Connie Bull: Question: How is it that we embrace children professing their faith in Jesus the one who died for them and yet they are not usually included in services where they sing of Christ crucified…or help crush palms into ashes… or where they assist Good Friday in taking away the altar décor and drape […]
KB Categories Archives: Christian Community
Father Jon Aamodt, one of our AFFN members, was the special guest in this edition of Ancient-Future Faith and he talked about his work in church planting. Jon is the pastor of Five Streams Community Church in Forest Grove, Oregon, a western suburb of Portland, and has a heart for millennials. Want to learn how he sees Ancient-Future Faith as having an important impact on his life and ministry? Join us!
Tracy Balzer (right) was the guest for this edition of Ancient-Future Faith radio. She is the director of Christian Formation at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. She is the author of Thin Places (Leafwood 2007), A Listening Life (Pinyon, 2011), and Permission to Ponder: Contemplative Wisdom for the Spiritually Distracted (Leafwood, 2015). She holds a Master of Ministry degree, is a certified spiritual director and advocate of Celtic spirituality, and is an oblate at the beautiful Subiaco Abbey, also in Arkansas. Tracy regularly leads pilgrimages and study trips to the British Isles, having a special interest and affection for the Isle of Iona, Scotland.
Advent begins with trouble. This is the odd counter-cultural movement of the Christian year. Just when the stores are in full swing with jingling bells providing encouragement to Christmas shoppers, along comes the season of Advent. Advent is the first season of the year. Its liturgical color is blue. Advent is the season that tells the truth about the blues. It is the season that refuses to ignore the troubles that plague the world, the nations, the church, the family and the soul. Advent is the deep blue of the morning, just at dawn as the dark night is coming to an end.
This could be depressing. But it is not. Telling the truth about the trouble can lead to liberation, to transformation, to the new life that awaits on the other side of repentance. Telling the truth about the trouble draws God into the fray. In the ecumenical lectionary the first Advent text of the first year of the three year cycle begins: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” We often imagine that our sung kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) is all about our guilt and transgression. But it is much more. It is also a daring, bold cry to rouse God to save us from the forces of greed and envy and violence that separate us from the kingdom come, God’s will done.
Over the years Advent and Christmas have regularly been domesticated, their high voltage reduced to a pleasurable buzz. Advent is an invitation to host the odd texts that take the church deep into the ache and grief that cries out for a savior. Instead we often reduce the four Sundays of Advent to four safe platitudes: hope, peace, joy and love. Christmas is a journey into the vulnerability of God’s mission to save the earth. The savior cannot escape the troubles– born in obscurity, hunted down by the powers. How much of this fragility and danger remain in our festivities?
There is no more difficult season in the year than this one in which to practice the challenging work of forming alternative Christian identity in western culture. My friend and rabbi, Martin, likes to say that it is much easier to be a rabbi at Hannukah than to be a minister at Christmas. “After all,” he says, “no one else in the culture is trying to tell our children what Hanukkah is all about.” Without careful work, the recovery of Advent can feel like the “scrooging” of Christmas. The prophetic rage of John the Baptist does not easily transform a culture that is determined to party in the middle of winter.
Over the years at University Hill Congregation we have worked to cultivate Advent as a distinctive alternative to the celebration of Christmas that surrounds us. We often mark New Year’s Eve on the Saturday night before the first Sunday of Advent. We share a potluck meal and looked to the seasons of the Christian Year ahead. We taught our children that we hold dual citizenship– as Canadians and as citizens in the reign of God. We mark time with two different calendars- the secular calendar and the Christian Seasons calendar- to remind us of the oddness of living between times.
On Sundays in Advent we prepare for the amazing news of Christmas. We wait. We do not sing carols, yet. We long for the coming of Jesus Christ, just as our children long for the arrival of gifts. We do not open the present early (just as we do not sing Easter hymns during Lent). We practice “waiting upon God.” We remember that the root word for “wait” in both Hebrew and Latin also means “hope.” We will not give up on God, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary that is around us. We prepare our lives and homes for the reign of God with all the vigor that goes into our preparations for Christmas morning and Christmas dinner.
When the season of Christmas arrives we delight in knowing what the culture around us has forgotten: there are twelve Christmas mornings, twelve Christmas dinners. Others move on to Boxing Day sales and New Year’s plans while we are just beginning our Christmas celebrations. This bi-cultural life is a challenge. We easily fall into the habits and patterns that shape Christmas as mid-winter feast rather than as the rending of the heavens. But it is dawning on us that the twelve days of Christmas are a subversive gift, given to us by our ancestors as a mid-winter Sabbath. Twelve holidays– holy days- to tell the story, to sing the carols, and to enjoy living in the good news that God still answers the earth’s aching cry in the cry of Mary’s child.
Image above right: Untitled work on Advent. Fellowship Community, Louisville, KY.
