ Now all the Athenias as well as foreigners residing there used their time for nothing else but telling or hearing some new philosophy or idea.

Then Paul stood up among them at the Areopagus and said: ‘It is very clear to me that you Athenians are in every way a very devout and religious people, for as I walked around examining your shrines, I even discovered an altar dedicated to ‘An Unknown God.’ This, whom you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that’s in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is He served by human hands as though He were in need of anything. Rather it is He who gives life to all and breath to everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and He fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their influence, so that people might seek God, even perhaps groping for Him to find Him, though He is, indeed, not very far from any one of us. For “In Him we live and move and have our being,” as even some of your poets have said, “For we too are His offspring.” Since therefore we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination. God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now calls all people everywhere into repentance because He has established a day on which He will “judge the world with justice” through the man which He has appointed, and He has provided confirmation for all of this by raising that same man from the dead.’

When the philosophers heard about the ‘resurrection of the dead’ some began to mock Paul, but others said, ‘We would like to hear more from you about this at another time.’ So Paul left them. Some did however join him and became Christians, among these was Dionysius, a mamber of the Areopagus, and also a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” – Acts 17:15-34

This is perhaps one of my favorite sections of the Acts, partly because I find philosophy fascinating (Socrates and I are homies), partly because I find Paul’s ability to so readily integrate himself into a group of thinkers very different than his own, partly because I think this is perhaps one of the best sermons given in the Acts, and lastly (and most relevant here I think) in part because it shows the disparity within the clash of metaphysical ideas.

One the one hand you have the Greeks who have their own long and ancient tradition, and on the other you have the Jews who likewise have a long and ancient tradition.

Here Paul is mediating between two very different worlds, the Hellenic and Hebraic. These two worlds have very different metaphysical conceptions of reality.

It demonstrates the unique world-stage in which Christianity was born, and the tug-of-war between Athens and Jerusalem which has forever shaped the course and core of Christianity down to this very day.

On the one hand there is Jerusalem, center of the Jewish world, center of the Hebrew way of life, home of the Temple. This is the home of the Prophets, this is Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon and Elijah. Home of prophecy and revelation.

On the other hand there is Athens, center of the Greek world, center of the Hellenistic way of life, home of the Areogapus. This is the home of the Philosophers, this is Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno. Home of philosophy and pursuit of knowledge.

In typical Pauline style he seeks to mediate between the two. He is amongst philsophers here, the top thinkers in Athens, specifically here are students of Epicurus (Epicureans) and Zeno (Stoics).

I think that what amazes me about Pauline thought, what makes me love the Apostle Paul as a theologian is his vision. Paul’s Christianity is not radically different than what the Apostles had been teaching up to that point, but it does have a scope of vision that is unbelievably broad.

Prior to Simon Peter’s (quite literal) vision while meditating on a rooftop, the followers of “The Way” were quite content conceiving of their religion as little more than a new way to be Jewish. Theirs was very much a Jewish religion, and was exclusively for members of the Jewish religion. There was some idea of reconciling disparate groups, however. For example no one particular sect of Judaism was plucked from the consortium of Jewish sects of the period, whether Pharisees, Saducees, or Hellenic Jews it was all the same: The message of Jesus as Messiah. Indeed there may have even been this idea that, per Jesus’ peaceful interactions with Samaritans (the woman at the well in John ch. 4) and His use of the “Good Samaritan” in the parable that is so-named, that these early followers of “The Way” were to help mediate between Jews and Samaritans and bring them together in unity of faith under the Messiahship of Jesus.

Peter’s vision, and Paul’s subsequent work changes the scope. It’s a radical change in emphasis and vision of what Jesus came to do and who Jesus is in relationship to all humanity.

In truth Paul’s visionary conception of Christianity is nothing more than taking Jesus’ own teachings to their inevitable conclusion. That if Samaritan and Jew are, in fact, neighbors; if a Roman Centurian can have faith, if there is–indeed–no reason for any barriers to exist between people; then God has indeed done something truly magnificent and tremendously gigantic in the sending of Jesus.

