The journey has been long that brought me to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, as I seek ordination. In some sense, I have come full circle, having started my faith journey as a Baptist, then as a “none”, as a Presbyterian, and finally back to where I started. How to start? Well, once upon a time there was a son born to Frank and Becky Romans. Eisenhower was still President, and Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll. I was born in Ashland, KY and throughout the next few pages I will share what has led me to this moment. As a point of information, this paper is a combination of my writings during Seminary and my Clinical Pastoral Education unit at Baptist East, as well as my current thinking.
There are two memories both about church, which stand out as early memories. One was at Rush Baptist Church, where I remember sitting on the little chairs in front of a gas heater. I remember it being cold because they had just lit the heater and I could see all of the spent matches lying on top of it, their blackened ends making little marks on the surface of the heater. The other was at a Lutheran Church at the end of our street, Auburn Ave. I remember being in the Sanctuary and the minister was all robed in an elevated pulpit. This was unusual for me, as in my church at Rush, the “Preacher” just wore a suit and tie and the pulpit was just three short steps off the main floor. The Lutheran church also had kneeling rails I believe and I remember kneeling on them. Also, the minister wasn’t nearly as loud as in that church back in KY.
I joke with my friends that I came to Jesus in the good old fashioned Southern Baptist way… I was scared into it. But in reality, it was anything but a joke. Through my mom, I had always involved somewhat with church, but it was in 1970 that it came to a head so to speak. We were living in Pontiac, MI at the time and I was at Emmanuel Baptist Church during children services. At the end, as they always do, they offered an invitation. Of course, the words might have been different, but it went something like this: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go? If Jesus isn’t your Lord and Savior, you’ll end up in Hell, no matter how good you are.” Well I had heard stories about hell and certainly didn’t want to go there. I was crying and sobbing begging to go to heaven with Jesus. To add insult to injury, I tried to breathe during my baptism and quite nearly choked to death. It was a rough beginning to say the least.
Upon reflection many years later, it still angers me that churches use this, not only with adults, but especially with children. So my early foray into spiritual growth was a theology based on the total worthlessness of humanity, of fear, and the only way to get someone “saved”, was to get them “lost.” Being a good human being didn’t matter; you had to say the magic words to gain admittance. This doctrine would dominate my life, at least living in that tradition, for many years.
Within that tradition I always felt that God was in my head listening to every thought just waiting for that bad one to come along to say gotcha! There were a lot of things you couldn’t do and indeed it seemed that the preachers in that tradition spent a lot of time telling us what we were against and really not so much of what we were for, that is except for Jesus. It was a tradition that overly concerns itself with personal piety based on a strict literal reading of the Bible, but often conveniently ignored all of the text that called on us to be good to our neighbor and to love one another, even those who weren’t Baptists. This latter observation came to me years later.
As for the practice and growth part, when I joined the Army in 1977, I really didn’t engage with spirituality or a faith practice for 11 years. I still thought of myself as a Christian and even a Southern Baptist, I just didn’t engage. Oh, I would read the Bible on occasion, but didn’t really attend anywhere. A somewhat funny recollection of that time was arguing with my roommate about the existence of God. Dave was, at the very least, agnostic leaning towards atheism. Being concerned about his eternal soul, I tried to reason with him, finally in frustration telling him that my vanity wouldn’t let me consider that I was some kind of cosmic accident. I’m pretty sure my argument didn’t sway him.
When I finally returned to church, it wasn’t even my idea to begin with. My daughter had just been born and my wife suggested that we raise Katie in the church. I told her it was a great idea, but she would have to take her. I worked 6 days a week and really didn’t want to do anything on my day off. This did not last long as she took Katie out to the little church I started in and where my Mom and Dad still attended. Before long, I was a regular and in my 20+ years at Rush Baptist Chapel, I was a Sunday School Teacher, a Deacon, and the Song Leader.