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Chris Alford: Here’s a wonderful chapbook from AFFN Contributing Member Dr. Donald Richmond on the Apostle’s Creed. He writes, “The thesis is simple: Creeds not only defend and define doctrine, Creeds also determine the confines of community.” The introduction is here, and you may download the remainder in a .pdf format.
Christian Creeds have been used to both define and defend the historically revealed and received faith. Defining identity and defending against heresy were two crucial responsibilities of the early Church. The Church and the world needed to know the boundaries of proper belief and behavior.
The need for definition and defense continues to be of utmost importance. As long as there are competing religious systems, counterfeits, heresies and cults, there will always be a need to define and defend the faith. Truth exists, and it must be perpetually defined and defended. Karl Barth, likely the most important theologian in at least 500 years, has written that to say “yes” to truth is to also say “no” to every other theological competitor. Ascription to Christian truth will of necessity force us to deny every competing philosophy and theology that is contrary to God’s written revelation and to the affirmation of the universal Church. We must not forget this.
Beyond definition and defense, however, the Creeds offer a very clear picture of community and relationships. The Church is the community which the creeds define and defend. The classic Christian creeds seek to set the boundaries of community based upon the Triune nature of God as the Three-In-One. If we actually embrace what we recite in the Apostles’ Creed, we will enjoy a distinctly Trinitarian community. Creed is critical to community.
In this series of reflections I have chosen the Apostles’ Creed as the center-point of my meditations on creed and community. There are at least two reasons why I have chosen this particular creed; one is personal and the other is practical. Personally, the Apostles’ Creed is the creed most familiar to me. I say it every day when I participate in the appointed Daily Offices of prayer. From a practical standpoint, however, the Apostles’ Creed is a baptismal creed, and, as we all know, baptism is our first church-sanctioned introduction into the Christian community. Consequently, it is important that we appreciate the Apostles’ Creed in at least some of its community implications and applications.
In this series of meditations on the Apostles’ Creed, attention is given to some of the broad applications that this particular creed has upon building Christian community. In no way are these thoughts intended to be exhaustive, but, rather, they are intended as introductory ideas that may warrant further attention. God wants us to be one, a unity amid diversity. It is my hope that these reflections will contribute to the fulfillment of God’s intention.
To download and read the complete paper, please click here.
Image above, right: Twelve Apostles. Contemporary icon. Konstantinos Yannakis.
The Book of Acts is an engaging narrative and certainly necessary for understanding the impact of the gospel. Among the more important lessons from this record is that the work of God’s Holy Spirit in and among Christians will highlight the differences between God’s people and the rest of the world, not diminish those differences.
The first nine verses of chapter 17 indicate Paul and Silas arrived in Thessalonica where Paul contended with the Jews in the synagogue for three Sabbaths. A number of Jews and Greeks became followers of Christ.
Some Jews, however, were not so amenable to the gospel. They gathered a mob, created a commotion, and hauled Jason and some believers before the local authorities. Apparently Jason provided lodging for the two preachers.
The charge leveled against Paul, Silas, and the others? “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also…” (v. 6, NRSV). Further, “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying there is another king named Jesus” (v. 7).
Under Roman rule the phrase “turning the world upside down” was useful for identifying persons who were acting treasonously. The purpose of the gospel of Jesus, however, was not to depose emperors—at least not in the way this rowdy crowd suggested to the local authorities.
Isn’t it just like the world to think that Jesus and Jesus’ followers are “upsetting the apple cart” as it were? It’s the world’s nature to defend its own status quo. Self-preservation is the name of that game. Truth be told, however, it’s actually the world as we know it in the shadow of the Fall that is already upside down.
Jesus has never turned the world upside down— not then, not now, not ever. Instead, God was incarnate in Jesus Christ in order to turn things right-side up.
The gospel tells us about a complete redemption of the whole cosmos; not merely a better version of what has been for so long, but the way things are supposed to be. The revelation to John about a new heaven and new earth reads like a re-establishment of Eden (Rev 21). The “right-side upping” of the whole creation through Christ creates the context within which God will make all things new.
Paul and Silas’ proclamation of the kingship of Christ likely constituted civil disobedience. Yet their greater commitment was obedience to God and the message of God’s Messiah. If anything, Paul’s concern for Roman rulers was more for their conversion to the faith (read of his encounter with King Agrippa in Acts 26). The fact that some in the broader culture perceived Paul’s preaching about Christ as a threat to Caesar is merely a collateral repercussion, not an intentional aspiration for dethroning the emperor.
The right-side up gospel of God’s kingdom—and those proclaiming that gospel—will always be in conflict with the world’s thinking, values, and behaviors. The world’s defense of itself will always be upside down, appealing to some temporal principle or ideology, rarely if ever to anything bearing the weight of eternal truth.
For the moment, suppose Paul and Silas were found at Jason’s house and brought before the authorities. Paul might have responded to such allegations by saying, “If those are the charges, I’m guilty!” He would then give a vigorous and articulate declaration of Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah and resurrected Lord, the Son of most high God in the royal lineage of David.