It’s precisely from this radical vision of seeing all people as part of a single people, rather than dividing them up into tribes and various other affiliations. Rather than seeing ‘Jews’ and ‘Greeks’ and ‘Barbarians’, rather than seeing ‘Circumcised’ and ‘Uncircumcised’; rather than seeing ‘slave’ and ‘freeman’–all these categories cease to function with any meaning in Paul’s vision. In Christ God has done away with all these lines of demarcation, that is why Paul, in Galatians, says, “There is therefore no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) It’s why in Colossians he writes, “Here there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, Barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.” (Colossians 3:11). In Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians he writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have become near by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, He who has made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through His flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that He might create in Himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it.” (Ephesians 2:13-16).

There is, in Jesus, a new way of being human, a new kind of existance. The former way is full of division and bitterness, war and hatred, enmity and tribes trying to exterminate each other. Paul sees in Jesus a call from God toward something new, something which had always been predetermined by God for the world, but which was a mystery hidden in the past and only in the present coming to light. This mystery is the Church (Ephesians ch. 3), which hidden in God from time immemorial, has now come to light through Jesus Christ.

That Christ, who being a New Adam has set forth to establish a new humanity bound and interconnected with His Person. Through His death and resurrection Christ has overcome and destroyed the “powers and authorities” (i.e. sin, death and hell). Being now released from all bondage through the victory of Christ mankind is now free to enter into new life in and with God through Christ who is the Mediator between the two–being the very embodiment of God in human flesh–and this new life is unconditionally given to all as an act of God’s unwavering generosity. Entering into the Life of God through Baptism, by which we are bound to the same Christ who was crucified and resurrected, we become participants in that same mystery of victory as Jesus and become inexplicably interwoven into the tapestry of His own bodily life. Therefore the Church–that community of baptized Christians–is properly called the body of Christ. If, thus, we are inexplicably bound, bodily, to Jesus we are therefore participant sharers in all that properly belongs to Jesus. All which is the unique property of Jesus is therefore the unique property of all who are, in mystery, bound to Jesus: Thus it is the Son of God who gives right for all others to be called children of God; if Jesus suffered we too shall share in His sufferings, since Jesus rose from the dead we too shall rise from the dead. If Eternal Life is His, it is ours too. The “evidence”, or rather the pledge of God to us that this is true is that we have the same Spirit in us that was in Christ Jesus, namely the Holy Spirit–“If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11)

This Church, this community of baptized, is the very organic–if not very mystical–body of Jesus Himself; and it is a new way to be human in the world. A way of being human that is organically and inexplically connected to Jesus Himself in all respects, and in which all people of all walks of life are brought together in the peace of God. This Church is destined toward a purposed future, where death will no longer have any power, for at the end of the age there will be a resurrection, and all who ever died will be brought back to life, vindicated by God and experience, in full, the victory of God in Christ who is the “firstfruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

The purpose and mission of this Church is to live out into the world the same mode of life which Christ lived, and to–through loving words and actions–invite all people to come in and dwell and to sit and be gathered at the same table of peace as we ourselves sit.

Thus whether by feeding the hungry, giving to the poor, taking care of the sick, widow and the orphan we are doing the work of God in the world; the will of God to be peacemakers and ministers of reconciliation. These actions have within them the very character of Christ, and thus in them God is, Himself, at work in the hands that feed, clothe, give, and help.

In contradistinction from an exclusive club with highly mystical and religious overtones, the Church understands itself as a mystical union of people of all walks of life, that is inclusive to all. It is, in this respect, a reunion and re-formation of human community, a re-bringing-back of people who have been dispersed all over the world back together into a unity of hope and community, bound together in the grace and graciousness of God through the Crucified and Risen Jesus. If through Adam all men have become many and divided, through Christ the New Adam all men are being brought back together into the unity of love. Through the old there was war and strife and corruption of power; through the new there is peace and grace and the eradication of corrupt power.

Therein lay the Christian conviction that death is dead and life has sprung up bodily immortal in Christ Jesus, who “in [us] is the hope of glory.” (Collosians 1:27).



Am I a Rebel?

15 11 2007

This is probably the third or fourth time I’ve talked on this subject, or something similar to it. Yet, here I go again.