I fully engaged and at one point, probably in the mid 1990’s even flirted with the idea of being ordained as a minister within that tradition. We were a tradition that was conservative, meaning we read it literally and all of the proscriptions within the texts were narrowly interpreted for daily living and piety. In my later years at this church I felt like the odd person out as I became more progressive in what I thought about God, piety, and salvation. I did learn the text, and could usually pull verses when needed in conversation without necessarily needing a Bible on-hand. I started to see inconsistencies within the text and the idea of it being the inerrant, literal word of God became at least to me, doubtful. Too many hands have touched it over the years for it to be dictated by God to whoever was the author of a particular book. What I came to think about it then and still do today is that this word of God, our Bible, is infallible. That is to say, if I enter into the text in good faith with prayerful study, God will reveal an understanding of the text.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly is the idea of grace and human agency. Within my former tradition, we had to exercise our free will to “choose” God over the Devil and sin. I saw a problem with that, but had a hard time articulating what was in my head. What happens if you “Backslide?” This was a common sermon subject and I thought that if our salvation was eternal, then what does it mean about being backslidden? Did we lose our salvation? Did we have to pray again the “sinner’s prayer” to insure or renew our salvation? Once again, while the preacher may have been preaching to a room full of people, it was the individual, not the faith community as a whole that he seemed to worry about. A pivotal event during this time of questioning came to me in the form of a dream. I was in a room with Jesus and he embraced me. In this embrace I felt acceptance regardless of what I’d been before or what I was doing at the time. Jesus met me on the road where I was and was with me. It wouldn’t be until years later at Seminary where I read about Calvin and the idea that it was the Incarnation, the entirety of his life and ministry, the Cross and the Resurrection that saves us. It isn’t me or my agency, the agency belongs to God and God’s grace is eternal and for everyone.
I came to see Jesus not only as Savior, but as exemplar for humanity. When Jesus says, “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” he is not only talking about himself, but talking about creating it here. If we can say what he says and do what he does, we will have created God’s Kingdom here in the now, and not in some eschatological recapitulation by God, gathering the “saved” and burning everyone else in a Devil’s Hell. My theology and my evangelism is more Matthew 25 that Matthew 28.
What kept me from pursuing ordination at that time was a combination of things: One, my commitments as a leader within our country church. Two, I was unsure of the validity of my call along with my own perceived and real faults, it just seemed that I wasn’t “good enough” to take on such a holy calling. And three, it never occurred to me that I could actually change denominations because we were always Baptists, and Southern Baptists at that. But the thought was always there. I started to investigate different denominations and found that I actually had a lot in common with the Presbyterians, and I found that they had a Seminary in Louisville. I eventually joined First Presbyterian Church in Ashland, KY and what drew me to the Presbyterian Church was their emphasis on education. Most of the pastors I grew up with never attended Seminary and only read the King James Version. It was in the Presbyterian tradition, in the Inquirer’s Handbook, I found the phrase “external validation of an internal calling”. As I reflected on my work at Rush Baptist Chapel, as well the interactions with my family and friends, I had been receiving these external validations for some time and it was time to act on that calling within me.
When I think about my call to ministry, I think primarily of Phillip and the Ethiopian. In this story, the Holy Spirit tells Phillip to stand near the man. God was putting Phillip in a position to help. This man was a pious man who had been to Jerusalem to worship and was returning to his home. He was reading Scripture and desiring knowledge of God and I believe how best to serve God. The text in Acts chapter 8 reads thusly: “29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” My role as a Christian and as a potential minister is one of guide. This guidance is not only one of teaching the word in all of its complexities and nuance, but one of living into the words of Scripture and into the words and deeds of Christ. This naturally assumes that, as living into the care of humanity and of the world, I am to do it as Christ did. This care I might be able to provide does not assume or require membership in any particular denomination or even belief, but operates from the premise that the world is God’s creation and God has called this creation “good” and worthy of regard. I practice my faith in the tradition I have embraced, but that tradition does not dictate who is worthy as it is God’s province to humanity’s benefit.
When I consider the people who have been instrumental in my faith I have to start with my parents. They encouraged discussion about the bible and even though Mom was more conservative than Dad, they welcomed discussion about the Bible. Even if those discussions became loud or even angry, they allowed us to engage in thoughtful reflections of the biblical texts and their practical applications in life.
I also think of all the Baptist preachers I have heard in my lifetime. While I first listened to them with “fear and trembling”, as I grew in knowledge I could discern where I was in agreement as well as disagreement with them, and more importantly, this disagreement was good. This knowledge and the tensions I felt caused me to seek yet more knowledge and I was able to develop my own theology independent of whatever denominational context in which I might find myself.
As a Presbyterian my first minister, Garrett Bugg, helped me to begin to examine the complexities of the text, as well as seeing new ways to live into the text practically. I also think of all of my professors at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. They have taught me about the text and the entire nuance of that text. They taught me about context, of the authors and editors, the audience for which it was intended and how we might exegete those in relevant words for us today. I have learned the history of the faith, the good as well as the bad in a way that doesn’t destroy the faith but rather shows humanity’s struggle as we have engaged the Divine and the expressions of faith. I think of Clifford Kirkpatrick especially as he is an exemplar of one who clearly demonstrates his faith in God and Jesus Christ, but is able to live into the words of Scripture and do it in a way that does not condemn, or belittle people who follow other faith traditions or have no traditions.