An odd twist in this narrative is that the crowd’s indictment actually proclaims a truth at the heart of the gospel: that Christ is indeed the Sovereign of a new kingdom. Sometimes the world speaks right-side up truth in spite of itself. It is a sign of the gospel’s influence when the world is critical of Jesus’ followers by accusing them of doing and saying precisely what God has called them to do and say.
As Jesus’ followers now in the 21st century, it is incumbent upon us to be “guilty” of the same “offense” as Paul and Silas. The message we are called to proclaim is likely to be perceived as disruptive and even subversive by an upside down world because that is precisely what it is—the good news of the right-side up Kingdom of God.
It seems unthinkable to followers of Christ for the terms “Christianity” and “hate speech” to be linked to one another. Yet a recent internet search for the phrase “Christianity as hate speech” brought a noted response of an astounding “About 1,600,000 results.”
Who would do such a thing? Take your pick. Certainly some of the resulting links were for blogs, social media, and opinion pieces, while others appear on what could be legitimate news sources. While the search results certainly represent a range in the use of the term “Christian,” the very real possibility does exist that expressions of orthodox Christian doctrines may be construed by some persons to be hate speech, with a relatively new focus here in the United States (U.S.).
For most of the history of the U.S. the gospel entrusted to Christ’s church was widely acknowledged enough for American citizens to consider it neither foolish nor a stumbling block (to borrow descriptors from Paul’s first epistle to the church at Corinth). No one took particular offense at the church’s existence and message since Constitutional protections were, by and large, honored for all citizens and groups. Sadly that was true because the gospel had become entangled in the nation’s epic narrative of divine providence for America as a unique nation and a force for ultimate good in the world.
That could be changing.
If the Christian faith is determined to exist as an expression of hate speech and, therefore, in danger of being forbidden, what, then, about worship among Christians? In what sense might the worship of holy God be cast into the category of hate speech?
In the conversation of the moment, it appears that any person or group who holds a position that is deemed to be exclusivist is found to be offensive are determined to hold beliefs that are hateful toward others. In such a climate, worship that is based on what Christ’s followers in the U.S. believe to be true may, indeed, be deemed foolish (at least) and offensive (at the extreme), more so than ever before.
Worship that is biblically faithful can be described as being specific and exclusive.
- If we say we worship the one true holy God and that all others are not God, is that hate speech?
- If we sing praises to the LORD God encountered in the narrative, who is the heavenly Father, incarnate Jesus Christ, and revealed in the Holy Spirit, can that be counted as an attack on persons who sing a different theme?
- Could we be declared out of bounds constitutionally if we assert that baptism and the Lord’s Table are participation with Christ reserved solely for his followers?
- Might we be hauled into court if we proclaim that the eternally loving God is the Creator of all things whose grand redemptive enterprise will culminate in a new heaven and a new earth where God and the Lamb will sit upon the throne forever?
- Will we be told we cannot preach Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus? And can we be prohibited from offering our prayers in Jesus’ name?
Such worship is precisely the kind of distinguishing characteristic that sets Christianity apart, a stance that may become less tolerable within an aggressively secular culture.
For more than two hundred years, Christ’s followers living in the U.S. have enjoyed constitutional protection for liturgical practices we understand to be right and proper according to God’s Word. We should be thankful. We should also be vigilant in like measure, for those protections cannot be completely guaranteed.
Cultural rumblings remind us this world is fickle, and the freedom to honor the triune God as the only true God may be increasingly fragile. Scripture’s prophetic witness would caution us not to expect such freedoms—and not to be surprised that, if we do have them, they one day disappear. The things afforded to us by worldly empires are not immutable; that which is granted and secured by the state can be rescinded and denied by the state.
In a prior EthicsDaily.com column I wrote: “Christ’s church requires neither the approval nor protection of earthly empires in order to be faithful to God in its worship and its witness to the gospel.”
Christ calls his church to be faithful regardless of what temporal kingdoms and their leaders do or do not do. Our hope is in the holy triune God—the same yesterday, today, and forever—whose word is absolute and whose kingdom stands forever.
“It is no small matter to dwell in a religious community, or congregation, to converse therein without complaint, and to persevere therein faithfully until death” – Thomas á Kempis, Imitation of Christ
The Rule of Saint Benedict (RB), in its very first chapter, considers four kinds of monks. Only one of these, however, is crucial to Benedict’s forthcoming Regula: The Cenobites who are submitted “to a Rule or Abbot.” The Sarabites and the Gyrovagi, respectively referenced as the “worst” and the wanderers, are directly dismissed as a disgrace to their monastic profession, while the Hermits consist of those who have attained sustained spiritual maturity. Saint Benedict writes for those who are Cenobites, “the most steadfast.”
