If you could go back in time, say, to your teens or your twenties and, knowing everything you do today, live within your person at that time, and experience what you experienced, would you do it? At first, your answer might be, “Of course!” You might be reminiscing about those halcyon high school days or those late nights and good friends in college. But do you also remember the awkwardness and confusion? The sense of wanting to move on in life but also the really dumb decisions you made?
You might still do it. You might not. Whatever your answer, this should be a hard question.
In some ways, that’s what we’re doing today. We’re not just lamenting our own sins and wretchedness. In fact, we make a great mistake if we think that Ash Wednesday is just about our sins and sinfulness. In part, many of us are already over on the other side; many of us know for what we are preparing and for whom and why. The season Ash Wednesday inaugurates, Lent, is an intentional, forty-day preparation for the only joy that can worthily be called by that name – resurrection, new life, Easter. We are already Easter people, already there, already set free. And we know it.
So why go back? Why on Ash Wednesday, do we deal with our sins and our brokenness, that which we have failed to do and that which we have left undone?
We go back because this world needs us to. Well, not so much us, but this world needs whose we are. Having been gathered as this unique and counter-cultural society called “the church,” having died to our old lives and brought into a new life in Christ, we are no longer who we once were, although that self hasn’t gone away; we live no longer only to ourselves but, now, we live to God. Now, we are his body in this world, the very Body of Christ. The 16th century Spanish Carmelite, Teresa of Avila, said it best: “Christ has no body but yours: no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”
That’s precisely how and why we can go back. We know we are already redeemed, already loved, already “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever,” as we do so profoundly in the service of Holy Baptism. Knowing that, we can go back. Those sins and that wretchedness you confess today is what you have done or have failed to do, and it’s who you are apart from Christ. But that is not who you are, at the deepest level of your being. That’s not who you are in Christ. You know, and know at your core, what Paul said in his letter to the Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13)
The reason so many don’t go backward, don’t revisit their past and deal with their shortcomings is because they’re afraid they’ll get stuck there. I don’t think it’s inconsequential that T. S. Eliot began his collection of poems, “Ash Wednesday,” with the following stanzas:
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn …
Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know that I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again
Many are afraid to go deep because, like Eliot wrote, they “do not hope to turn again.” But not us. This, then, is the mystery of Ash Wednesday. This is not a day in which we dance around our sins, naming them lightly or in a quick rush while we’re off to our next step on our day. We don’t brush over our past unfaithfulness or what or whom we’ve ignored, quickly adding pardon and hope and a promise of something better. No, this is a day when we dig and dig deeply into our own struggles and suffering and pain.
We do this because we know we won’t get stuck there. We do this because we know we are not stuck there. We do this because, yes, because we are already Easter people.
In fact, doing it the other way around is confusing and, frankly, a bit dangerous theologically, spiritually. When we turn this day, as many have, into a day to be present at train stations or commuter bus stops or wherever the marketplace is – dispensing Ashes-to-Go – the tendency is to cut short this soul searching, to add a note of blessing and renewal to these ashes, these signs of unmistakable death. Just look at what the Book of Common Prayer has already done; specifically, the (optional) prayer over the ashes on page 265:
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
This is liturgical theologian, Howard Galley’s, very 20th century revision of a much earlier, medieval prayer from the Sarum rite. The original prayer is much heavier, much darker, much more concentrated on our sins and, for my taste, much more honest. You can see the similarities and the very real differences between the two prayers in the original, here:
God, you desire not the death but the repentance of sinners: Look kindly upon the fragility of our human condition, and of your mercy deign to bless these ashes which we have resolved to put upon our heads as a token of humility and for the obtaining of pardon, that we, whom you have admonished are but ashes and know that for our depravity we deserve to revert to dust, consequently may be found worthy to receive pardon of all sins and the rewards promised anew to penitents.
Galley’s revision speaks of “our mortality and penitence,” but leaves out the reminder that these ashes are “token[s] of our humility and for the obtaining of pardon.” Galley’s prayer skips over Sarum’s most cutting line, “for our depravity we deserve to revert to dust,” and entirely replaces the result of the prayer: today, the result is grace (“…that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life”); in the original, it is hope (“…consequently may be found worthy to receive pardon of all sins and the rewards promised anew to penitents.”)
We make this turn, this Ash Wednesday turn inward to deal straightforwardly with our sins and sinfulness, not because we know the why and wherefore of grace – that’s the greatest mystery of all; in fact, if we think too long about grace we’ll realize we don’t deserve it. No, we make this turn because we are a people of hope. We have walked through the fallen-ness of our lives and, we suspect, we will from time to time still fall short of the glory of God, but we also know we are already redeemed, already set free, already capable of so much transformative power – not because of our sins but in spite of them, and only because God in Christ loved us first. That’s why we can go back, not because we want to nor because there is good back there, but because we can, in Him.
“Every wise man therefore will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question. ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?'”
– John Wesley, “Catholic Spirit,” a sermon first preached in 1750
In the life of the church, March 3 is set aside as a day to celebrate the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, most famously known — if known at all — with some historical inaccuracy as the founders of Methodism, a misunderstanding the Episcopal Church calendar of saints is quick to correct with the title: “John and Charles Wesley, priests.” They were raised in a Church of England home, after all — their father, Samuel, was rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire — and the brothers were thoroughly Anglican. Being caught by the zeal of missionary activity in the world was perfectly in keeping with the English churchmanship of their native 18th century.
Not only because it’s their day but also because we presently find ourselves in a church obsessed with talking about mission, though seemingly leery of making that into a verb, it might be wise to spend a bit of time learning from our history. Let me go ahead and say it: a potential consequence of investing carefully in this will be the creation of a broad and truly united coalition of Anglican churches in North America, if not one Anglican/Episcopal church which knows how to live out Anglican comprehensiveness in the 21st century. Quite specifically, I believe the mission challenge of the Episcopal Church in the next several decades will be to find and forge a way in which conservative Episcopalians and those Anglican groups who have already left will find a place in a wider structure to return and form a much more comprehensive Anglicanism in North America, side by side with those of us who are already their brothers and sisters in Christ. As an Episcopalian, I don’t want to (continue to) make the same mistake that our forebears did when the Methodist controversy started to boil over.