In some ways I sometimes wonder if I’m a bit of a religious rebel, and yet rather than eschewing tradition, orthodoxy, I always seem to be drawn ever closer to them. Though I never seem to be so ambitious as to simply say, “I am this thing, and I’ll play by all the rules.” On the contrary, I always seem to be in some odd place, existing in the wilderness between urban sprawls.

When someone discovers I’m a Christian one of the first things they usually ask (if they as me anything at all pertaining to it), is what kind of a Christian I am. It’s an honest enough question, one I’ve asked others myself. Presumably the question is asking what sort of church I go to, in which denomination do I kick off my shoes and hang my hat. It’s a fair question, but it’s one I’ve been unable to answer for nearly seven years.

Depending on whether I think a simple response or an accurate (though more complex) response is required, I’ll give some short-hand answer such as “Well, I’m kind of like a Lutheran, only I’m not, nor ever been a Lutheran.” or I’ll offer this response, “I’m a Christian with one foot in the broad Evangelical tradition and the other foot in the broad Catholic tradition.” In either case I’m sure you can tell that both responses may leave a person befuddled.

I’ll use plenty of descriptor-terms to describe what species of Christianus I approximate: Evangelical, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran-esque, Reformational, Traditional, Creedal, Sacramental, to name a few.

To the casual observer this list may seem fairly odd. But I assure you that I take each with the utmost meaning in my self-designation.

I remember I once had a person tell me something like, “You can’t be both Protestant and Catholic, it doesn’t work that way?” Well certainly you can! Lutherans, Anglicans and other “High-Church” Protestants have been doing it for nearly five hundred years.

I think the problem comes in when you begin to take these terms and make them titles of particular church clubs, you have “The Protestants” over here and “The Catholics” over there, which is certainly true in most senses. I’m just not sure those are the only senses by which we have to use them.

I’m most certainly Protestant in that sense, I’m neither Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and last I checked I was never a member of a Coptic or Ethiopian church. My theological persuasion is still pretty Protestant, but enter my rebellious side. Unable to simply sit comfy I put on my leather jacket and kick start my Harley and I’m off on some journey on the highway.

But where am I going? That’s an excellent question.

I’ve long been what I consider “ecumenical”, meaning that in some way I believe that Christians should spend more time talking to one another instead of anathemizing one another. What I mean by that term has evolved over the years.

The lines which divide various Christian “bodies” have become fairly fuzzier over the years, so much so that I’ve begun to question the very idea of having some “denominational title”, I know of other Christians who out of their own dislike for denominational disputes and titles have joined the “non-denominational” bandwagon. But, really, for all the talk of “non-denominational” these come across as virtually carbon copies of one another. I have no interest in the “non-denominational” movement because it seems like a bad alternative to the “denominational” system. It’s not really non-denominational, it’s simply quasi-denominational.

So that’s not the route I want to take, that much I know for certain. And yet, as said, all these boundaries seem to be a bit blurry.

The more I’m on “the road” so to speak, the more I kind of just think I want to be part of it all. Now certainly I’m more comfortable in the Lutheran theological arena than the Baptist one, but I don’t really want to say “I’m Lutheran, not Baptist.” Not because it’s approximating a semblence of truth, but because somewhere deep inside me I honestly believe in an idea. I certainly believe that there are Christians whose theology is closer in approximity to mainstream Christian orthodoxy than others, and often in different ways. I think the Lutheran conviction about the Gospel is more faithful than the Catholic one; I think the way Catholics “do” church is more faithful than the way Baptists do it; yet in all three cases we are still talking about Christians. I am theirs and they are mine. This is that idea I was getting at. That while our mileage may vary, all of us Christians are still Christian, and thus we are all part of the same fundamental thing.

I sometimes honestly do feel that there are Christains out there who are practicing a completely different religion than the one I am. These off-beat folk who go around pounding Bibles over everyone else’s head certainly seems absurdly foreign to me; but this is the exception rather than the rule.

So what am I? I have no idea, I just know I’m a Christian. I guess I’m just slowly learning what that means exactly. So maybe I am a rebel, then again maybe I’m just a pilgrim.