Remaining steadfast is “no small matter,” as both Benedict and the author of the Imitation indicate. Anyone can claim to be under authority when, in practice, there is no one (“Abbot”) or nothing (“Rule”) to which we must submit. It is easy, dangerously easy, to assert and embrace spiritual disciplines for which no one holds us accountable. If we would embrace the life of an ascetic, monastic, Oblate, or simply a committed Christian, we must with Benedict reject spiritual grandiosity in every isolationist expression and seek to live in faithful community with others.
But how do we accomplish this? How do we remain steadfast? Given the fact that people are difficult, and that sustained relationships can be hard? What are some “how to” priorities and practices that we can take to heart?
In order to be good monastics, or faithful Christians, we must realistically face the fact that remaining in community can be difficult. As Thomas á Kempis insists, it is “no small matter” to establish stability as one of our guiding spiritual priorities. This difficulty is exacerbated in a culture that celebrates (and suffers from) unrestrained “freedom.” However, like it or not, such freedoms do not make us free. Instead, freedom of this sort only asserts a socio-psycho-pneumatic theology of bondage. This type of “freedom” only asserts chaos. Instead, to be truly free, we must have constraints. We must be under authority. To be truly be free we must learn to say “no,” and not simply “yes.” We must learn to embrace, stealing from St. Paul, the profitability of Christian living and not simply the permissibility of sub-Christian living. Many things may be “permissible” to the Christian, but, in order to grow, we must govern our lives the ethic of profitability. Only spiritual children live from the perspective of permissibility. If we live from permissibility we are spiritually immature. Stability under established authority is the profitability we should strive toward.
Growth occurs, by-and-large, through dwelling in a religious community. This is not the same as having an accountability group or a spiritual director. While both of these are commendable, they are insufficient. We can hide from an accountability group. We can hide from our spiritual director. It is far more difficult to hide from those with whom we share a common life. We must “dwell” with others intimately if we are to grow exponentially. We must live in and as community, with an authority over us, if we are going to avoid hiding.
But what does it mean for us to “dwell” together? I am sure that many of us are aware of those who “dwell” together but live apart. Such “relationships” exist in marriages, homes, workplaces, congregations and monasteries. Technically they “live” together, but, practically speaking, they are divorced from each other. They share space but they do not share life. To dwell in a religious community, therefore, suggests at least three practices: religion, conversation, and confession. These, together, determine the faithfulness referenced by Benedict and refined by á Kempis.
Religion is critical to dwelling effectively together. This includes both rituals and relationships. The quality of our religion is determined by how we live our lives, by how our rituals define and refine our relationships. St. Benedict’s entire Rule seeks to regulate relationships around the priority of prayer. Every ritual and every practice revolves around what is “profitable for another” (RB 72) so that prayer will be unhindered. Every gathering, discussion, and engagement attends and submits to certain rituals so that we might more effectively live lives devoted to prayer. As such, prayer is not just a private devotional practice (although we must pray privately) it is a poignantly social discipline. Spiritual disciplines for the purpose of prayer require disciples. There must, citing the Lord’s Prayer, be a practical “Our” if God is “Father.” Practically speaking, therefore, the Christian religion must be entirely relational and familial.
Conversation also determines both the quality of our relationships and of our prayers. Let us face, again, some facts. Living as a community will at times be difficult. Being accountable to proper authority is not easy. Every relationship will be prone to entropy. The “answer” to these problems may be found in having conversations. This, in part, is why Saint Benedict called the brothers [and sisters] to Council. In order to make sure that our relationships were sound and that our prayers would be heard, Saint Benedict insisted upon conversation. Any type of conversation was not adequate, however. True conversation for the purpose of prayer has guardrails: the Abbot, the Rule, and the voice of the young (RB 3). To neglect any one of these is to court shipwreck. We must listen to the Abbot, our guide, if the ship of “our” supplication is to be piloted properly. We must attend to the Rule, our map, if we are to safely arrive at “our” destination. We must listen to the young, the novices, if we are to avoid the many sirens of spiritual seduction that so often tempt the elder shipmates. Each must be heard. Each must be heeded. The “how” is conversation, with a priority given to Abbot and the Rule. Talk is the true tradition of the Church.
Confession is required in any relationship, and critical to the life of every disciple. We will fail. We will fall short. We will struggle and we will sin. At times our best intention will be grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. We have all experienced the painful disappointments associated with living in a community. The issue is, however, how to move beyond these difficulties and disappointments. It is easy simply to move on. It is easy to write off the offending party; but not if we live in and as community for the purpose of prayer. If we live the priority of community, according to the RB, we will need to find ways to build bridges. We must find ways to “persevere” “without complaint.” As such we must at times be committed enough to put up and shut up. Obedience (RB 5), Silence (RB 6) and Humility (RB 7) are critical to this– most especially when reconciliation is hard, or at times impossible, to achieve.
Faithfulness is what is needed. Faithfulness is the first and foremost quality required of a servant. This, as well, requires fidelity to and within the community, being fixed within the community, demonstrating practical functionality within the community (not distance and withdrawal), and seeking to embrace and abide by a fullness of faith when things do not happen as we would like to see them happen. When everything seems to fly apart, when the ship seems to be sinking, we must stand our ground. We must stand firm. We must do our duty. It is “no small matter” to be in community and to submit ourselves to proper authority. But this we must do if we are to grow.