There was a time when I thought of God as angry even vengeful, waiting on the first opportunity to punish humanity for their many and egregious sins. Indeed, in my former tradition, phrases like “God sees what’s in your heart” brought much fear and self-loathing on. As I studied further I found something different and the model of a rigid, vengeful God slipped further and further away. That isn’t to say God doesn’t get angry, but when I consider the whole of Scripture, I find that God is much more than what we have placed upon God.
I think of God as Creator. Whether you read Genesis one where God speaks the world into existence, or in John one where it is written, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Everything we are today or will be was set in motion when God chose to create the heavens and the earth. God creates possibilities. And while John was talking about Jesus in that epic first chapter, God demonstrates that nothing is impossible with God. While I don’t follow the six day creation model, I believe that God created or created the possibility of everything that exists today or of things yet to be created.
Throughout Scripture we see evidence of God’s love for humanity by providing individuals to speak God’s truth to humanity. I also think of God as parent, one who cares for even the most wayward or disobedient child and will go out of their way to help their children. And it’s not just humanity that God loves. God’s creation is much more than humanity. It’s the air, the seas and mountains, the plains and all of the plants and animals. God created it all and God called it all good. God loves that creation so much that God created humanity to care for it.
God loves us so much that he came to us, became one of us, to help us become what God has planned for us. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, Savior of Humanity, fully human and also fully divine, and the means by which we are reconciled to God and with our own humanity. Recalling John’s epic first chapter, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
In John’s dramatic prologue he reveals God as the divine Logos or Word. Everything that was, or is, or is to come is made possible by this Logos. Then that Word became flesh, became human, and lived among us. What are we to make of it? William C. Placher when speaking of Incarnation said that the first Christians had no problem regarding Jesus as human. “They had travelled with him on the dusty roads of Galilee, seen him grow tired, shared supper. Most important, they knew he died on a cross….It is human beings who die. He must have been human.”
- Shawn Copeland states that, “that the eternal Word, the Logos, became flesh – became the bodily, concrete, marked historical being, Jesus of Nazareth, that Jesus died rather than betray his mission, his love for God and for human beings; and that fidelity, integrity, and love were vindicated, and his crucified body was raised glorious from the dead.” Copeland uses this term, marking, to note the expression of Christ’s incarnation and his unique relationship with humanity. In doing this, Copeland “promotes the value and significance of the body, which is never to be disregarded or treated with contempt.”
It is sometimes forgotten or marginalized by Christian communities today the fact that Jesus was a Jew. Not only that, he was a practicing, observant Jew. Christ knew the Torah and was providing a new way of living into the words of YHWH to his community. When we consider his life and ministry, we must affirm that the “New Testament” was not written in his lifetime, the Gospels had not been published, Paul had not composed his many letters and epistles, nor was there any established “Church” as we might know it today.
This means that when Christ was performing miracles such as healing of the blind and infirm, when we consider his teachings on love, non-violence, and inclusion, he was interpreting and living out the interpretations of Torah specifically in Leviticus where it says, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” He embodied the words of Micah 6:8 ” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
We see a Jesus who, in his life and ministry sought out the marginalized, the left out, the “other” and met them on their road wherever they were. These were people who were not only marginalized by the “empire” but those who were excluded from faith communities because of their perceived imperfections or sin. He met with the sinners, the prostitutes, tax collectors, the unclean as well as those who would exert power within their communities. He healed indiscriminately; He radically included everyone in his message and ministry regardless of status, and preferred the weak over the strong. He promoted a message of inclusion and redemption, commanding us not to judge, lest we be judged ourselves.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit was and is. In the beginning, we see the Spirit of God moving across the waters. The Spirit of God has always throughout Scripture provided comfort and guidance to people. Jesus came in the flesh, but did not and does not leave us alone. When we study, the Spirit is there to help clear the muddy water. When we are faced with difficult decisions, the Spirit gives us courage to make the right choices. When we are facing trials it is the Spirit which comforts us. When we are outside of the will of God, it is the Holy Spirit that informs us and even rebukes us in our sin, individually and collectively. For me, the Holy Spirit is one who guides me as I study and write sermons, and also stands with me in the pulpit nudging me when I get off topic. The Holy Spirit is witnessed when I meet individuals in that moment and I receive knowledge or wisdom in the most unlikely of places. I find those “Holy moments” at a patients bed in the hospital, or outside an NA meeting when meeting a member who glorifies God in their recovery. I find it when I am feeling defeated and the one who would be unlikely to give a spiritual boost “joins themselves to my chariot” to guide and teach me.