Where am I headed? I’m not entirely sure, though I pray to keep my eyes on the Son just over the horizon. I’ll just continue to enjoy the ride.


Christian Unity?

15 11 2007

As with most of my religious blog posts (which is to say, just about ALL of them), if you aren’t a Christian you probably won’t have any interest in what I have to say except, perhaps, out of sheer curiosity. In this case, fairly specificaly, what I want to discuss gets close into the heart of inter-Christian discussion and dialogue. Feel free to be a spectator though.

What exactly does it mean to be the Church?

Chances are that unless you spend any considerable time thinking about these sorts of things the phrase “the Church” may sound odd to you. For many people, particularly we Americans, there simply doesn’t exist this concept of “the Church”, there are simply “churches”. There are essentially two kinds of people who think this way, people outside of the Church and people whose only real religious fealty is, “This is what I was raised with.” For the latter group this is something like, “My grandma was a Baptist, my mom was a Baptist, and I am a Baptist.”

Thus “churches” become little more than religio-cultural entities, like membership clubs, similar to one’s national heritage–one is “Lutheran”, “Baptist”, “Catholic” in the same way one is “Polish”, “Italian”, or “Iranian”.

I want you, whoever you might be, to completely eradicate this idea from your mind in this discussion, because it’s absolutely not what I’m talking about.

Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans and Catholics are, for certain, churches; we often call them “traditions” or “denominations”–that funny word coming from the Latin, “de nomine“, meaning “to name”. I prefer the term “expressions”, these are localized “expressions” of Christianity, they are “expressions” of the Church.

Which gets at something quite deeper, the idea of the Church over the idea of “churches”.

Many Christians, particularly Protestants, both Mainline and Evangelical, are quite comfortable with the idea of the “Invisible Church”. This idea essentially says that there is the “Invisible Church” and the “Visible Church”. The “visible” is, of course, what we can see, we see “churches”; and of course the “invisible” is what can’t be seen, and it seeks to grasp at something deeper, that despite what we observe, all Christians are, more or less, part of the same thing: the Church. That is to say, the one and only Church; what is typically called “The Body of Christ”.

Now following the Protestant Reformation, where we have a serious split within Western Christendom between Catholics and Protestants, there were the wars of religions where Catholics and Protestants killed themselves for roughly about a century. This whole thing obviously wasn’t working out so well, and Protestants started to come up with a theory of “denominationalism”, that each Protestant sub-group was simply just an expression of the same thing. It took a while to get some of the kinks out, but it allowed Protestants to basically stop hurling anathemas against one another; though of course it often meant continued anathemas against the Roman Catholic Church–after all she was to blame for all this (or so you’d think if you read all the anti-Catholic rhetoric which came out of the 17th-19th centuries).

The wars of religion also created something else, a large group of Europeans who simply were convinced that all this organized religion stuff was a problem in and of itself, which of course led to that wonderful thing called the Age of Enlightenment, and of course we’ve been so enlightened ever since here in the West that we’ve never gone to war again; unless you count the American and French Revolutions, the Napoleonic Wars, World War I and II, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Maoist Regime–to only name a couple.

The real brainchild of the Enlightement was what eventually was birthed in Democracy and the rise of the modern nation state, particularly the idea of secular government which could keep all us religious folks from slaughtering one another. America was born as such an utopia of religious freedom and religious plurality, with all the glory which secularism brings. This, of course, not to attack religious freedom, democracy, secularism or religious pluralism by any means–but it has all created this culture we now live in today. It’s where we presently are as a civilization.

Which is probably why all my talk about “the Church” sounds so very odd.

Here’s the real meat of what I’m getting at: Christ did not establish “churches”, and talk to your local Catholic priest and he’ll tell you the very same thing; but fear not my Protestant chums, I am not arguing on behalf of Rome, at least not completely. I am, however, arguing on behalf of something more than a mere amorphous “invisible” Christian unity.