Again we must return to the wisdom of Thomas á Kempis and the wisdom of the Community of the Common Life as articulated in the Imitation of Christ: “The wearing of the religious habit…[does] little profit, but change of manners and perfect mortification of the passions make a truly religious [person].
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.
Ut Unum Sint
I was refused communion, even though I was known, because I did not belong to their group.
I was refused communion, for the same reason, in an entirely different denomination.
I was held in suspicion, in third denomination, because I was far too flexible.
I was held in suspicion, in a forth denomination, because I was not flexible enough.
I was refused a pastoral posting that I had essentially clinched when I would not be Republican.
I was refused another pastoral posting because, I am sure, I did not say “Prayer Book” like them.
I was called demonic by one militant Christian because I challenged “non-essential” doctrine.
I was called a heretic in the exact opposite denomination when I expressed a bit of breadth.
Recently, by a pastoral friend, I was accused of being too Catholic. This is quite odd because some Catholics I know have told me I am too Protestant. In some churches I am seen as far too “Liberal.” In other settings I am seen as far too “Conservative.” In some churches I am “Conservative” enough, but do not say things EXACTLY as they say them. In other churches I am “Liberal” enough, but do not ENTIRELY hold to their party line. On and on it goes. Is anyone else troubled by these kinds of attitudes and actions? Does anyone else believe that such ideas essentially compromise Christ, the “good news,” and the cause of essential worship and effective evangelism?
What is most disturbing about each of these illustrations is that NONE OF THEM involved biblical essentials, barring, maybe one (which could be seen as an interpretational matter). In each of these illustrations I share a common book (Bible), common creeds (Two or Three), common prayer (Lord’s), common morals (Ten Commandments and Sermon on the Mount) and, to some degree, common Sacraments (Baptism and Eucharist being primary, with the other five being, possibly, of practical value). These, to me, are more than enough to build bridges and to share, far more fully, a common life.
And yet we don’t share a common life. And yet we DARE participate in Holy Communion while we insist upon the damnable doctrine of “I am of Paul, I am of Apollo” (1 Corinthians 3:4). I recently had a woman dare to insist, not unusually I might add, that SHE was of Peter…and thus Jesus Christ himself! Sadly, on my part, I told her (from Job): “Surely you are the one, and with you wisdom will die.” (I was wrong…and I apologized.)
But let’s think about this for a bit. Let’s examine what is going on. Christians are, together, the body of Christ on this earth. We are the salt and the light. We hold “the keys.” We are ambassadors of Christ’s good news. But what do we do? We anathematize each other, render judgment upon each other, refuse sacramental fellowship, unworthily participate in the Sacrament, and compromise effective proclamation. Shame! Disgrace! Heresy!
What shall we do? The Ecumenical Movement, for good and at times for ill, has been around for well over a hundred and fifteen years. Some progress, small progress, has been made; but not anywhere close to what is necessary. While a number of options are available to us, one of which is a mass and united rebellion against the denominational authorities who subvert the Word and work of God, I will propose a far more strident alternative. We need to assert, and radically apply, the strictures of Scriptures regarding Holy Eucharist. In short, apart from extreme circumstances, NO UNITY, NO COMMUNION! Let’s hear what St. Paul says on this matter.
All of us are familiar with St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11. In this chapter Paul clearly and concisely outlines the expectations for The Lord’s Supper. In verses 17 – 32, within the clearly stated context of “divisions,” there are a number of challenges Paul sets before the participants. These are: (1) Be cautious of betrayal, (2) Be aware that it is the Lord’s Supper before it is our Supper, (3) Be alert to our Lord’s command to “do this,” (4) Be discerning, (5) Be aware that this is a covenantal meal, the breaking of which has damning consequences, (6) be insistent upon waiting.
Betrayal is the context which Paul cites for the offering and receiving of communion. His illustration clearly references Judas and his kiss of betrayal. The implication, for the Christian community of Corinth, was simple: Their activities betrayed Christ and betrayed the Sacrament. The implications for us are the same, albeit now posed as a question: Do we feign kissing each other ecumenically but, in practice, betray each other by insisting upon our own way? We TALK about unity. We preach about unity. We pray about unity. But we also gather in our own denominational conclaves to cast anathemas upon each other.
Arrogant exclusion is behind this. One person insists on his way, another on her way. One party says that they are of Paul, while another says of Peter. The most rank are those who insist they are of Jesus. But beneath this, as Paul says, is the eating and drinking to the exclusion of others. How often do we partake while we exclude others– either immediately in our own assemblies, or in our broader denominational conclaves? Paul says “NO!” The Body and Blood are “given” for all the body– not for a part of it. It is our Lord’s Supper. He has issued the invitation to all Christians. To exclude is to eat and drink damnation.
