Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lancaster Seminary Baccalaureate Sermon

Congratulations to those of you who are graduating today. You have sacrificed much, given much, labored much, and endured much – and I hope you have received much in return. Congratulations!

And congratulations to those of you who have loved and supported our new graduates through their journey here. Many of you have sacrificed much, given much, labored much. God bless you for it. As the Psalmist says, may those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

And congratulations to those of us, staff and faculty, who have walked alongside these new graduates. We feel proud today. Proud, and hopeful, that this class will bear blessing in their diverse ministries of leadership and service.

And graduates of the class of 2010, may God’s Spirit sustain you with love, with hope, with wisdom, strength, and skill. May you know God’s presence in a personal, energizing, transforming way. May blessing attend you as you go forth.

Friends, sisters, brothers: We are the inheritors of Jesus’ prayer. This prayer is for us.

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus gathered his disciples on the night of his arrest. According to John 13, Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. At that meal
• Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, and he taught them.
• He prepared them for life after his departure.
• He promised them the Holy Spirit, who would guide and instruct them – and most of all, who would dwell within them, bearing divine life.
• He warned them that it might be difficult to follow him, that their faithful discipleship would provoke hostility – friends, conflict is a part of leadership – that they must abide in him in order to thrive.

As Jesus prepared his disciples that night, he did what you will do when you send someone you love off into the world. He did what we will do today during the commencement ceremony. Jesus prayed for them.

And sisters and brothers, we are the inheritors of this prayer. This prayer is for us. Jesus says he prays not only for his disciples but for all who come to believe. That’s we.

Now, source and redaction critics will tell us that Jesus never spoke such a prayer. (Those of you who haven’t learned about source and redaction critics, that’s for another day.) And they are likely correct; perhaps Jesus did not speak such a prayer on the night of his arrest. But something more important is true: at every moment the risen Jesus is living this prayer on our behalf. This prayer was written to remind us what Jesus was about – and what Jesus is about. This prayer is written for those who will follow Jesus beyond his earthly career. Sisters and brothers, this prayer is our inheritance. This prayer is for us.

When I was in seminary people actually typed their papers. We didn’t have email or the web. If you wanted to look up a journal article on a given topic, there was a set of about forty red-bound index volumes you could dig through, one for every year. Student apartments were three miles from the academic complex, five miles if it snowed…. Wait, am I wandering? Oh, yes.

When I was in seminary I took a course on the history of preaching in America. At one point we studied the ecumenical movement, that great endeavor to unite the diverse Christian bodies. We studied it as a grand movement of the past, located in the 1960s and 70s. Preachers like Eugene Carson Blake and Bishop James Pike. And there it was, in seminary at the age of 24, that this Baptist first heard of the United Church of Christ.

It sounded grand, this church founded on the vision that all of Christ’s people should be one. I was impressed, so much so that I devoted a day to the ecumenical movement when I taught Religion in America to college students. But here’s the point: the church’s oneness seemed like a goal. It seemed like something the church must labor for, that there’s much to be done before the church can attain unity. The UCC drew its motto – “That they may all be one” – from this prayer.

Ten years later I came to Lancaster, a seminary of the United Church of Christ with students from a huge diversity of Christian bodies. And I learned something here. The people who shaped this Seminary believed that the church IS one whether it looks like it or not. No matter how divided we may seem, our unity resides in Jesus Christ. As John Williamson Nevin, who taught theology here from 1840 to 1851, put it:

The church is composed of a vast number of individual members; but these are all actuated by the power of a common life, and the whole of this life gathers itself up ultimately or fundamentally in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the principle or root of the Church; and the Church through all ages is one, simply because it stands, in the presence and power of this root, universally and forever.

Look around at these windows. Yes, they’re almost exclusively guys made to look white, but look around. People you’ll rarely find associated with one another: Catholic icons like Francis. Pre-Reformation reformers like Hus. A whole window for Luther, but Calvin, Knox, and Zwingli as well. Their likenesses gathered in this chapel, their institutional legacies keenly divided. This chapel testifies to the church and its unity.