Here’s the cold and painful truth: What really divides us as Christians is not that we disagree on this or that point of theological minutia, Christians have been debating theology since Paul and James discussed the “Gentile Problem” at the Council of Jerusalem in around 50 AD. Anyone who cares much for studying Church history and reading the things Christians have been saying and writing over the centuries knows that all those guys with long beards and funny names disagreed on a hell of alot. Yet they were all still part of the same Church, probably because they had no concept for “church” in the modern sense. For them there simply was what there was, and so it didn’t matter where you were, in what city you visited, you could go to any urban center throughout the known world and gather with your fellow believers and experience life together with them.

What made them one wasn’t their agreement on theological minutia (though certainly theology was tremendously important, something also clear from a cursory study of Church history), but their participation together in worship. It was their liturgia–their work of worship as the people of God–which unified them as the Church. And for most of us Evangelicals, what we typically call “worship” would, no doubt, be completely and utterly alien to Christians from the apostolic era onward. For them worship was not getting up on Sunday, going to your local church building and singing a few hymns. Though they certainly did sing hymns, and hymnody is a vibrant part of the Christian tradition. For them what made worship actually worship was the Eucharist (Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Table of the Lord, the Agape Feast, etc). Everything else which they did when they gathered was organized around this centralized event. The hymns, the prayers, the homily (sermon), these were all in place, placed around the reason the Faithful even gathered to begin with: To receive the bread and the wine.

There are good chances that this may seem silly to you, because this idea is probably so alien from your very conception of worship. Such is the way things have become over the last couple hundred years for many Protestants, but it’s the truth.

Christians gathered to eat. Their eating together was the most fundamental part of their worship.

The theological meaning of the Eucharist for the ancient Church was that it was the actual body and blood of Christ, and there was a mystical meaning between the ideas of Jesus’ body, the bread and the wine, and the Church as “Body of Christ”.

I think this much is clear from reading just about anyone who had anything to say about the subject from antiquity: The bread and the wine of the Eucharist simply, and really, was the body and blood of Christ. This is long before theories like “Transubstatiation” existed, the philosophical ideas of medieval theologians. There was no “theory”, it was simply “mystery” (Greek “mysterium”, received into Latin as the word “sacramentum” or sacrament). The bread eaten was Jesus body, the wine drank was Jesus’ blood. All the “how?” questions were fairly unimportant, the Eucharist simply was what it was: Jesus present in/as bread and wine. If you don’t believe me then feel free to do your own homework.

The ramifications of this, however, are very important. Because three things in Scripture (and the ancient Church as a whole) were called “body”: Jesus’ own body which was crucified and resurrected, the Eucharist, and the community of Christian believers (the Church). In a real sense then these three things are all in some way the same thing: The Body of Christ. It’s precisely in our eating that we partake in Christ’s own body and are, corporately, that same body.

Think I’m making this up?

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” – 1 Corinthians 10:16,17

We are the Body of Christ. And it’s precisely because we all gather at the same Table that we are that very body.

What does it mean, then, if we don’t gather together at the same Table? Division in Christianity is not because of theological minutia, but because we forbid each other from gathering together.

Much more could be said of the meaning of the Table, connecting it with Jesus’ ministry of eating with people, going into their homes to share a meal, the Eucharist as gathering with Jesus, around Jesus (the Last Supper anyone?), because the Table is the central event where we are actually gathered for, in, around, with and under Christ; we could also delve into the topic of how this Eucharist supplants the Temple cultus of sacrifice. The Church as Temple, Christians as priests (which the New Testament affirms in several places), as well as the significance that only the Temple priests could partake of the Temple sacrifice thus participating in the sacrifice (look at 1 Corinthians 10:18) itself. But I won’t get deep into that.

It will, however, suffice to say that what actually constitutes Christian unity is, in fact, the Eucharist–the Table.

As long as we forbid one another from the same Table, or if we no longer understand the Table as the central element of our gathered worship, we are no longer functioning as the Church. What’s left are simply “churches”, religious social clubs without any significant meaning.

Going on Sunday to sing a few songs, say a few prayers, and hear a sermon may all be really nice, it may be all really good, but it’s like going to a wedding feast without any wedding, or building a car without an engine.

The Table is what we fundamentally do, and fundementally are called to do. Because, in the end, it’s what we fundementally are.

Church without the Table ultimately isn’t Church at all.

The Table of Christ, eating together, is what makes us one.