Obedience is insisted upon. “DO THIS” is what Jesus said, and what St. Paul reiterated. But many churches tell others, not of their stripe, who do not pronounce “shibboleth” in the same manner, NOT TO DO THIS. You can come for a “blessing,” if very lucky, but you are told that you cannot do what Jesus says because you do not say it like the particular denomination insists upon. Some, really arrogant groups, insist that they are NOT exclusive but, rather, they are truly “catholic.” Other Christians are truly welcome– as long as other Christians are “catholic” just like they are “catholic.” In other words: Be us and you will be okay! Ut Unum Sint, indeed!
Discernment is called for. We must examine ourselves. We must be assured that we are seeking to build bridges between ourselves and other Christians. We must make sure that we do not come to the “Altar” unconfessed, unforgiven, and unreconciled. This has both local and universal applications. Are we reconciled as a BODY, not just as an “eye,” “ear,” “nose,” “mouth,” or “hand” of a local assembly? Do we invite the Christian– TRULY a Christian– to come and dine at the Lord’s Supper with us? Do we invite them to our pulpits? Do we ask for their input? Or, as I recently experienced, are our sound ideas roundly rejected (even when we cite proper and respected sources) simply because we do not look like or speak like them? Think of this in another context: You are starving. I offer you Bread and Wine for the journey. But, because I use gluten free bread and grape juice, you pass upon the gift and die. Or, again: You come to the Altar of God because you are spiritually hungry, but, because I do not know you, I refuse to feed you. Instead I give the blessing, “be warmed and well fed,” while refusing the covering and food of Christ to you. Makes sense doesn’t it!? ABOMINATION!
Covenant is at stake here, and covenant is not to be taken lightly. Eucharist is not just a ritual, it is a covenant. Supper is not just a rite, it is a covenant. Table is not just a sacrament, it is a covenant. GOD ESTABLISHED THE COVENANT, and NO human person or institution has a right to abrogate it! And yet, as I go from church to church, assembly to assembly, they disregard God’s own covenantal expectations. At this point I would be wise to outline the concept of covenant. However, wanting to assume the reader’s intelligence, I won’t. It should be sufficient to say that GOD takes covenant seriously, and those who do not do so will reap serious consequences.
Waiting may be what is needed; a moratorium on Eucharist asserted and maintained. St. Paul tells us that many people in the Corinthian church became sick because they participated unworthily. Have we ever thought that the sickly state of the Church is due to the unworthy manner in which we have participated in the Sacrament? Let’s not side step the issue! WE ARE NOT RECONCILED, WE DO NOT SEEK PRACTICAL UNITY, WE ASSERT A “PAUL/APPOLOS” ETHIC, WE INSIST THAT OUR WAY IS ALWAYS RIGHT, WE TRAIN OTHERS IN OUR DENOMINATIONAL SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS, AND WE PARTAKE– UNWORTHILY! We must wait. We must weep. We must stop.
This brief article calls upon all Christian pastors– barring the extremities of First Communion, illness, or Last Rites (or the equivalent)– to stop giving Communion. While such an orientation may take time to entirely implement, it is not entirely out of the question. In fact, strictly speaking, it might be biblical.
A recent discussion, sponsored by First Things on “The Future of Protestantism,” has generated many important considerations. During one of the exchanges between the Rev. Dr. Peter Leithart and Rev. Dr. Carl Trueman, the latter questioned what appeared to be Leithart’s Christian minimalism— a challenge which Leithart rejected. Upon hearing this exchange, especially Trueman’s inquiries, I had an immediate response: Why not Christian minimalism?
Indeed! Why not? Although I am not an historian, it seems that the Church has repeatedly rejected simplicity. Instead, and unfortunately, we have complicated the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. Out of fear, much like Eve’s, we have consistently added to God’s revelation. This inclination is not in keeping with biblical revelation as evidenced at the first Jerusalem Council, and suggests (albeit under different categories) ongoing Judaizing tendencies within the Church. That is, in other words, we have established dogmas that are not biblically justifiable (strictly speaking) and enshrined doctrines that tend towards isolation. The systems we have created smother God’s simple revelation and retards relationships. We have, as such, built walls and not bridges.
The first Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) asserts a principal that must be prioritized. Having converted to Christ, Gentile Christians were being told that salvation in and through Christ was not enough. Specifically, according to the “party of the Pharisees” (vs. 5a), they needed to keep the law and its expectations of circumcision (vs. 5b). After hearing a presentation by Paul and Barnabas, Peter asserted that the Gentiles should not be “troubled” by additions to the gospel of Christ (vss. 12–19) but should embrace certain basic expectations. This “seemed good to the apostles and the elders and the whole church” (vs. 22); a position that had both theological and practical implications. Paul accepted and applied this emphasis upon minimalistic simplicity.
