Monday, February 23, 2009

2.22.09 A Pattern of Hope in the midst of trials.....

We are continuing our series of homilies following some of the theological themes presented in the Nicene Creed. We have been lingering on what we are to learn from the phrase: We believe in the Holy Spirit. Our reflections on the Holy Spirit have, in turn, brought us back to the question of what it means to affirm our confidence in what God is doing in the community he has called to be his body on earth: the church. So, we spent a bit of time talking again this week of the importance of seeking God and his blessings within the context of Christian community. We have reiterated this point several times while reflecting on the person and work of the Holy Spirit because it is so very important to realize that God's intention for his people is that they receive grace from one another as often as we receive grace from him.

We went on to talk some about a passage of Scripture that reveals the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and encourages us to seek his presence so we might be drawn deeper into the love shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Colossians 3:1~4 & 12~17
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the
right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you
have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then
you also will be revealed with him in glory.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meek-
ness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each
other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love,
which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,
to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you
richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms,
hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name
of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Even though the Holy Spirit is not mentioned by name in this passage, he is everywhere present in what the apostle is talking about. It is the Holy Spirit who unites us to the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit who brings us the blessings of grace and mercy that come to us from Jesus. This particular role of the ministry of the Spirit is spelled out in the following from Paul's letter to the Ephesians.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. Ephesians 1:15-23

All of this talk of the Holy Spirit can seem quite ethereal; and, to some of our ears Paul's exhortation to set one's mind on the things above (see above passage) seems mushy and slippery. So, it helps to unpack what he is saying in light of our overall knowledge of the gospel. As James Dunn put it, Paul is not encouraging us here to describe the furniture of heaven when he beseeches us to set our mind on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. The New Testament authors regularly use the metaphors of their thought-world to describe the victory of Christ over evil and sin signified by his resurrection from the dead and this is the sort of language Paul is employing here: richly metaphorical. What Paul has in mind here is to encourage us to fix our thought patterns on what has been accomplished for us in Christ! This pattern of thinking is given to us, in turn, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit to us. Here I find Luke Timothy Johnson's thoughts to be a help: "We have a model for a life transformed through the Holy Spirit in Jesus.... The pattern of the human Jesus' own character.... is to be the pattern of the Spirit's transformation of human existence: 'I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God (Gal 2:20).' Paul, therefore speaks of 'putting on the Lord Jesus' (Rom 13:14) and of 'putting on the new person which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.... Christ who is all in all (Col 3:10-11). (Luke Timothy Johnson in his book, The Creed).

So, what can seem too ethereal to be of practical help is really in the end very practical advice for daily living. We are to see the events in our life according the pattern of our baptism in Christ. We have died with Christ and we are now made alive to the newness of life that is his resurrection. Our moral failures, our sins, do not determine our future because our death with Christ give us the freedom of forgiveness which is released each time we repent. Similarly, the external conditions of our life's circumstances do not have the authority to give us marching orders. What may seem to be a pattern of hopelessness (e.g. how many of us are feeling in the wake of the economic crisis) is not to be the pattern we conform our lives to. We are to live in hope and love knowing that the only death that matters is the death we have already died in Christ. So, we are to keep after the things that are good and belong to the world to come even in the midst of trying circumstances (e.g. we keep giving, loving, and working towards the future because we know the future through Jesus.

Questions for discussion:

1. Why is it important to have confidence in what God has promised to do through the Spirit in the church? Why is it important to think in this category as well as thinking in terms of what God has promised to do for each of us individually?

2. What role do you think prayer plays in helping you grasp what Paul is asking us to do in setting our mind on "things above"?

3. Setting our minds on the things above requires discipline. Do you cringe at the thought of understanding grace through the disciplines of prayer, worship, etc.? How does one approach the spiritual disciplines without being moralistic?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Homily Recap 2.15.09

We continued in our series of homilies that are based roughly on the theology of the Nicene Creed. This week we reflected a bit on the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the community of the local church.

Jesus made clear to his disciples in an astounding promise that he would would always be with them:

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you." John 14:15-17

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Matthew 28:19-20

We have come to understand through the witness of the apostles in the rest of the New Testament that his promise is kept through the sending and presence of the Holy Spirit in and among the people of God who follow Jesus in faith and repentance.

"So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God." Ephesians 2:19-21

There is much discussion and speculation about the particulars of when and how the Holy Spirit resides among and animates Christian people. What many Christians agree on, however, is that the Spirit is God's presence in and among his people for the purpose of progressively bringing a person's whole life into the fellowship shared by the Father, Son, and Him. But the emphasis in the New Testament is never on the individual as separate from the work of the Spirit in the community; thus, any conversation about the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of God's people must be a conversation about His relationship to God's people in the context of the Christian community of the local church. Hence, it is ironic that a passage like 1 Corinthians 12 comes up so often in discussions among Christian people in the context of who has what spiritual gift, how one might know what gift one has, and how one might acquire a certain gift, etc. This consumerist, individualist approach to the gift of God's spirit in and among God's people causes us to miss the heartbeat of this portion of 1 Corinthians: "to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good". How God's spirit manifests Himself will be unique within the context of each person's life, but this heterogeneity of spiritual experiences are from the same God whose plurality is joined in unity (three-in-one). So, the work of the Spirit in and among God's people is to enable and empower us to be uniquely ourselves while serving one another through the one Jesus. The point of all of this is that the community should, without diminishing the uniqueness of any of our members, see our unique lives as gifts of God's grace to one another for the common good.

'Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses." 1 Corinthians 12:4-11

This is how Rowan Williams talks about the topic at hand:

".... the community lives in the exchange, not simply of charisms... ... but of stories, of memories. My particular past is there, in the Church, as a resource for my relations with my brothers and sisters - not to be poured out repeatedly and promiscuously, but as a hinterland of vision and truth and acceptance, out of which I can begin to love in honesty. Mycharism , the gift given me to give to the community, is my self, ultimately; my story given back, to give me a place in the net of exchange, the web of gifts, which is Christ's Church. My self is to be given away in love, not because it is worthless, but because it is supremely precious, given to me by the hand of God as he returns my memory. Out of my story, the Spirit of the risen Jesus constitutes my present possibilities of understanding, compassion, and self-sharing. My identity as lover in the community is uniquely coloured by the loves in which I have already struggled, failed, learned, repented: they are the reason for my present love being in this 'key' or 'mode' rather than that, the irreducible particularity of my gift..... love in the mode that emerges from the past that is yours and no oneelse's , out of the process in which you have learned to accept yourself. Begin to see yourself as gift, love it as gift, from God's hand, and learn how the neighbour too is a gift, to himself or herself, and to you...... the state of 'fallen' humanity.... a chain of mutual deprivation, robbery with violence: here we see how redeemed humanity inverts this system to be a chain of mutual gift, exchange of life. And the pivot is the learning of ones' own self as gift, allowing it to be returned -whatever the initial pain or shame - by the risen Christ, hearing one's true name from his lips." (Williams pp. 37 and 38 of Resurrection, Interpreting the Easter Gospel).

Discussion Questions:

1. What benefit is it to you to think about God's promise to be present in and among his people? Does being reminded of this make a positive difference in how you practice your faith? If so, how?

2. What do you think Williams means when he says that we must learn to see ourselves as "gift" from "God's hand"..... "returned...... by the risen Christ"?

3. Do you think of yourself as gift in the way Williams suggests above?

4. How does seeing yourself as gift shape the way you think of your responsibilities to those in your community?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

homily recap 2.8.09

We continued our series of homilies that are based on some of the theological ideas presented in the Nicene Creed. Having just finished a 3 part series on redemption we moved on to reflect on the church as God's gift of community to those who are being redeemed. The church community is the context where God nurtures, teaches, and keeps his promises to his people.

This Sunday we considered the sacrament of baptism and reflected on what God says to us through this symbol. The notion of a sacrament, often defined as a visible and tangible sign of an invisible reality, is itself such an ethereal concept that one might wryly suggest that we need a sacrament to make the concept of sacraments real to us. In that observation, however, lies a hint of what is beautiful, true, and mysterious about the two sacraments Jesus left the church. To offer an analogy from what one Christian thinker, Maritain, has said about art: because it is God's world, a creation made in love and granted freedom, "things give more than they have". As Jesus took on the flesh and blood of this creation to show us the God who we cannot see, he left us physical stuff for us to act upon and through in order to reveal to us that which is invisible.

Some thoughts on the sacraments:
Regardless of what one thinks happens when one takes communion (I am referring here to the debates over transubstantiation, consubstantiation, the memorial view, and spiritual union) doesn't one have to admit that Jesus meant for there to be something unique about the connection between the physical act and what it speaks of; consider that the words of institution form 1 Corinthians 11 cited below teach us that the physical act of eating and drinking reveal the spiritual reality of the gospel - in Paul's words, it is the act of eating and drinking that speaks. Similarly, with baptism (see quotes from Romans 6 and Colossians 1 below), it is the physical act of baptism that Paul is referring to that proclaims the gospel and physically reveals a spiritual reality (e.g. circumcised with a spiritual circumcision... when you were buried with him in baptism).

"For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes."

"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life...."

"In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead."

In my opinion, for too long the debate over the meaning of the sacraments has centered on the questions of how and if they convey grace in and of themselves. The better question, I think, is how does God use these symbols together with the "tokens of trust" given to the church's common life (e.g. worship, prayer, community, etc) to be with us and speak to us? This is why we are encouraged to say that we believe in the church (actually, the Greek is that we "believe the church"). What we believe is that God works in us in a particular kind of community - the church. This is not to diminish the uniqueness, integrity, or importance of our individual relationships with God, rather we are taught that our individual relationships with God do not offer a context in and of themselves for the fullness of human flourishing. Rowan Williams, in his book (Tokens of Trust), talks about the church in this language: "Breathing the air of Christ, Christ becoming the 'atmosphere' in which we live.... ... isn't only about being in a state of peace but about being in what some would call a 'dynamic equilibrium'. Our peace is what it is because it is a flow of unbroken activity, the constant maintenance of relation and growth as we give into each others' lives and receive from each other, so that we advance in trust and confidence with one another and God."