Back in seminary, I thought our unity was something we should strive for. Here at Lancaster, I learned that our unity does not depend on us. It doesn’t depend on whether we agree. Doesn’t depend on whether we pray together. Doesn’t depend on how wet we got when we were baptized. Sisters and brothers, we are one because Jesus Christ is one, and Christ’s life animates us all. That’s something I’ve learned here at Lancaster. I hope you have too.

Now let’s be real. We disagree on stuff. Important stuff. If we’re real, we’ll acknowledge that our disagreements hinder our common mission. They make it hard for us to work together; they can even make it hard for us to pray together. Years ago, one of my Pentecostal college students visited an Catholic church and described the “so-called prayers” he observed. In his world, if you had to read the words, you weren’t praying.

So let’s be real. Some of our Lancaster Seminary students cannot preach in their churches simply because they are women. Some of our seminarians cannot serve their churches simply because they love people of the same sex.

These days denominations are no longer the issue. The church in the United States is not arguing about episcopal polity, predestination and election. Just try to start a fight about one of those topics! We don’t struggle, much, over the eternal security of the believer or the possibility of perfection. A few years ago people were talking about “worship wars” concerning contemporary versus liturgical worship – but we’re past that.

Let’s be real. In this moment, as you go forth into religious leadership, the struggles in the church reflect those of our larger culture. The fights that divide our society as a whole have infected the church. A liberal Presbyterian will likely draw closer to a liberal Lutheran that she will to her conservative Presbyterian sister. Conservative Baptists make common cause with conservative Methodists. In the real world, our church conflicts – let’s be real about this – our church conflicts are little more than reflections of other cultural stresses. Can we be real for a moment here?

In 2005 the United Church of Christ was debating a resolution concerning equal rights to marriage for all persons. A conservative leader from Massachusetts spoke just before I did, and I have to say, I disagreed pretty strongly with him. So I said so. But when I sat down beside him, I whispered to him, “Did I treat you fairly?” And this person, who was there precisely to defeat the initiative I represented, patted me on the knee – let’s just say he’s from a different generation – and said, “Yes, you did.”

Jesus’ prayer tells us that we are one, regardless of whether we disagree. Our unity is not a work or a goal; it is a reality grounded in the living, risen Christ. But the prayer goes another step: Jesus prayed that we would experience love for one another, that same love that unites the persons of the Trinity.

When people outside the church look into the church, that’s what they look at. Do we live the gospel we proclaim toward one another? We haven’t always been so good at that; even today, people ridicule the church for the nastiness and pettiness of its conflicts – just as the Corinthian Christians embarrassed Paul by taking one another to court. But there have been other days. Christians have sold themselves into slavery in order to purchase the freedom of others. When everyone else fled as plague swept through their cities, Christians stayed put and offered basic nursing care. As Dionysius reported, “Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.” Sometimes we have done better. Today we can do better. You will do better.

Friends, in ministry – all kinds of ministry – you will disagree. You are called to disagree. When you believe the gospel is hindered, when you perceive that justice is stifled, when the forces of death run wild, you must speak up. Martin Luther spoke up. Phoebe Palmer spoke up. Sojourner Truth spoke up. Frederick Douglass spoke up. Gustavo Gutierrez spoke up. You must speak up. Leaders cannot ignore conflict, and they ought not avoid it. But friends, struggle in love. Struggle in love.

To struggle in love means that we will honor the presence of Christ, even in those who seem to be doing wrong. To struggle in love means that we will speak the truth concerning one another, even when twisting their words would be to our advantage. To struggle in love means to look that other person in the eye and speak a word of blessing.

Sisters and brothers, today we scatter. Thank God, the unity of the church does not depend on you or me. It lives in Jesus Christ. And from that same Christ flows the love that unites God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. That is the love that makes us one. Thanks be to God.