Not unlike our own, the 18th century was a period in which the institutions of yesteryear had become so consuming that concepts such as freedom and independence were high on the list for anyone interested in charting a more vibrant future. Over the course of that century, such values obviously spurred creative re-thinking in the political sphere and equally creative missionary attempts in the ecclesiastical world.
It was certainly possible to do this work within the established institutions of their day; just look how long the British system tolerated the men whom Americans vault today as heroes: Washington and Adams among others. Likewise, the Church of England found a way to balance missionary zeal with their commission as a national church. Every Sunday and Wednesday, for instance, I pray the Mass in a chancel in St. Mary’s County, Maryland in which there sits embedded into the floor a large stone dedicated to a former rector of the parish, the Rev’d Mr. Leigh Massey. Massey, we’ve learned, was of Irish descent, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, and at the tender age of nineteen and in the year 1723 — when John Wesley was twenty years old and a full twelve years before John would set sail for the colony of Georgia — Leigh became a truly missionary priest and rector of William & Mary Parish in the new world colony of Maryland. The stone in St. George’s chancel reads: “Near this place lies inter’d the Reverend Leigh Massey. He was educated at Oxford, the rector of this Parish, the darling of his flock and beloved by all who knew him. He died Jan. 10, 1732/33 aged 29 years.” (What appears to be confusion regarding the year of Massey’s death is attributable to the fact that Britain and the eastern portion of what would become the United States had, by that time, not yet accepted the Gregorian Calendar, a move that would become official by Act of Parliament as late as 1752.)
One very real danger, looking backward, is to be romanced into the deception that the church as missionary and church as institution are somehow opposing entities or concepts. They are not, nor have they ever been.
The fact is the divorce of Methodism from Anglicanism is a sad chapter, and was itself a prolonged and painful transition. There’s fault on both sides. For one, the Church of England didn’t help itself, failing to recognize that it was in some ways the very mission field the Wesley’s — and countless others, no less the Rev’d Leigh Massey — engaged which led naturally to the renewal or, at least, the desire to renew which they in time helped bring about. The equally and, maybe, more inflammatory evangelistic efforts of George Whitefield didn’t help the Wesley’s gain a wide audience in the seats of power of the church of their day. And yet they, John and Charles, were offering a much more thoroughgoing ‘Anglican Methodism’ than was the more stridently Calvinist Whitefield; the former brothers’ more Arminian emphasis on the necessary balance between justification by faith and works of mercy running clearly in line with the Caroline Divines, especially Jeremy Taylor whose most notable work is his profound devotional contribution, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living.
For another, the Wesley’s didn’t really help themselves. There was, it seems, a bit of the rogue in the Wesley DNA: at one point, Samuel took such a strident stand on an issue in his parish that the villagers burned down his house, nearly killing his young son, John. (Those biographers who make a big deal of this psychological trauma in the development of John’s theology have probably read too much Freud, although today’s United Methodist symbol — a flame and cross — is an ironic choice.) Likewise, John was equally staunch, the one noteworthy instance being the time he refused to offer communion to the daughter of a well-connected colonist — either because she refused to marry him or he, not wanting to marry her, nevertheless didn’t want her marrying the man she did, the facts depending on the particular biographer — an act which led to his being shipped back to England. Add to that that John, eventually, had enough with the foot-dragging of the church of his day and uncanonically commissioned elders, among whom Francis Asbury would become the most significant, to spearhead the organization of the church in America. Charles bitterly opposed his brother’s decision and even John, himself, feared for the direction of the new Methodist Episcopal churches in America, especially when in 1787 Francis, nicknamed by some “the American Pope,” changed the title ‘superintendent’ to ‘bishop’.
We, too, have become eerily skilled at making minor differences, mostly differences in emphasis, the cause and consequence of our divorce. Do you need an institution in order to do mission? Or do you need a mission to have an institution? Or, to God, do those distinctions make any bit of difference? From what I can tell, there’s no basis in these contentions for anything like a substantial argument, so let’s move on. But moving on, in practice, means that we would need to place obvious limitations on what we can and what we cannot institutionalize — meaning, specifically, what we can and what we cannot legislate or wrangle over at gatherings such as General Convention. If the devil’s in the details, that’s a big one.
Another very real danger is the tendency to calcify the Anglican theological tradition. Ever since the Church of England recognized that it had given birth to a worldwide family of churches, interestingly, on account of the American Revolution and around the time ‘Anglican’ began to become a term, itself, we knew we had a problem or, at least, an issue with authority. Looking back, removing the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the 16th century was still a safe thing to do, provided the king could exercise sufficient power. Once that power dynamic shifted, everything else did, too.
Ever since, there is and has become a contested core of Anglican thought and practice. Within, there is indeed a core; a way of being and thinking in a uniquely Anglican fashion. And it’s contested, sometimes with great vitriol, and it will continue to be so. That’s actually part of the charm of our theological tradition.
As I hinted earlier, the Wesley’s themselves were in many ways giving a contemporary voice to that contested core, aligning their evangelical and missionary efforts with the thinking of Lancelot Andrews and Jeremy Taylor and those Caroline Divines who preceded them by at least a century. So named for their support of King Charles (hence ‘Caroline’) and similar emphases to the reforms of Archbishop Wm. Laud (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1640, executed in 1645), whose 17th century reforms stressed a sacramental and liturgical piety, the restoration of episcopal authority, and the downplaying of Calvinist themes and preaching, these heavily influential theologians (a.k.a., ‘Divines’) were not in many ways united in their conclusions or arguments but, strictly speaking, in their methodology. They drew heavily on biblical and liturgical sources, most notably the Book of Common Prayer, and sought to demonstrate the continuity of Anglicanism within the great, albeit broad Christian tradition. They placed a strong emphasis on patristic studies and brought back many of the Eastern (Greek-writing) Christian theologians that had long been dismissed from the largely Latin (Western) Catholicism of recent centuries.