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you think of the church (Grace Chicago, for example) as a gift of God to you and the context where God wishes to help your flourish as a human being?

2. Luke Timothy Johnson, in his book on the Nicene Creed (The Creed), says that "no one of us believes as much or as well as all of us do communally." Agree? Disagree? What is he saying? Expand on his thoughts?

3. Do the sacraments offer a context that help you in your life with Christ each other? I remarked on Sunday that baptism offers us a pattern that helps us read our lives rightly. Do you see baptism in this way?

4. Confessing the Nicene Creed, and participating in the sacramental life of the church reminds us that we confess a mystery revealed to us. Is it important to acknowledge the aspect of our faith that is mystery? If so, why? If not, why not?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

homily recap 2.1.09

This Sunday we returned to theme of redemption. We have continued to benefit from David Kelsey's insights gleaned from his wonderful book, Imagining Redemption. In this book, Kelsey talks about what redemptive difference Jesus can make to a family scarred by horrific events (see the last homily recap for context and the summary of what happened to this family). Kelsey uses the illustration of the reversal of foreground and background in a painting to describe the difference that Jesus can make to this family. "In the scene defined by Sam's family, after Sam's illness, his family's situation is the background. It both defines and frames the scene, that is, the context of each of the people in it. Within that context, Jesus' presence is accented or foregrounded as God's promise. At the same time Jesus is present in the scene as one person among many within one-and-the same context..... that context is profoundly unpromising, a living death constructed in part by Sam's family out of illusions and half-truths. However, if Jesus' presence in the family's life is indeed God's eschatological promise (by this Kelsey means that the risen Lord Jesus Christ brings the promise of the world to come to this family in the present, embodying the already of God's coming Kingdom in the midst of the not yet of this family's life) background and foreground are reversed. As God's promise of the imminent in-breaking of God's eschatological kingdom, Jesus' presence places Sam and his family in a new and profoundly promising context. Quite apart from anything else changing, we now must imagine the social institution that is created by God's performative utterance. That is, God's promise to all humankind is the context into which the terrible situation into which Sam's family is relocated." With this theological framework in mind we turned to the Gospel of John (21:1-17) and Jesus' third resurrection appearance to his disciples.

We find the disciples returning to fishing. Called by Jesus to be fishers of people these men had returned to being fishermen after the crucifixion. Into their midst the risen Lord Jesus comes and places their lives in a new context - the same new context that Kelsey refers to above. Within this new context Jesus gives Peter (and through him the rest of the disciples and us) a redemptive challenge: love the sheep, practice the Christian faith. Peter is being challenged to live into the blessings of grace and spirit animated life in the community called into existence by the risen Lord Jesus Christ, what Kelsey refers to above as the "social institution that is created by God's performative utterance".

While preparing this homily I thought about Jesus' redemptive challenge to Peter in light of an essay I recently read by Amy Plantinga Pauw, "Attending to the Gaps between Beliefs and Practices". In the essay Pauw observes that when thinking of spiritual formation it is always tempting to look at and emulate models of what she calls "exemplary discipleship". She suggests, though, that there are problems with that approach. Here is Pauw: "In exemplary cases of discipleship, the coherence of belief and practice is so impressive that it masks the extent to which beliefs and practices underdetermine each other. By contrast the ordinary struggles of religious people lay bare the ligaments that hold beliefs and practices together. Their struggles reveal how easily these connections become strained and broken when admirable beliefs fail to nurture admirable practices, or when vibrant practices fail to stimulate vibrant belief. The recurring gaps between beliefs and practices reveal that these two components do not by themselves comprise the religious life, and point us to the significance of the affective dimensions of faith. Desires and dispositions play a key role in connecting beliefs and practices". Pauw goes on to point out that it is by attending to the gaps where we discover "wanting to want" to serve and love God is what keeps us on track. Pauw: For us, as people of faith who want to want to love God, the communal setting of proclamation, sacraments, and confession frame our hopes for closing the gaps between beliefs and practices. In those settings we can reaffirm the truth about our dependence upon the richness of God's grace. Freed by God's assurance of forgiveness, we can dare to probe the corruption in our beliefs and practices, and our failures to connect them. Filled with thanksgiving and gratitude, we can pray for a creative and fruitful integrity between our beliefs and practices."

Questions for discussion:
1. Do you find yourself looking at those you consider to be exemplary followers of Jesus and feel that you come up short? Does this cause problems for you as you think about your own journey of faith?
2. What is masked by looking at those we consider to be exemplary disciples of Jesus as our models for our own journey with Christ?
3. What is revealed when we consider why we have gaps between beliefs and practices? What does Pauw mean by affections, desires and dispositions?
4. What can you glean from John's portrayal of Jesus' interaction with Peter as it relates to this discussion? Specifically, how is Jesus' challenge to Peter a way of inviting him to attend the gap between his belief and practice?