But the Church has not been so swift to assert such simplicity. Examples of this would, no doubt, fill a book. However, let me cite a few Socratic inquiries: Are Copts, because they reject all Councils beyond the 3rd, truly not Christians? Are members of our Orthodox family not truly Christian because they venerate icons? Are monks not Christian because some of their historic teachings MAY lend themselves to “works righteousness?” Is the Latin Church excommunicated because of the filioque? Is the Greek Church excommunicated because of its rejection of the filioque? Is the Eastern Church excommunicated because a Pope said so? Are Luther and Calvin heretics because Latin and Eastern churches reject them? Are Anglicans heretics because at least one Metropolitan, or even an entire denomination, said so? The questions are endless, and more often than not reflect an unwise and impractical emphasis upon pronouncing “shibboleth” properly (Judges 12: 6).
To be sure, issues of orthodoxy and orthopraxy DO matter. Essential shibboleths do exist. Theology and thought, liturgy and life, dynamically intersect. God IS interested in these things. Nevertheless, examples of hair-splitting exist to the point of producing baldness. And, by extension (pun not intended), the realization of our receding “hairline” has resulted in our applying a host of theological gels, goops, glues and sprays that render us ridiculous. Much of our Theology has become a sad yet obvious comb-over.
The question, among other questions, is “What is essential?” When Leithart was asked what his “Reformed Catholicism” would look like, his answers (no doubt tied to the schedule he had been keeping) were succinct yet scant. When offered, they were also far too broad (by and large) to be functionally applicable— although his emphasis upon local communities, while limited and limiting, was well taken. As such, adding to a cacophony of voices, I will add my own limited perspective.
An effective Christian minimalism will be bounded by the following guidelines.
Holy Scripture will be acknowledged, asserted and upheld for what it is: The “inspired” (2 Timothy 3: 16) “word of God” (1 Peter 1: 25) to humans, from God, through humans (Hebrews 1: 1). It must be admitted, however, that problems exist among fellow Christians regarding both the nature of the Text and the number of books that are contained therein. In both cases, however, a reserved minimalism should be employed. Regarding the latter, ALL Christians embrace the 66 books of the “Old” and “New” Testaments. These should be firmly proclaimed. Regarding the other books, varying in number between Greek and Roman Christians, we should have freedom to choose. I, as an example, hold to an Anglican perspective: The other texts, known variously as the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical texts, are good for edification but not for establishing doctrine. As such I would encourage their private reading— as did Athanasius. It must be stated, as well regarding these 66 books, that the Church has uniformly accepted the Holy Bible as “authoritative” and imperative to life in Christ in all of its socio-psycho-pneumatic applications (2 Peter 1: 3). Regarding the former, the nature of the Text, it is sufficient that we acknowledge and adhere to these texts as the inspired written word of God that has practical authority over our lives.
Historic Creeds are central to an ecumenical authority, antiquity and apostolicity. They are not, as they are rooted in the Sacred Text itself, disposable declarations. I recall some years ago hearing a minister (I use the word loosely), after urging us to recite one of the Creeds, encourage the assembly to sit or stand according to our rejection (sit) or acceptance (stand) of this Creed’s affirmations. Talk about misfiring “pistons”!! As CHRISTIANS we do not have an option on this matter. We either say “no” or “yes.” If we say “no” to these assertions, we are not Christians. If we say “yes” (keeping in mind that these assertions reflect significant head, heart and “hand” changes) we are Christians. Please know that I am well-aware of the need to wrestle with questions and issues. Some people, at times, struggle with certain articles of faith. As well, there is the unfortunate gloom of the filioque to be addressed— which, thankfully, has begun (but inadequately) to be rectified in some corners of the Church. When I was first “Commissioned” in 1980 my certificate suggested that this document would remain effective as long as I upheld “the three articles of faith (the Apostolic, Nicene and Athanasian)” and “shall be found living and teaching in accordance with Holy Scriptures.” This tri-fold expectation (believing…teaching…living) seems very reasonable to me, and I have found that such broad rubrics work well in a wide variety of denominational settings– including among those that are not, strictly speaking, creedal. I am reminded by my friend, the Rev. Dr. Chris Alford of the Epiclesis Community, that the Creeds are models of minimalistic simplicity. Amen!