Into this context, then, it’s very easy to place the emerging theology of John and Charles Wesley: they, too, emphasized a liturgical and bible-based method of working out one’s salvation; they, too, taught that regular attendance to one’s spiritual, sacramental life was important, and they steered away, as I’ve already mentioned, from a more dominant Calvinist stress on predestination and toward a the thinking of the 16th century Dutch Reformer, Jacobus Arminius, who affirmed that our works to some degree, while not justifying, have something to do with God’s plan of salvation.
Equally so, we have much to learn from our past. A friend lent me what I can only call a book-length rant, Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors (2004). Author Edward Norman’s contribution (?) was an insightful and somewhat fun read, if only for its caustic dogmatism and bold self assertions. The author, Norman, contends that contemporary Anglicanism is a theological mess. I’d say he’s right. Not wanting to legitimize this sloppiness or our church’s generally slipshod course, I can’t go so far as Norman does in tracing the root of the problem. Here, below, Norman establishes the thesis; note that he traces the issue back to the Wesley’s (whom he clearly likes) and those who came after them (whom he doesn’t):
“The genesis of Evangelical revivalism at the end of the eighteenth century suggested no threat to the Church of England’s unity, for it occurred within a general consensus about the inherent Protestantism of Anglicanism. It was possible for Methodism, for example, to continue to worship at parish churches for fifty years before they separated into a distinct denomination. But when the new High Church movement appeared, in the 1830s, the appeal to Catholic antiquity, and to the past unity of Christianity, divided the Church of England in a manner which was instantly recognized. … It is also true, as some others noticed, that the ritual observances complained of were not, anyway, authentic revivals of early Catholic uses, but Tridentine splendor re-defined in the sharp light of nineteenth-century Ultramontane extravagances. The outcome was the beginning of disintegration. At the very time that the word ‘Anglican’ was coming into familiar parlance, in the middle years of the nineteenth century, the Church of England was in fact losing the semblance of unity which the name was supposed to express. Since then there has been an uninterrupted internal crisis of identity. … The Anglican way — almost the hallmark of Anglicanism — is to compose vacuous forms of words within which hugely divergent viewpoints can be accommodated. It is the promotion of expediency over principle, and is the manner in which Anglicanism is held together. … Not much force would be needed to flatten the Church of England as a coherent religious institution. It is a house of cards.” (Norman, Anglican Difficulties, pp. xi – xii)
Apart from his witty command of the English language and regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Norman’s overall point, he seems to commit the other problem we should’ve learned from the Wesley years — a dangerous seizing up of one or several parts of the Anglican theological tradition. To Norman, what does the “general consensus about the inherent Protestantism of Anglicanism” mean, anyway? And who’s in the “general”? Likewise, even though I’ve stepped back with some critical distance from the Anglo-Catholicism in which I was formed, I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that such churchmanship and its related customs in any way voids the merits of that rich tradition within Anglicanism.
The Christian and, specifically, Anglican theological enterprise is much broader than we’ve made it. And if we want to talk seriously about mission we’d be wise to start by acknowledging the single-minded theological dominance in the Episcopal Church of a 20th-century Protestant liberalism, as well as get much more serious about reprising Anglican comprehensiveness and bringing back that truly contested core. Regardless of whatever theological tradition in which you find yourself at home and, as such, better able to articulate what God in Christ is doing in your life, it does not seem — nor should it be — an exclusive concept to welcome the more robust participation of those who work from a different, even completely different methodology.
And so I’ll close with a more personal reflection.
The Episcopal Church was really my saving grace while I was enrolled in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. I was starting to feel that academic theology, which I really do love, was beginning to work on my soul like paint-thinner does on old finishes. I looked and looked for a church community that could strike a balance between prayer and, yes, honest-to-God prayer to Jesus Christ as well as not forsake the intellectual and secular world in which we found ourselves. The campus ministry, Brent House, was led by a gifted chaplain, the Rev’d Sam Portaro, and I was initially brought there by a fellow housemate with whom I lived in intentional Christian community, a Ph.D. student named Randall Foster. Sam and Randall were certainly at opposite ends of the theological spectrum, but both men could speak in profound and powerful ways about Jesus and about their Christian life as well as the ways they carry out reconciling ministry in the world. Sam is a priest in the Diocese of Chicago and I am proud that he was one of the presenters at my priestly ordination. Randall is now a priest in the Diocese of Forth Worth (the Anglican Church in North America) and today, on the Feast of John and Charles Wesley, he celebrates the anniversary of his diaconal ordination. I, too, celebrate Randall’s ordination and I celebrate, very much, that Randall is a minister of Christ’s redeeming Gospel. I know without a doubt that Randall is a light to those who come into his path. It saddens me, however, that he and I can only claim our continuing brotherhood in the larger, less visible Anglican Christian communion.
When will that time come, I wonder, when we really will come into the one-ness for which our Lord prayed? Probably around the time when we learn from our mistakes, one of which occurred during the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, lights of the world in their generation.
A new television series aired this week. Adding to the plethora of shows about saving and fixing restaurants and bars, ‘Church Rescue’ features three church consultants who help local congregations improve their mission, build their flock, resurrect their mission and market, and find ways to improve their offering.
Congregations and faith-based organizations are facing a storm of issues, not the least of which are the new economic realities of this 21st century. These changes feel scary and there’ll be a greater deal of turbulence to come, but the reality is pretty simple: the old, established world and worldview and, add to that, economy – an economy in many ways created with no small amount of blood, sweat and tears by visionaries like Henry Ford; the economy which led to the birth of an American middle class – is coming to an end.
The world as we know it has shifted. And we are shifting with it. But we’re not alone. Take the Millenials, for instance, the generation of young adults who were born in the late 1980s and 90s. This first generation to come of age in the new millennium – hence their name – will also be the first generation in modern times to make less money than their parents. They’re not lazy or narcissistic, and it’s not that they’re ineffectual, having been coddled by their so-called ‘helicopter parents.’ It’s that what the institutional Christian church is dealing with now, as a first-world, not-for-profit, somewhat secularized institution, the members of this generation been dealing with their entire adult life. Ever since the early 1970s, since just before they were born, there’s been an increasing and encroaching wealth gap in America along with a fundamental stagnation, if not regression in the economy. Around that time, the mainline institutional church had already measured its high-water mark, being aware because their numbers were sliding downward.
