Communion Day

Yesterday was communion day.

Of course, at The Table it’s always communion day (and bacon. and mimosas. but I digress). But yesterday we arrived at last at the Last Supper story in our long journey through the Gospel of Mark.

Communion is a magnificent reminder of all the things we should take for granted but don’t.

We continue to cultivate visions of strong faith and piety that center entirely around me and God. We continue, sometimes consciously sometimes not, to think that the most important things we can say about ourselves have to do with who we are when nobody’s looking.

But communion tells us otherwise.

Communion tells us that who we are most truly is who we are when we are together. Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, because we all partake of the one bread.

Yesterday I handed the kids in our house church one piece of a small puzzle. Who, then, has the puzzle?

Too often we act as though we ourselves have the life of Christ sufficiently in us. But it’s not sufficient to have that life in us–we, together, are the body of Christ. We are not who we truly are until all the parts, all the pieces, are drawn together.

As a member of our group pointed out yesterday, our history as the church has too often been one of telling people that they do not belong to us, to the body–but far too frequently this has been telling the flour that it’s not to be part of the bread, because we’re the yeast people.

We who are many are one body. And we are most truly ourselves when we are functioning on the level of the community, not when we stand as individuals–even as individuals before the face of God.

Of course, the kind of body we are is wrapped up in the communion moment, too. And there as well we are prone to lose our bearings and to forget what we should be able to assume.

The body that we are is the self-given, and self-giving body of Christ. The body that we partake of, that we participate in, is the body “given for you.”

So when we eat, we not only declare our oneness with each other, but also our oneness with the crucified Christ.

This means, of course, that the action that should typify the community is the activity of self-giving for the benefit of the other–to give our collective self so that others might live.

In our church, we take hold of the bread, break off a piece and hand it to our neighbor saying, “The body of Christ, given for you.” When we hand the bread, we hand the broken body, which is to say handing Christ–which is the same as handing ourselves as members of the church.

To give someone else the body of Christ is to give them ourselves and to pledge ourselves to be agents of love, giving ourselves so that they might find life afresh.

We are a communion people. This means that we are a people who are defined by union and communion both with the crucified Christ and with one another. If ours is a storied faith, then this is its illustrations and also the implement by which we are reinscribed into the narrative week after week.

Barth §1.3.2-1.4.1

The first section for this week finds Barth delineating the relationship between preaching and dogmatics. Here I found myself resonating with the inherently contextualized nature of the theological enterprise that Barth is engaging in.

For Barth, dogmatics follows Christian preaching, reflects on it, and seeks to articulate what the church must say and must not say.

The effect of this subordination is to conceptualize dogmatics as something that will always be in process. The proclamation of the church must continue to speak to people of its own day and time, and dogmatics must look back to this recent past event in anticipation of a proclamation that will come in the near future.

At the same time, however, Barth insists that dogmatics not be made answerable to the demands of a given culture–an important caveat but perhaps one that needs to be worked out a bit more. Without being made “answerable” to various demands of science, philosophy, or aesthetics, the church’s theology must still speak within a world that has a particular scientific slate of knowledge, a given aesthetic and the like. Contextualization is inevitable, and dogmatics must help the church find its way forward well so that the church won’t end up just doing it badly.

I found myself of two minds when reading §4.1 on the Word of God preached (the first of three “Word of God” sections).

Barth is extraordinary in his repeated insistence that the Word is God’s, remains God’s, and never passes to human control. But I find myself wondering here if Barth hasn’t underestimated the divine freedom he so highly prizes? Might God not choose to bind himself to the word preached as an event that will occur at set times in human history? Must there be a decision by God to turn the human words into God’s words on an occasion?

Here Barth is clearly working out a thoroughgoing theological basis for the Protestant distance from Roman Catholicism: neither in sacrament nor in preaching is God’s presence, Spirit, and grace always present ex opere operato–just by the work being done.

On the other side, however, the discussion of how God uses people without setting aside their humanness (and bread without setting aside its breadness) rang true–especially inasmuch as there is analogy with Jesus as a human in whom the divine grace was at work. I leave you with this week’s money quote:

The human element is what God created. Only in the state of disobedience is it a factor standing over against God. In the state of obedience it is service of God. Between God and true service of God there can be no rivalry. Service of God does not have to be removed in order that God Himself may be honoured in it. Where God is truly served, there–with no removal of the human element, with the full and essential presence and operation of the human element in all its humanity–the willing and doing of God is not just present as a first or second co-operating factor; it is present as the first and decisive thing as befits God the Creator and Lord.

Uncommon Prophets: The Dissent of Fiction

This past week I have been reminded that prophetic voices are sometimes found in surprising places. And no, I’m not just talking about the Coens’ latest cry in True Grit.

Two other things were brought to my attention.