Monday, April 26, 2010

What's Up with Evangelicals?

The evangelical world is all over the place, and the rest of the church might want to clue in.

Last week a friend referred me to a video from her conservative evangelical megachurch (inerrancy, pre-trib rapture, you name it). The church was launching a series on global poverty, in which the pastor used words like "justice" and talked about how God sides with underdogs, classic liberation theology lines. This, in the wake of Glenn Beck's call to abandon social justice churches, is a most hopeful sign. The movement to embrace social, economic, and environmental justice shows broad growth among evangelicals.

At the same time, Reformed Theological Seminary has lost an esteemed faculty member, Bruce Waltke, because he expressed openness to theistic evolution in an interview. Apparently belief in a literal Adam and Eve was not enough. That same seminary has rescinded a speaking invitation to Tremper Longman, III, for his radical opinion that Adam and Eve may not have been historical persons.

The upshot of all this? Evangelicals are feeling a huge pull, just as they did in the 1950s and the 1970s. Some are gravitating toward engagement with the outside world, the larger church, and scientific consensus. Others are resisting like hell, trying to hold the line at about 1913. It's time, now more than ever, for the larger church to reach out to progressive evangelicals, honoring our differences but inviting them into prayer and conversation.

New Executive Director for the SBL

The Society of Biblical Literature has named John F. Kutsko of Abingdon Press as its new executive director, effective July 1. Kutsko holds a Harvard PhD in Hebrew Bible/Ancient Near East and has been working with Abingdon Press. Here's the announcement.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Temple Prostitution in the Ancient World?

It's nearly impossible to find consensus on this issue, which bears directly upon the interpretation of passages in the Hebrew Bible, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation.

Here's a popular report from Spiegel online. Thanks to Jack Sasson's distribution list for the link.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Economic Status and the New Testament

When I was in grad school, a coon's age ago, a common wisdom was emerging concerning the economic status of the early Christians. Works by Gerd Theissen and Wayne Meeks indicated mixed communities with a small number of fairly affluent persons, a mix of entrepreneurial tradespersons and merchants, and a substantial number of the truly poor and of slaves. First Corinthians 1:26 said it all: If "not many" of the Corinthians were powerful or of noble birth, then a few must have been.

More recently, however, research by Justin Meggitt and Steven Friesen has painted a picture that's far more grim. The overwhelming majority of ancient people, they argue, were profoundly poor. Relative affluence applied only to the fewest people, Christians included.

All of us tend to cling to the models with which we were "raised," and I'm no exception. But something's long bothered me about the notion that (practically) all the early Christians were desperately poor. First, I must say I've never done an iota of independent research into ancient living conditions. But here are my reservations. For one thing, it seems to me that the argument for nearly universal poverty depends more on models than on empirical evidence. Second, the NT documents are full of calls for almsgiving, stories about banquets, conflict between more and less prosperous believers, and communication between churches over expansive distances. Finally, it seems quite a few ancient people decorated their houses, which suggests some measure of leisure.

A fairly recent multi-author volume by classics scholars is just now making its way down to us NT scholars whose research lies outside ancient economics: Margaret Atkins and Robin Osborne, editors, Poverty in the Roman World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). There's also the 2007 Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (ed. Walter Schiedel, Ian Morris, Richard P. Saller). These authors largely agree that the Roman economy didn't do all that badly during the first and second centuries CE, and that poverty was not nearly so universal as some would maintain. See Willem M. Jongman's essay on "Consumption" in the Cambridge Economic History. On the other hand, things declined dramatically in the ensuing centuries. Even recent scholarship on economics in early Christianity (it seems to me) hasn't fully engaged this new work. (See Bruce W. Longenecker and Kelly D. Liebengood, eds., Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009].)