Here’s a thought: why don’t we, the church, learn from the members of the first generation that is, already, living into that new world, a situation, for them, that isn’t better or worse or changed but is pretty much reality?
The Millenials know, firsthand, what economic stagnation and regression feels like. On the whole, they’re incredibly well-educated; after all, their parents told them that college and graduate degrees were key to success. But “the price of attending a public four-year college rose 54% from 1998 to 2008 while the typical American household earned less in 2008 than it did a decade earlier, adjusted for inflation [sources: College Board, Leonhardt]. Therefore, to pay for the education touted by parents, teachers and the government as critical to future success, millennials took on massive debt, a record-breaking $35,200 on average for each 2013 U.S. college graduate.” These young adults have also been hit hardest by the nation’s worse economic collapse since the Great Depression. Because those Baby Boomers who were thinking about retiring sometime in the first decade of the new millennium held on to their positions, being suddenly faced with diminishing nest-eggs, the debt-laden Millienials, who thought they could get a good job to pay off their student loans, found themselves facing huge unemployment or under-employment.
What the American economy has realized – the 2010 census revealed that overall household income, across the board, has stagnated – Millenials have been dealing with their entire adult lives and most middle-class Americans have faced for at least a generation. According to The Economist, “Current incomes are at roughly the level of the late 1970s. [But] the cost of everything from housing to education has risen steadily in recent decades. From a real income perspective [for] the median household, the picture is one of a generation of stagnation.” “From 2000 to 2010, when many millennials entered the workforce, median household incomes fell for the first time since World War II,” Dave Roos adds, continuing: “It’s hard to make more money than your parents when jobs are paying less for the same work. The wealth gap between older and younger people has also widened significantly over the past 30 years. A 30-year-old in 2013 is worth 21 percent less than a 30-year-old in 1983. Meanwhile, the net worth of the average 60-year-old today is more than twice as high as 1983. In other words, young people keep getting poorer, while old folks get richer.”
But there’s hope and I’d say it’s real, Christian hope. When polled, the Millenials report astonishingly high degrees of happiness, contentment and optimism. According to the Pew Research Center, “a whopping 88% of people ages 18 to 34 said they had enough money or would have enough in the future to meet their long-term financial goals. …Even among those who said they were unemployed and financially strapped, 75% said they would someday have enough money. Overall, nearly three out of four believed they would achieve their goals in life — or already had — which was slightly more than among older adults,” the Los Angeles Times reported, quoting Kim Parker, associate director of the Pew project: “It’s hard to imagine a time when there was this level of optimism among a group so hard hit by economic conditions,” Parker said. To find out why their optimism is so high, look at the way the Pew survey question was worded, Roos cautioned: ‘Do you now earn enough money to lead the kind of life you want, or not?’ “The Pew survey found that the youngest generation is surprisingly old-school in its life priorities,” Roos wrote; “Millennials chiefly want to be good parents, raise happy children and give back to society. How much money is ‘enough’ to meet those admirable, but not necessarily expensive goals? That amount will likely be different for everybody.”
The Millenials will earn less than their parents, according to the old economic model, but they are also the first generation in a long time to be engaged in creating a wholly new, substantially different world and, as a result, a newly ordered economy. That explains why, according to Roos, “their elders are less hopeful for them. Fifty-four percent of Americans over the age of 55 thought young people today were unlikely to have a better life than their parents, compared with 42% of those ages 18 to 34. Over the last two decades, people in their 50s and 60s have tended to be less upbeat about the chances of their children living as well as they do, according to data from the General Social Survey.” What the Millenials’ Baby Boom parents name pessimistically as loss is really just something they fundamentally cannot see. They can’t see that the old, ‘Fordian’ economy has passed away. They can’t see that, perhaps, such an economy is not the be-all and end-all of the world, itself, and they can’t see that something else, something creative, may very well be emerging out of the rubble heap of the old order. They can’t see that that something new is, in fact, emerging.
The world as we know it has shifted. And I want to step out here and say, in fact, God is in this change. The excitement embedded in the new ‘creative economy’, to borrow the compelling phrase from economist Richard Florida, and the ways in which social media is just the tip of the iceberg of these emergent voices is reason enough, for me, why their optimism holds real hope – real Christian hope – for our planet and society and, yes, for Christ’s church. For the first time in a long time, there are adults who know how to cross-pollinate ideas, how to truly collaborate without fear of ownership or sabotage, how to interact and ‘friend’ others – regardless of whether they work for the same company, went to the same school or share the same politics – and how to find a greater, common good and enter freely into relationships with people of different backgrounds, races, religions, traditions, and sexual orientations.
You better believe this is going to change the church, the way the institution we created in modern memory and beefed up in very recent years operates and functions. You better believe that this will feel, to many, like unsteady turbulence. With those, we will be patient; for them, we will make space. But you’d be wise to believe that God is also in this: that the Creator actually intends to reconcile it all, one with another; that Christ who lived and loved as one of us actually wants the vast human family at His expansive table; that the Spirit which has been moving in our midst for this long actually meant to light this fire. It is hard, so very, very hard, to resurrect a worldview and, with it, to rebuild an economy. But what’s so hard is also so good, so very, very good because it takes the holy risk of vulnerability – risking to share, risking to believe that God is in the future, just as He’s been in the past, risking to be set free from all that once weighed you down.
Adapted from a sermon at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, 10 November 2013; click here for the link to the full sermon.
 Insights shared from Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class; see footnote below.
At a certain point in his ministry, Jesus expanded his mission to the outlying territories, commissioning 70 disciples and sending them out to heal, to prepare for his upcoming arrival, and to preach a simple message: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” (see Luke 10) They go out in pairs and they’re to be fixed, solely, on that kingdom and its message. They carry pretty much only what’s on their back, and they go in haste – “greet no one on the road,” Jesus tells them. They are solely dependent on God’s intervention, and their only livelihood is to knock on doors and spread the message.