First, there was an article in The Onion. Yes, the Onion–that satirical piece that brought us such classic commentaries on culture as its mocking report about the Macbook Wheel. And sometimes the beauty of satire is its ability to disarm us enough to show us the truth about ourselves.

This week, the Onion facetiously declared, “The Gap Between Rich and Poor Named 8th Wonder of the World.” Here’s a snip:

“And thanks to careful maintenance through the ages, this massive relic survives intact, instilling in each new generation a sense of awe,” Jean- Baptiste added.

Sometimes fiction is the only way to depict the truth.

In a matter equally serious, but through a venue much more raw and intense, the creator of The Wire, David Simon, responded to a scathing criticism from Baltimore’s chief of police.

He argued that the show’s creators owe no apology for their own implicit critique of reality through their fictional tales. No–story telling is a means of dissent, a prophetic cry that the narrative being told from on high is wrong:

But publicly, let me state that The Wire owes no apologies — at least not for its depiction of those portions of Baltimore where we set our story, for its address of economic and political priorities and urban poverty, for its discussion of the drug war and the damage done from that misguided prohibition, or for its attention to the cover-your-ass institutional dynamic that leads, say, big-city police commissioners to perceive a fictional narrative, rather than actual, complex urban problems as a cause for righteous concern. As citizens using a fictional narrative as a means of arguing different priorities or policies, those who created and worked on The Wire have dissented.

Stories are powerful. Fiction is powerful.

The means of dissent open to us are many. And these two episodes over the past week have the potential to open our eyes to see problems besetting our world, and to expand our horizons as to the means available at our fingertips to lodge our protest.

The Subordinate Son

First Corinthians 15 presents us with a surprising picture of the son’s subordination to the Father, especially for those of us who have been carefully instructed to keep Jesus the Son in tightest possible connection with God the Father as God:

    When it says that everything has been brought under his control, this clearly means everything except for the one who placed everything under his control. But when all things have been brought under his control, then the Son himself will also be under the control of the one who gave him control over everything so that God may be all in all. (CEB)

How can this be? What does it mean for the son to be subordinate to the father? And why would the son’s subordination to the Father be necessary to ensure that God is all in all?

When Paul looks to the future, he sees Jesus reenacting his refusal to cling to equality with God

Throughout 1 Corinthians 15, we must remember, that the “son” about whom Paul is talking about is the resurrected human, the second Adam, the last Adam. The problem comes in when we transpose this resurrected human into the key of divinity.

And a stunning portrait of Jesus the resurrected Lord ensues if we keep our eyes on his humanity.

The picture of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15 is as the human who holds the fate of all humanity in his hand. As Adam held the fate of humanity in his hand and led the whole to death, so too Jesus held the fate of all in his hand and led the whole to life.

Paul speaks of Jesus as second Adam, and elsewhere invokes the idea of Jesus being the “image of God.” For both Paul and Genesis “image of God” signifies a vocation to rule the world on God’s behalf.

Throughout 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is making the point that our destiny is determined by a human. And Jesus as second Adam, as human, is reentrusted with the primeval calling to rule the world on God’s behalf. The enthroned king, bringing about the fullness of God’s reign and then handing that kingdom back to the God whose name it bears, is the resurrected human Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:20-24).

The story Paul tells is one in which the earth has been subjected to other powers: God had originally subjected it to people, but people ceded that rule to the likes of sin, of death, of the spirit of this world, of the prince of the powers of the air.

Thus, the question the whole biblical narrative must answer: will God’s plan–God’s plan to have humans rule the world, enthroned as the kings over God’s kingdom–come to fruition, or will Satan, in the end, prove too powerful?

While we tend to think of God definitively answering that and finishing that story with Jesus’ resurrection and enthronement, Paul sees another climactic episode ahead.

The great contrast between the first and second Adams begins when the second Adam refuses to cling to or grasp after the god-likeness that is rightly his. The first had heard the call: you can be like God–and stretched out his hand, took, and ate the fruit. The second Adam, being in the very likeness of God, did not so grasp, but became obedient to the point of death.

But what happens when this man is enthroned? What happens when all the world has bowed down to him? Will this man become enamored of his power, cling to it, and reenact the story of prideful rebellion and seizure of what is God’s own?

No, the story’s culmination will be one final reenactment of the faithful submission of humanity to the God to whom alone belongs all glory.

In the end, the story will reenact the great moment when the son decided that he would not cling to God-likeness. The story will come to a point when the son will have conquered all his enemies–and rather than clinging to the throne of rule will return it to the God who gave it, subordinating himself once again.

The end of this climactic episode will recapitulate its beginning: the son will not consider equality with God something to be clung to, but will empty himself and be obedient once again, submitting himself to the God who submitted all things to him.

And we can only imagine what happens next.