When I try to wrap my head around the Trinity, I usually get a headache. The best I’ve seen it explained is in a funny YouTube video, where a frustrated St Patrick tries to explain it to two simple Irish peasants. However, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer are words I use for God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They share the same substance (homoousios) and are co-equal in all things. They are unique, yet of the same substance. It is a mystery that is beyond understanding with human minds and is best accepted on faith. It is God who creates us, Jesus who redeems us, and the Holy Spirit sustains us as we navigate this imperfect life and deal with the absurdities thereof.
When I think of humanity, I think of us as evolutionary creatures created by God, meant to live in community, and care for the creation God has made. While I have a problem with “Original Sin,” I believe we are separated from God by our sin. Having said that, I believe in the scientific explanation of human existence and reject the six day creation model as outlined in Genesis. The writers of Scripture did not have the words to express how we came into being and for me when I think about humanity, I think God is creating humanity in the Divine Image, rather than “created”, humanity.
That is not to say God could not do such things, but for me, creation is an on-going effort. While John Hick and I disagree on “free-will’, I believe that we as a species have not reached the point where we are in the “likeness” of God. Yes, we are created in the image of, and carry the Divine breath within; however, we are far from being “like” God.
The following came from my essay “The Fallacy of the Free-Will defense”, for my class that discussed theodicy. John Hick, in his “Irenaean Theodicy”, states that we were created as immature beings, “first, in the “image” of God and then in the “likeness” of God.” In this paradigm, we have the capability to discern our Creator, but the capability of being in “the likeness of God,” is something that must be developed over time. It is in this developmental stage where we are presented with evil to exercise and develop our capability to choose the good. While I disagree with Hick about being “presented” with evil as necessary for our growth, I contend that we are still trying to live into that likeness of God and we are “being created” in the likeness of God. Throughout history we have demonstrated our capacity for great evil, both by the Church, as well as the State. We have not yet evolved to the point where will live together in community for the common benefit of all.
This is especially prevalent in these United States today. We are given Scripture, we are given the testimony of Jesus, as well as the testimony of the saints throughout the millennia, and yet we still are consumed with tribalism, of racism, of homophobia, and act in ways that are in direct opposition to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is important to note that in the 2016 election that 81% of evangelical Christians voted for someone who is in direct opposition to the values that they hold dear. It is relevant that we as a species will reject fact based on our own personal prejudices. What are we to make of this? Simply put, we are still being created. God, in Divine love for us, is still molding the clay of our humanity into the Divine “likeness.” It is up to us to learn the lessons we are given every day and live fully into the gifts that God has prepared for us as a beloved creation.
All of this brings us to salvation. It is a subject, based on my ecclesial history fraught with fear and self-loathing. At least it was in the past. We can look to Scripture and find the “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” Scripture in Romans, and the need to repeat some “sinner’s prayer” to find absolution and reconciliation with God. But I find it problematic that an all powerful, all “good” God would reserve a special and eternal punishment for a humanity that God created. A God who would reject the creation for what humanity says what is needed to be “saved” by God. God is not in the business of condemnation, but rather the reconciliation of all humanity, of all creation, with God.
I said earlier that I have trouble with the idea of “Original Sin”. When I consider the writers of Scripture, I have to consider that they had no words to describe how they came to be. The people at the time of the writing of Scripture lived hard lives, even as they sought to serve God. They needed a reason for their suffering and the reason is that they devised was one that describes a creation living in an idyllic paradise that willingly separated themselves from God, thereby bringing “Sin” into the world. That is not to say that we do not sin. Indeed, evil has and continues to exist within our world today. I just don’t believe that it was some onetime rejection of Paradise to go our own way that brought this sin into the world.
I do think as stated previously, that we are evolutionary beings who have yet to come into the fullness of our humanity, and as such think of “Salvation” as God bringing us to that fullness. This is where Jesus comes in. Throughout the history of humanity, we have been trying to get to that perfect expression of our humanity; we have failed a great deal, but also have made great progress. When God chooses to incarnate as Jesus Christ, when that Logos is made flesh, God is showing us how to reach that fullness. The following comes from my Christology essay:
Over the years, I find myself on a journey to rid myself of that idea of “blood” atonement. Does this indicate a desire on my part to not implicate God in the crucifixion of Christ? (or for that matter, our a dismissal of our own sin collectively or individually?) I don’t think so. In fact, the very event of Jesus’ crucifixion as an event implicates God as a willing participant in the crucifixion as God did not prevent it. What does this mean? Was God so callous as to allow the execution of Christ? Not remotely. When I posit that it was because of our sin Jesus was crucified and not for our sin, it means that God did not prevent the crucifixion to express in very real human terms the consequences of our sin. It leads to an ugly death and separation from God.