This is what we tend to think of as the dominant form of evangelism: door knocking. I don’t know if this makes me a bad priest, but I’ve never knocked on a door to talk to a complete stranger about God or their faith life or the Christian church. Nor have I ever started a conversation by saying, “Let me tell you about Jesus…”
But I tend to think that I’ve won some souls to Christ and I’ve been a decent-enough ambassador of God’s good news. Sure, I’m a work in progress, as you are, too. And I’ve never gone out with an agenda to convert people and I, too, am comfortably surrounded by plenty of creaturely comforts. But through my life’s witness, in general, and, from time to time, my own words, I know God has acted through me. I think it’s time to spread that good news, as well.
The Episcopal chaplain at the University of Maryland – one of the campus ministries in our Diocese of Washington – has been developing over the years what he’s called “relational evangelism.” It’s not door knocking, and it’s pretty agenda-free. Maybe some might say it’s not evangelism, per se, but I can see God acting in and through this kind of strategy, too. It’s all about relationship. Think about it: as you get to know someone, what do you learn first about them? What they do, where they grew up, if they have a family, and other basic facts of life. Then, over time, as a relationship develops, that person might share with you their hopes and dreams and aspirations; what’s on their heart. After even more time that person might share with you their struggles and sufferings and shortcomings. God is in that, even when God’s name isn’t necessarily used and even when you’re not trying to get that person to come to church or accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. In fact, the degree to which you, yourself, open expose your own deeper hopes and hurts will determine the degree to which that other person will do the same. In that truth, then, there is the gentle yet profound hand of God working, developing something new, something truly worthy of being called “good news”, something which is life giving in the boldest sense of that term. What’s to say that relational evangelism isn’t as effective or gospel-sanctioned as knocking on doors or setting out to win souls to Christ? Who’s to say that God isn’t acting in and through that deepening relationship, and your own ability to show forth His grace in you.
On a campus of 41,000 students, the Episcopal campus ministry in College Park, Maryland might attract 41 or so … and that’s on a good day! That handful of students and inquirers and faithful are getting what you get in the Episcopal Church every week, every time we gather for worship: they and you are getting a full dose of Jesus. Ours are not necessarily “seeker friendly” services, although we try to be welcoming and hospitable at the same time. What we’re doing in here – and they are doing at the University of Maryland Episcopal campus ministry – is giving people a full taste of God in Christ, in the hopes that you and I will continue to become the Body of Christ on earth. That’s why I paraphrase a sermon from St. Augustine every time I invite you to come and receive Holy Communion; in just a few moments you’ll hear: “These are the gifts of God for the People of God. Become what you receive: the Body of Christ.” We’re all works in progress, of course, and no one among us has got it all figured out. But in our destination as well as in our journeys – as broken and marked by fits and starts as they surely are – we are reflecting or, I should say, we are capable of reflecting God’s abundant, just, gracious, and life-giving kingdom, right here on earth.
It doesn’t matter, then, how many people are in worship – whether it’s a tiny campus ministry on a huge university campus or a small parish church in a rural setting or a grand cathedral. It matters, only, how deeply a few might touch and taste the kingdom of God, right here on this side of heaven, and in being touched might, in time, touch others and share His grace – even when they’re not trying, even when they’re not using the right ‘buzz’ words, only as relationships deepen and they find themselves standing right in the very place where God would have them be: which is the now and the present of their lives.
I take this from the scriptures, of course; in particular, the wonderful story about Elisha and Naaman which can be found in 2 Kings chapter 5. Naaman, we learn, is a decorated and notorious military commander, but he suffers with an awful case of that debilitating ancient disease: leprosy. From a slave girl, Naaman learns about a certain prophet who lives in Samaria – that being Elisha – and sets out to find him and, hopefully, find some healing and relief. When, through a series of events, Naaman and Elisha are poised to meet, the prophet doesn’t even come out of his house. No, Elisha sends word that that great General is to go to the Jordan river and dip in and out seven times. That’s it.
What’s Naaman’s response? He’s enraged, insulted, and hurt. He’s not at all pleased. “He won’t even come out of his house to greet me?!” Naaman says, insulted, his ego surely bruised. Add to that, why would Naaman take a dip in that little, dirty, trickling creek – the Jordan River – while back in his home there are much more beautiful, lush rivers? He left and headed for home, not only let down but enraged, the scriptures tell us. A servant approached Naaman, however, and gave him a little nudge: “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” At that, Naaman went to the Jordan, washed seven times, and he was healed.
What did Naaman go to Samaria to see? A prophet, a man, someone to heal him? Or did he, in fact, go to a foreign land only to find what was in front of him the whole time? Removed from his comforts and distractions, perhaps Naaman was able to see the truth for the first time – that God, his God, was always already working in him and all he needed to do was the simplest (and yet hardest) thing in the world: listen, trust, pay attention. So often in life we overlook the simple things, the present reality, those gifts which stand right in front of us, day after day after day. This life, for one, and those who accompany us on our journey – our friends and family and co-workers and associates. All of these are gifts. Opportunities to show forth our own innate talents, as well as those challenges which remind us that we aren’t perfect – that this life is all about stumbling forward, and doing so with the courage to remember that we need God’s grace and good friends. All of these are gifts, presents in the fullest sense of that word. And it’s all been right in front of us, these incredibly simple and straightforward things which we, too often, overlook on our attempts to become better or different or someone we’re not, yet.
“The kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus preached and told his disciples to say the same: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” I hope you know this and, truly, I hope you get a small taste of this today, in worshiping, in hearing and receiving and taking and becoming. And I hope you not only have the courage to let this truth in but also to let it out, to share it in your life and in your own relationships. Not by way of an agenda or mission but simply and wholly because you can’t help but want to become His Body and live in the freedom of His kingdom, alone.
Following Sunday School last week, I asked one of our kids what she learned.
“Nothing,” she said. (That’s not an uncommon response from lots of kids, but this was strange for this particular child.)