Homosexuality, Abortion, and Race (pt. 2)

Yesterday I began this discussion of homosexual marriage and other moral issues by outlining why I don’t think that standing in favor of homosexual marriage entails selling the farm with regard to opposing abortion. Today I want to outline the closer parallel: opposition to interracial marriage.

When I read the arguments against homosexual marriage, I find myself mentally replacing the concept of homosexuality with the concept of race–because God is being invoked in our contemporary debates in almost identical ways to how God was invoked in the arguments against race (and interracial relations).

The arguments made against racial unions were, above all, Christian arguments. They went/go something like this:

    God made people different (choose one: different races or same gender) therefore God has indicated that people of (choose one: different races or same gender) should not be joined in marriage.

    To be so joined with someone of a (choose one: different race or same gender) is a violation not only of the specially revealed law in the Bible, but the law of nature by which everyone can see that people are not meant to come together.

    Since this is God’s law, then the nation and marriages and marriage in general will flourish to the extent that it is enacted and upheld, and societies and marriages will be weakened to the extent that we deviate from it.

The reason why Christians demand a certain sexual ethic comes down to something we believe about ourselves as Christains: our bodies are not our own because we have been bought with a price; our bodies are not ours to do with as we please because we are a temple of God’s Spirit; our bodies are not ours to join to whomever we please because they are joined to the body of Christ.

These are the grounds of full participation in and acceptance of the Christian story. They are not the grounds of jurisprudence in a pluralistic, secular society.

In asking us to carefully weigh whether a Christian theological and ethical position against homosexuality might also carry with it the imperative for the freedom of our homosexual neighbors, I am not only asking us to better imitate our Father who causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the just and the unjust alike.

I am also asking us to look history squarely in the face, acknowledge our failures–and stop repeating those mistakes of old.

Homosexuality, Abortion, and Racism (pt. 1)

As I have been working out some thoughts on why, given the choice between only these two options, I prefer to support homosexual marriage in American law rather than forbid it (here and here), a couple of related questions and criticisms have been raised.

In general, these tend to ask why a Christian sense of morality shouldn’t inform our political posture as much as anyone else’s secular sense of morality informs theirs. In particular, people have been suspicious that arguing for laws that run counter to the religious preferences of Christians might leave us no room to argue in favor of our other Christian positions such as opposition to abortion.

I do not find this line of argument persuasive.

First, there is a difference between arguing for a “Christian” position and arguing for a position on Christian grounds. If the only argument we have to make is a Christian argument, then a pluralistic society should reject those arguments. Moreover, to see that such a rejection is right in our political context is simply to affirm that religious liberty is good for all faiths, including Christianity.

And, in assessing whether my “Christian” position should be enforced more broadly I am not setting aside my Christian convictions. Instead, I’m asking what it looks like in a given situation to love my neighbor as myself and to do unto others as I would have done to me. In a pluralistic society, my ethic of Christian love dictates that I do not impose my religious law on another–just as I would not have their religious law imposed upon me.

In the case of abortion, asking these questions creates a network of issues that complicates what is otherwise a simplistic and insufficiently Christian pro-life position, but they do lead inevitably to a recognition of abortion as an injustice that should be rooted out of society.

Asking these questions complicates the issue of abortion because we do have to ask what it means to love the pregnant woman as ourselves. This question is too little asked by pro-life groups, and folks who are theologically and politically conservative here tend to take too little stock of the systemic issues that both lead to unwanted pregnancy and lead to termination of it. Loving the pregnant neighbor means more than forbidding her to end the pregnancy.

But in complicating the issue it does not pull us away from protecting the life of the unborn child–because we have to ask, also, what it means to love this unborn neighbor as ourselves and to do unto him or her as we would have done unto us.

In fact, I would argue that protecting the unborn child and standing up for civil equality are two instantiations of the same posture of protecting the powerless, defending the outcast.

However, the more compelling parallel to my mind is between homosexual marriage and interracial marriage as the latter was at first forbidden then gradually allowed, and now is generally accepted–at least in theory–all by Christians and for Christian reasons. We’ll look at this tomorrow.

Reimagining Education

Last night at a parents’ open house, I was exposed to the work of Ken Robinson for the first time.

Robinson is attempting to lead the charge to entirely reconceptualize what we’re doing in education. The current model has as its impetus the preparing of people to serve an industrialized world, and it has as its goal the production of university professors.

But how do we prepare people to join in a different world, a different economy, and to capitalize on other sorts of gifts that are not professorial in nature?

Here is a nice, animated intro to the sorts of things he’s pushing us to consider:

He also gave a 2006 talk at TED that has become rather legendary:

These talks resonated with me for a couple of reasons.