For now, I'll consider this a live conversation. But it has tremendous implications for the interpretation of many NT documents.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Matt Skinner on the Trial Narratives

Just received my copy of Matthew L. Skinner's The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament (Westminster John Knox, 2010). Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John all receive one chapter. Acts, in which Skinner is a recognized expert, receives three separate chapters -- but then again, Acts features lots of trial scenes. Skinner's approach is largely narrative-critical, informed by historical knowledge but primarily attentive to the stories' dynamic flow. Thus, each text is allowed to speak in its own voice.

I enjoyed the opportunity to read earlier versions of some chapters, so I can say a little about the book right away. It's a scholarly work, but the writing is clear and accessible: pastors, seminarians, and informed laypersons will be able to enjoy the book.

It strikes me that activists and denominational workers might want to read it too. Skinner is getting at the intersection between Christian identity and power. In many cultures, not least our own, trial scenes have provided the venue through which we explore ourselves, our values, and our conflicts.

How do the NT trial scenes depict the relationship between Jesus and his followers, on the one hand, and the authorities, on the other? Skinner characterizes the trial narratives as contributing to early Christian "self-definition" (158). The trial narratives insist that human authorities may seem overwhelming, but their authority does not rival God's. Faithful witness, such as that of Jesus and his followers, can expose the provisional nature of human power and promote an alternative path. Trials, even those with unjust endings, may in the long run serve to advance the gospel.

We'll benefit as well from recognizing the diverse portrayals of the authorities within the New Testament. Early Christians related to Roman and local authority in diverse ways. No one attitude toward political power accounts for the broad witness we find in the NT, just as no one theory of power can speak for all Christians and all times.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Love One Another: Healthy Sectarianism

In Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27 Jesus famously tells would-be disciples to “Love your enemies.” However, John’s Jesus puts it differently and with emphasis: Jesus’ is, “Love one another” (13:34-35; 15:12, 17). The Johannine Epistles take up this “new commandment” and make it the sign of true discipleship (1 John 3:11-24; 4:7-12; 2 John 5).

Which is more noble, to love everyone, even one’s enemies, or to love those in one’s own group? The first reaction for most people is to favor “Love your neighbor.” Indeed, that’s the ethical teaching for which Jesus is most famous. It’s easy, as Jesus says, to love your friends but hard to love everyone. We all know those people who can be gracious and charitable within their group but vicious to those outside.

I’d suggest that we pay attention to “Love one another.”

For one thing, the Bible speaks with multiple voices. It’s a conversation, not a monologue. On a host of questions the Bible offers apparently contradictory advice – and we should attend to both sides. Is wealth a blessing from God or a spiritual danger? Does human suffering represent God’s judgment or a call to mercy?

We should also look out for the social and literary contexts of biblical teachings. Over the past forty years or so, scholars have expended lots of energy on the social context of Johannine Christianity. One of the most striking things about John’s Gospel is the blend of high-flying spiritual and mystical language (“In the beginning was the Word”) with signs of deep social trauma. As Jesus says to his disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you” (15:18). Social scientists call that sort of religious outlook, in which the larger society is considered hostile and dangerous, a sectarian worldview.

Let’s look at the full context of that verse:

This I command you, that you love one another. If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.

Without going into detailed hypotheses about why the Johannine Christians came to believe that the world hated them, let’s simply notice this one thing: the “love one another” command results from the perception that the world is a hostile place. The Johannine Christians survive because they love one another.

(We might note that the “love one another” command is not limited to the Johannine literature. Paul was big on it, and so was the author of 1 Peter.)

I would suggest that Christians need to think about loving one another. At times faithful discipleship will elicit hostility. If followers of Christ speak out against violence, against a culture of greed, against the stigmatization of Muslims, against the oppression of queer folk – or, if we speak for peace, for a compassionate society, for blessing all people – we will experience hostility. Precisely at those times, loving one another goes hand in hand with loving our neighbors and our enemies. A sectarian outlook is a healthy thing for serious Christians.

In the great prayer of John 17 Jesus prays that his followers “all may be one, even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:21). Loving one another is one way in which we love the world. Or to put it technically, a healthy sectarian outlook nourishes our catholicity.