“Nothing?” I responded. “Surely you picked up something?”
“It’s the same thing we heard last year,” she said, “the Trinity, God is three and also one.”
I’m willing to wager that the vast majority of people, like that 9-year-old, are so far beyond being tired of Christian preachers asserting dogmatic truths that they’ve started to feel as if Christianity is nothing more than a wierd code language, and some of us some of the time as part of our commitment to grow deeper and help change the world are forced to listen to words which don’t actually convey meaning. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that those who are not in churches and not likely to darken the door of any church are a lot like many within those sanctuaries — wondering about the purpose of their life and how they can help make this world a more just and equitable place and if they care, whatsoever, about what Christians are doing on Sundays they’re probably wondering “Why? What’s the big deal? So what? What’s the point?”
It’s not important whether one understands Christianity. Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance — that God is one and in three persons. For starters, this is hardly comprehensible. And, on another level, understanding it doesn’t really matter. Ask yourself, instead, what difference it makes. That’s what the world’s asking, and it’s a very good question.
In short, the Trinity makes a difference, a big difference.
The doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t officially settled until the Council of Chalcedon in 381 A.D. That doesn’t mean that everyone still agreed, but it’s interesting that a lot of years passed between Jesus and this church council. In that time, there was a lot of wondering and figuring stuff out and discerning and talking but, if you haven’t figured out by now, there was also a whole lot of arguing, screaming, kicking out and fighting. The story of Christianity, in many ways, is also the story of a big, drawn-out family argument. Perhaps you’ve experienced or, maybe, started one. The table erupts into contention, everyone’s involved even if they don’t want to be, and as much as you want to walk away and scream and say “I’m done with all you people!” you don’t. No, they’re still your family and as much as you don’t know why you love them you still do, in spite of your radically differing opinions about whatever it was that started that argument.
That’s a real gift, the gift of different opinions and arguing parties. A brief journey through the story of how early Christians wondered and wandered toward a definition of the Trinity might highlight some of this.
In the pages of the New Testament, there’s no doctrine of the Trinity, but there is a threefold understanding of God and in places where the context wouldn’t otherwise demand it. The Apostolic Fathers of the late-first and early-second centuries, such as Ignatius of Antioch, didn’t concern themselves with figuring out dogma – they were too busy tending the lives of growing congregations – but God is clearly affirmed as creator and Jesus is not only Son of God but also “our God” (as in Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians) and a triadic formula is often used. Justin Martyr and other Apologists of the early second century began to develop an understanding of how the one God can be both eternal and, at the same time, also revealed in the Son. Using logos — Greek for ‘word’ and ‘speech’ – Justin affirmed that God is one but, just as your own speech comes from within your own mind, so too does God bring forth something of Godself from time to time. Building on that, Irenaeus (late second century) developed a more thought-out understanding of how the Spirit plays in all of this: there’s an economy in God, Irenaeus taught; God’s nature is one but, at various points, God’s Word (Son) and God’s Wisdom (Spirit) are disclosed.
Irenaeus’ “economic trinitarianism”, as it’s called today, sparked fervor because many felt it denied an essential part of the Christian faith: monotheism. And in the third century there was a backlash against emergent trinitarian thinking, leading to the belief that there was no distinction in the Godhead. Into this argument stepped the third-century theologian, Tertullian, who not only affirmed the one-ness of God but, going beyond Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, also showed that in God there are three unique, distinct persons. Tertullian’s synthesis of Latin and Greek philosophy with emerging Christian doctrines remained central for some time, until in the fourth century a preacher from Alexandria named Arius returned the original fear that all of this denies the belief in one God. Arianism was so popular that it led, in time, to the Councils of Nicea (325 A.D., figuring out the relationship between the Son and the Father) and Chalcedon (381 A.D., addressing the first question as well as dealing the Trinity). Both Councils officially denounced Arianism as heresy and proclaimed that the Son is fully God (so we say in the Nicene Creed: “…God from God, light from light, true god from true god…”) and that there are, in fact, three distinct persons in the one God. This we call the Trinity.
Perhaps this sounds like one of those big family blow-outs in which everyone’s argued about something for so long that someone, at some point, says “What is it we started arguing about again?”, at which the entire table erupts in laughter. Surely, parts of the story I just told do sound a lot like starting World War III because someone forgot to put out the salad dressing!
But there’s a reason why this conversation got started, and there’s a reason why it turned into an argument and why it took so long to get worked out. There is a why?, a so what? to this entire story and that is far more important to know than the answer itself.
The Trinity is essentially a very profound and progressive understanding of God. The desire which fuels all of this is the search for a way to understand with some degree of comprehension that God is both eternal, true, for all time and, at the same time, new and fresh and living. You know that God is, and if you’ve ever flirted with atheism – or tried it out for a while – you know, I’ll bet, the limits of cutting off all possibility of something beyond, something else, something more to life. But just because you experience an open-eyed wonder you might not be entirely comfortable with feeling locked into a belief system which seems to assert with dogmatic authority that there are things you must believe about God. You want to be rooted in something true, something lasting, something real … and yet you don’t want to get stuck.
The reason why Christians stumbled upon the idea of the Trinity is to explain these real-life issues. The Trinity is our way of explaining how we can be both rooted in God but not bound by that rootedness, tied to something real but not restricted by that tether, not cut-off to the ways in which God is revealing new riches and, yes, challenges. The Trinity is our way of explaining how we can be both religious and spiritual, both rooted and open.
A catch-phrase for many is that they’re “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Ironically, there are so many ‘SBNR’s that even though it feels to them like something avant garde it’s a lifestyle which is so caught up in the mainstream that there’s no real substance, if anything there’s a palpable absence of meaning. (It’s not dissimilar to the experience of buying some new fancy outfit that everyone says is the latest in fashion while you also know, as you’re making the purchase, you’re going to dump it in the second-hand shop box in less than a year.)