One chord they struck is associated with the persistent nagging feeling I have that seminary is a really weird way to prepare people for pastoral ministry. This has long seemed to me predicated on an idea of “preparedness for ministry” that is strangely university-like in its understanding of education, and perhaps too much a child of the enlightenment in its anticipation that the educated mind will produce an enlightened actor.

The other reason I listened with interest is that Fuller is in the middle of an MDiv curriculum review. Here we are wrestling, in the narrower context of theological education, not only with the particular questions of what sorts of classes we want to teach, but also with the larger concerns of how to fit our product into the 21-century world.

What does it mean to be a school that does not exist for the perpetuation of school, but some other purpose outside itself–in our case, women and men equipped for the manifold (and boy do we ever mean “manifold” these days!) ministries of Christ and his church?

What do you think? [How] Does Seminary education need to change to take better account of not only the changing world but also who we are as people?

True Grit

Last night I was finally able to break away and see True Grit.

Dear Christians, stop making movies. Stop writing books. Go ahead. Put your cameras down. Fold up your laptops.

Now, go watch True Grit, Ladykillers, and O Brother Where Art Thou?, and learn from Joel and Ethan Coen how to tell the Christian story in popular media.

The film begins with an invitation to recognize that the biblical world is operative here: a citation of Proverbs 28:1 from the KJV, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.”

This raises all sorts of interesting questions–is there something especially apropos in this film’s particular bad guy being chased by a girl? Should we supply the second half of the proverb to epitomize our heroine, “but the righteous are bold as a lion”?

As is so often the case in Coen Brothers films, the place of God in the storyline is undergirded by the soundtrack. In this case, the music for Leaning on the Everlasting Arms provides the wordless motif. But again, are we supposed to supply the words ourselves? “What have I to dread, what have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms?” Cf. the Proverb quoted above.

The composer/ arranger of the film’s music, Carter Burwell, had this to say, ““Ethan and Joel and I had the same idea—a score rooted in 19th-century hymns. The songs Mattie would sing if she had time for such frivolity. Our model was the hymn ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’, composed in 1888 by Anthony Showalter, an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dalton, Georgia, and used memorably in the film The Night of the Hunter. This, together with other hymns of the period, forms the backbone of the score, which grows from church piano to orchestra as Mattie gets farther and farther from home.”

As the voice of the grown-up heroine (25 years after the events of the film) introduces the story, she says of the man who murdered her father:

    No doubt Chaney fancied himself scot-free, but he was wrong. You must pay for everything in this life, one way and another. There is nothing free, except the grace of God.

As we follow Mattie on her quest for justice, we are acutely aware that hers is not an errand of grace, and in the end she must pay a price for the justice she seeks.

The performance of Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie is oscar-worthy, and Jeff Bridges somehow manages to pull of the role of drunk hero. Who’d have thought?!

The Coen Brothers have done it again. This is a fantastic film.

The Upside Down Economy

Over at, you can find the first in a series of four commentaries on 1 Corinthians that I’ve written. [UPDATE: Ok, so it’s actually the second week. I lost track. First week is here.] This week: how the gospel turns the economy of the world on its head–and what that might mean for those of us who like to think that we can find God within the cultural currents of our day.

We need to be careful, especially when we start flocking to influential leaders like pastors… or bloggers (?!)…

May the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ subvert all our efforts at world domination, turning them into instruments of cruciform service. Amen.

Bread People

“Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

Sunday is reorientation day. Not only is it the day that Christians have traditionally set aside for worship, in that sacred space and sacred time we have developed reminders–reminders of our story, reminders of our identity, and reminders that the story we tell is, in fact, our identity.

If we’re doing it right, our coming together calls us beyond the walls that divide us, beyond the particularities by which we distinguish ourselves from fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

If we’re doing it right, our coming together draws us to Christ, not simply to remember that God has accepted me, but to remember that God as accepted me as God has accepted us.

The gathering is not first and foremost a coming together of individual parts, sewn together however we might, to create some sort of Frankenstein. The body is the thing (because Christ is the thing) and I’m a member of it.

And so when we take the bread each week we are reminded not only that Christ gave his body so that we might live (we are a cross people!) but that we are that body which was given and therefore one with one another. We are united to Christ and inseparable from the family of God with whom we worship, and inseparable from the family of God that is worshiping down the street and around the world.

We must not lose sight of either. We are the people of the cross–the narrative of Jesus’ death is the narrative of our people; and, being united to the crucified one makes us a people, a family, a body.

So coming off of a week of storied theology where we’ve wrestled with some issues that are highly contentious within the church right now, here is a piece of reorientation and remembrance–not only of who the Christ is whom we are all striving to serve, but who we ar together in that one Christ’s body.

Take and eat–together.

Take and drink–together.

And let us together proclaim this Christ as we await the day when he comes again.

Telling the story of the story-bound God