Catholic Practice is also critical to ecumenism. Admittedly this is a difficult concept to embrace. One problem, among many, is the issue regarding the nature and need of being “Catholic.” My ROMAN Catholic friends assert an entirely ROMAN focus. My Protestant friends assert a far more “universal” application— even to the point of changing the word “Catholic” to “Christian” in the Articles of Faith. Some of my other friends, drawing from both, assert a catholicity that profiles Vincent of Lerins’ dictum. Each of these positions has advantages and disadvantages attached to them. The “catholicity” folk, as an example, cannot entirely assume or assert a time when all Christians subscribed to an essential Vincentian Canon— in its emphasis upon an all…everywhere…always experience. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, will have a hard time asserting its claims to sole authority, antiquity and apostolicity. Similarly, as well, my Protestant friends will need to account for their flat (quite accurately described) rejection of “Catholic” priorities and, instead, insist upon a tepid “Christian” qualifier. Properly understood, we are Catholic or we are not Christian. Christians must have distinct Catholic identifiers. As such, along with Holy Scripture and Historic Creeds, a viable and visible Catholic ecumenism will enthusiastically embrace biblical Sacraments. Baptism and Eucharist inform the day-to-day practices of committed Christians. While endless discussion and debate has been generated by the Sacraments, and their number, the Bible is quite clear about two. We are told in Holy Writ to be Baptized. We are told in Holy Writ to participate in Holy Communion. Both Sacraments, regardless of denominational nuancing, assign salvific importance to them (1 Peter 3: 21 and John 6: 53). As such, regardless of subtle nuancing, we cannot escape the biblical imperative attached to each. Quite frankly I do not care one whit about sprinkling, pouring, dunking, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or a whole host of other negotiable qualifiers. What I do care about is active, informed and transformative participation in them— leaving each assembly, even within denominations, to embrace the practice(s) suited to them.
Moral Imperatives are also crucial to Christianity— a word, frankly, to which I have some resistance. Our life in Christ engages “head,” “heart,” and “hands.” Faith is not simply a matter of belief (although proper belief is important) it is a matter of behavior. Walking with God has certain moral expectations. If we BELIEVE in God, we must strive to BEHAVE accordingly. In other words, Scripture, Creeds, and Sacraments challenge us to live according to the calling of Christ (Ephesians 4:1–16). Christians do not get to do as they please. We are called to live in and by the Holy Spirit as a holy Catholic Church.
This calling has dynamic implications, and is found in the Apostles’ Creed. Here we say that we believe in the Holy Spirit, under whose creedal and practical subheading exist the HOLY (my emphasis) Catholic Church, the communion and saints and the forgiveness of sins. These affirmations are not arbitrary. It is not as though the composers and compilers, having arrived at the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, were scrambling as with an Appendix to draw their thinking to a swift but carefully notated conclusion. NO! To be a HOLY Catholic Church, who lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, will have dynamic impact upon our communion and upon our need to live lives of radical forgiveness. Our behaviors are not afterthoughts of our beliefs— they are inherent to them. To BELIEVE in God, as well as in each of the other creedal affirmations, places behavioral expectations upon us that dynamically intersect (and at times interfere) with the lives of other people. Morality is critical to a Catholic ecumenism.
The forgiveness of sins, for many reasons including “the life everlasting,” is where a robust Catholic ecumenism must begin. And, sadly, it must begin with ME. Near my community is a church that appears to be enjoying some evangelistic success. Their numbers are very high. Their programs are expansive. They do “good work” in our communities. However, when they are mentioned to me, I have frequently referred to them as the “Jesus Lite” church. This was and is not a holy response. It is not, properly speaking, a “spiritual” response. It is, quite frankly, biblical slander. Thank God for a brother who challenged me regarding my attitudes and actions! And maybe that is what we should do for each other. We could all use a good challenge to our pet doctrines, arrogant assumptions, bold assertions and militant dogmatism about the non-essentials. Leithart is correct: We need each other as communal and Christ centered correctives. (And, as Leithart also noted, we will have a lot to discuss.)
The Eucharistic Expectation provides a fitting conclusion to these thoughts. In 1 Corinthians 11, the setting of which is a divided Church, St. Paul’s review of “The Lord’s Supper” calls us to serious personal and social reflection (vs. 28). His warning, not to eat or drink in an “unworthy” manner, is chilling (vss. 27 and 29). I think most Christians are aware Paul’s cautionary statements. Unfortunately we all-too-frequently apply them personally, but not socially. We acknowledge, and seek to rectify, our personal guilt— but fail to do the same regarding our denominational guilt. We prohibit Christians who share a basic faith and practice, a “mere Christianity,” from the Table because they do not speak “shibboleth” with the same denominational accent. What nonsense! What SIN and unmitigated arrogance! Is it not enough to say, and agree upon, that we affirm what Jesus and St. Paul said about Holy Communion? It is, according to both, “body” and “blood.” Let us not get lost in a tangle of misguided philosophies and denominational qualifiers. It is simple: DO WE OR DO WE NOT ACCEPT AND BELIEVE WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS ABOUT THE TABLE? This same simplicity might be applied to a great many other theological issues that we have systematized and philosophized out of all practical reason or usefulness.
If we Christians are serious about the foundation of our faith and practice, Holy Writ, God’s written revelation, maybe we should suspend all Eucharistic celebrations until such time as we are reconciled (Matthew 5:24). No functional ecumenism = No Eucharist. I am quite aware of many of the difficulties with this proposal. I am well aware of the difficulties associated with confessional and denominational rewrites. History CANNOT be re-written, but much of it can be repented of. Come let us reason TOGETHER. No functional ecumenism = No Eucharist.
Image at top: “Minimalism 9.” Photography by Joe Lencioni. March 24, 2008.