We are living in a new apostolic age, and it’s much more similar to the early centuries of Christianity than these latter ones. This is not to say that the answers and the doctrines are invalid or, somehow, less valid. I am saying, though, that the challenge for us is to get underneath our dogma and listen and respond attentively to the voices and experience of real women and men, people who are really searching and quite honestly struggling to make meaning in a relatively unmoored world. The democratization of technology and widespread availability of information in our western, internet-connected world has not only led to a greater dissemination of knowledge but also, ironically, a profound disconnect for many with what it feels like to have an intellectual, spiritual home — a native language, a base-line understanding of how the world works. The challenge and, I’d say, gift is that we live in a world in which people are free and sophisticated enough to ask, with integrity, why? and so what difference does that make? And when they ask this question they are really, truly wondering and searching and yearning for something that sounds like a refreshing place to lay their spiritual and intellectual heads … but not get stuck there.
This also means that we are free, in fact we are expected to no longer simply give the answers to the test but share with a compelling narrative that our faith is progressive and open-minded, that we are spiritual people who are seeking and, when we stumble upon the Holy, we pause in the presence of a living God. Because of that, then, we’re unafraid to put down roots and journey deeper into the heart of that mystery, that God who is eternal and true and yet, at once, involved in this world and revealing something new, indeed “new every morning.” (Lam.3:23)
Christians do a great job of celebrating Christmas and Easter, but it’s really Jesus’ ascension which ‘seals the deal.’ Forty days after Easter, Luke tells us in the sequel to his gospel, Acts of the Apostles (1:6-11), Jesus ascended into heaven in front of the eleven disciples: “…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (v.9) They stood there, watching and waiting. At that moment, similar to Easter Day, two men in white robes appeared and said to them, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go.” (v.11) Immediately, they set about to work, no longer dependent on Jesus’ earthly presence. Immediately, they did what they knew they were capable of doing, spreading the good news in word and deed.
That’s a great question: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” Most of us are conditioned to look for direction from elsewhere, not within. Why do you stand looking up to heaven? Because we’re so conditioned to look for direction from elsewhere we’re also lousy at practicing freedom.When we talk about freedom, then, we tend to think about being free from something — from others, from expectation, from binding laws. That’s not what God means by freedom. For God, freedom is not being free from something. It’s being free for something.
Christianity is a religion of freedom, but be careful: what Christians actually celebrate is that we are free, in fact, to exercise the better angels of our nature, to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s phrase. We are free, truly free for the exercise of higher spiritual values.
All of this, we say, is because Jesus took up our nature, our humanity, with him. Without the Ascension, we’d never get around to doing what we’re capable of doing. Without the Ascension, we’d be sitting around, drifting aimlessly, acting like wild-eyed children, practicing the freedom which is really lawlessness, or waiting for another leader, monarch, dictator, self-help guru or diet commercial to tell us what to do.
The 16th century reformer, John Calvin, taught that our material nature is already in heaven, at least in part: “Since he entered heaven in our flesh, as if in our name, it follows, as the apostle says, that in a sense we already ‘sit with God in the heavenly places in him’ so that we do not await heaven with a bare hope, but in our Head already possess it.”
And Brooke Westcott, the 19th century Bishop of Durham (England), wrote: “By the Ascension all the parts of life are brought together in the oneness of their common destination. By the Ascension Christ in His Humanity is brought close to every one of us, and the words ‘in Christ,’ the very charter of our faith, gain a present power. By the Ascension we are encouraged to work beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration. … He is not only present with us as Ascended: He is active for us. We believe that He sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
It could be said, in a sense, that Christians gather to re-learn and practice a freedom which this world does not, cannot teach. We gather and enjoy and engage, as Bishop Westcott said, “the surface of things” — we make friendships, build community, serve the needy and oppressed. But we are cognizant, at the same time, that we’re also, everyday, “working beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration.” A freedom such as that is not to be missed.
On a Saturday afternoon several weeks ago in Kentucky, a former Roman Catholic Carmelite nun, Rosemarie Smead, was ordained a catholic priest. For obvious reasons this made something of a splash; perhaps some of you heard about it. (Click here for a story.)
This past week, in related news, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau, Robert Zollitsch, said at a conference on reforming the church it’s time for the Roman Church to at least consider ordaining women deacons. This doesn’t have as much drama as the first story, but it may have more staying power and, if so, it’ll have much longer-term interest.
These kinds of stories are not only interesting because of what they report but what they represent – why it is that they get buzz. Apparently, lots of people want to hear about this. I’d suspect it’s because some dominant strands of Christianity show an apparent foolishness and close-mindedness about women. The Reuters report about the Kentucky ordination cited a poll which revealed that 70% of American Catholics say they would be in favor of women being ordained priests.
Contemporary Christianity is, for some of us, recovering from a centuries-long failure to appreciate women in leadership positions. The official reason the Roman church gives for why women can’t be priests is because Jesus chose twelve men. That’s true, at least on the surface. But I’m often struck that people who say they read their bible or those who claim to know the heart of the Christian tradition, inside and out, often fail to notice what’s actually going on there. One doesn’t have to read between the lines; there’s no hidden story in the New Testament: the male-dominated Christianity that excludes women from leadership positions is not the kind of Way which Jesus practiced, and it’s not the religion of Jesus’ earliest followers. Let me be very clear: for Jesus and the bulk of early Christianity, I can find no distinction between male apostles and female apostles.
Women are not only characters in Jesus’ life but, in fact, key players. Jesus chose twelve male followers but it can hardly be argued, after looking up from the pages of any gospel, that there was only a set and select group of disciples. Jesus’ mother, Mary, not only says “Yes” to God’s intervention in her life, she also ministers alongside him – all the way to the very end. Jesus’ best friends were a trio of siblings, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha – whose home Jesus often retreated to in Bethany. In John’s gospel, the first person to whom Jesus reveals he is, in fact, the Messiah is a woman: a Samaritan woman at the well. And the first witnesses to the resurrection, the very defining concept of our Christian faith? Women, all of them. Then there’s Mary Magdalene, about whom much has been added through the ages, some of more ancient years designed to blacken her character, some of more recent years to take away the spotlight from her genuinely faithful relationship to Jesus. Whatever you’ve heard about Mary Magdalene suffice it to say that the New Testament presents her as a shining exemplar of a truly great disciple and, no less, apostle of the Risen Christ.
Jesus’ gender inclusion continued in the movement which kept alive his spirit. In Acts of the Apostles chapter 16 you meet a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. Paul met her and several other women in Philippi on one of his travel journeys. Lydia became interested in the story of God reconciling the world in Christ, and she and her entire household were baptized. Moreover, she became a major patron of the early church and founded a church in her home. It should also be mentioned that Lydia is a self-made woman, of sorts: purple cloth was incredibly expensive, being made from a crushed shell from the Mediterranean sea basin; that’s why purple is the color of royalty — those of means and wealth were among the few who could afford such a dye. There’s no Mr. Lydia: just a wealthy, well-to-do, and self-assertive woman who helped the Christian movement significantly. Read on and you learn of another couple who were leaders and apostles, Priscilla and her husband Aquila (Acts 18). To the Galatians, the Apostle Paul stated emphatically that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) The earliest forms of Christianity, just like Jesus’ own gatherings, were not only gender inclusive but they seemed to know no distinction between God’s acting through male or female leaders, for all indeed are one in Christ.
An all-male priesthood was made by us. Not Jesus. Not his earliest followers. A hierarchical church which differentiated between women and men at some fundamental levels with exclusive consequences for leadership positions was also made by us, not Jesus. And even though gender distinctions can also be found in the New Testament – most notably in the so-called household codes in which there’s an apparent pecking order: children obey parents, women obey husbands, husbands obey God (Eph. 5:22-6:5 or Col. 3:18-4:1) – the time of writing and origin of those documents seems to have more to do with a religion adopting the ethos of its culture and surrounding Roman imperialist society than following the clearly egalitarian and radical love-ethic of the God whom they knew as Emmanuel.
If you hear these words of mine as something like a politicized call to action or civil rights manifesto about inclusion for inclusivity’s sake, I apologize. That’s not my intent, well, not my primary intent. I’d like to take this another step, and at least in closing go a little bit deeper. There is a spiritual message here.
Obviously, I don’t have an issue with raising up women in ordained leadership positions in the Christian church. I do have an issue, however, with women being thrust into the maintenance and continuation of a centuries-long, male-dominated institution which has become known, for many, as “Christianity.” This religion founded on the Way of Jesus is not enriched if we do little more than add women to the roster of traditional male roles. (Interestingly, many of my female clergy friends have often remarked on how weird a feeling it is to put on the clerical collar for the first time. Even priesthood’s dress itself – a backwards collar, no less – is a distinctly male article of clothing.) I think what many are searching for is balance.
I don’t think that that 70% of American Catholics who say the church should be open to ordaining women as priests would be satisfied, entirely, by knowing that the celebrant or preacher or person baptizing their son or daughter could very well be a woman. I think that that 70% is saying, in other words, they are tired of the ways in which the Jesus Movement which seemed so clearly bent on equality and life and justice became, in fairly short order, obsessed with power, position, posture, and wealth. I think they’re calling for balance, at the very least, between the church which acts very much like a kingdom of this world and has, for centuries, nearly perfected an ethic of exclusion and judgment to now use its considerable wealth and voice to speak again the values of its Head: Jesus the holy child of God who modeled for us something truly profound and life-giving.
Whenever Jesus in the New Testament seems to describe what he’s about and the type of thing he’s trying to do, I’ve noticed he talks in surprisingly intimate, relational, domestic terms. In the middle of his farewell address to his followers, according to John, Jesus urges them to love one another and goes on to say “my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (Jn. 14:23) What a rich and intimate expression: Make our home with them. There’s no institution or power or organization here, no politics or positioning or structure. The image Jesus uses is blissfully tangible, direct and comforting: home.
There is an untold level of transformative power in the home. Home is where the heart is, we say. Home is where real change, real growth, real life happens.
While in Chicago, I taught for years in a Roman Catholic high school for girls run by the Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters of Mercy acted like good daughters of the Pope but under the surface – and you didn’t need to scratch too deeply – they were open-minded and spirited radicals, committed to doing works of justice and mercy wherever it was God was sending them, no matter what the church’s official leadership said. (Case in point: they hired me, an Episcopal man, to teach theology to Roman Catholic girls!) I loved the Sisters of Mercy for their spunky and radical spirit, and I value their tradition very much.
Founded in nineteenth century Dublin by Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy live and practice an intentional and, as I said, radical ministry that is, at the same time, kind of quiet. They founded schools and hospitals, orphanages and what Catherine called ‘Mercy Centers’ – places which transform society from the inside out. Catherine McAuley once remarked: “No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women.” This thesis, currently being tested with success in Afghanistan and other developing countries, is not predicated on sweeping political or structural changes. Rather, Catherine argued, it’s about changing the values of the home, where women, at least in the nineteenthcentury, made their decisive mark. If you can change the values of a home – if, for instance, because of her education a woman knows she has the power to exercise choices in life – then you change the neighborhood. If the neighborhood changes, so might the city. If the city, then the society, and if the society then, perhaps, the world.
I wonder what it might be like if Christians started exploring these cozier, homelier (*by which I don’t mean ‘unattractive’) and, frankly, simpler values of the One who lived as one of us: the Messiah who asked us to keep love alive so he and the Father will “make their home” in us. Many are already striving for this balance and there’s much good news here. For this very reason, I have to say that smaller churches such as St. George’s, Valley Lee are uniquely able to grow in vibrancy and vitality much more so than bigger church institutions – most notably those Cathedrals and dioceses and denominations which are shrinking and, if not shrinking, struggling to do little more than keep alive the tradition which built them years ago. Perhaps the tradition of an overtly institutionalized Christianity is, these days, drawing its final breath. If that is the case, and I suspect it is, we can say one positive thing: Jesus is not going anywhere. Jesus is very much alive. Nor is the movement Jesus began slipping away, but perhaps his Way which is predicated on those more intimate values of love and family, the home of God among us, is, these days, finding new life.