As an expression of empire, it is necessary to find those to sacrifice for the greater good of the empire. Jesus was such an individual. His incarnation, his life and ministry stood against all that the empire sought to promote. Their belief was that the state represented the perfect embodiment of humanity regardless of the injustices that it would inflict on the humanity that it represented. Jesus expressed that “Kingdom of God” exemplified the value of the individual (living in community with one another)in all of their diversity, in their imperfections, as a reflection of God and the willingness of God to reconcile humanity to God.
When we consider the reality of Christ’s crucifixion we must realize that it was the state, the Empire that crucified Christ. Were they influenced by leaders within the religious community there, possibly, but Rome exercised absolute control over the region and as such, must accept final responsibility for the execution of Christ.
So when Jesus accepts the humiliation of the cross, it is not an exemplification of blood atonement. Placher speaks of two theological approaches when addressing the idea of the cross. He states that “in theology, doctrines should illuminate and clarify stories rather than stories illustrating doctrines… but rather the stories of God’s covenant work with Israel and then the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The second approach or principle comes from Calvin who expresses it best when he says, “Christ saves us by his total course of his obedience.”
Placher rightly demonstrates the exclusivity of Christianity’s preoccupation of the cross. It ignores the “teaching, preaching, his healing and the rest of his ministry, and is not faithful to the witness of the New Testament and does not meet the needs contemporary Christians.” I support Placher’s idea that “both Jesus’ life and death matter to our salvation, and we should not rest content with one without the other.” It is the entirety of Jesus’ obedience to God in all things that saves us, (not to be confused with works-based theology, but rather, Jesus is the only one who could have done what he did,)that shows us the way to achieve the fullness of our humanity.
When I think of Scripture, I think of the journey which began with a unwillingness, even fear of considering any bible other than the King James translation as being the perfect literal word of God. I have since changed my opinion. My simple description is that the Bible we have is a response of humanity’s involvement with God, inspired by God, and given to us for our edification. It is a representation of and collection of oral traditions and individual writers, and requires great study to understand. It is inspired by God and given to us to lead us to a better relationship not only with God, but also with our fellow human beings.
When people tell me that “the Bible clearly says…” I usually stop them there and say the Bible doesn’t clearly say anything… It is only through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, thoughtful and prayerful study of any particular passage’s authorship, context, and the audience to which it was intended that any full meaning can come from it. However, I also believe that if we as individuals come to this in good faith that we can find relative meaning for us today.
As an argument for non-literalism, I think of Emperor Constantine and King James. Both were men of great secular power, insomuch as they had the power of life and death of the people they commissioned to determine canon as well as providing an “Authorized” version. Consider the opening lines to the dedicatory of the KJV:
“GREAT and manifold were the blessings, most dread Sovereign, which Almighty God, the Father of all mercies, bestowed upon us the people of England, when first he sent Your Majesty’s Royal Person to rule and reign over us. For whereas it was the expectation of many, who wished not well unto our Sion, that upon the setting of that bright Occidental Star, Queen Elizabeth of most happy memory, some thick and palpable clouds of darkness would so have overshadowed this Land, that men should have been in doubt which way they were to walk; and that it should hardly be known, who was to direct the unsettled State; the appearance of Your Majesty, as of the Sun in his strength, instantly dispelled those supposed and surmised mists, and gave unto all that were well affected exceeding cause of comfort; especially when we beheld the Government established in Your Highness, and Your hopeful Seed, by an undoubted Title, and this also accompanied with peace and tranquillity at home and abroad….” In these sentences and the ones to follow, the editors of this transcendent work, this beautiful, poetic treatment of Scripture, we are reminded that men were and are today influenced by secular authority and it shows up.
I include this to remind us that men, yes mostly men have handled/written/edited the word of God over the years and while inspired by God, it is most certainly written by men and all of these men had an agenda. I don’t say this to be contentious, but rather to say that we can’t take it literally or on face value. In this vein, even in the best of circumstances, careful consideration must be taken when undertaking the study of Scripture to ascertain any meaning for us today. Even in the act of translation exegesis is being made, Hebrew to Greek, Hebrew and Greek to English, theological opinions are being expressed in that translation. What does that mean for us today? Are we to totally abandon it? By no means as it is inspired by God, it is infallible for our understanding of the Divine and God’s plan for us. But what it does mean that we have to understand the fullness of the text: the textual, cultural, contextual, authorship, time and place, as they all have clues to the meaning of the text at the time as well as in our time today. It is given to us as a gift to understand how humanity interacted with the Divine and how we might share in that interaction. It was told to me in our Exegesis class that we are peeking over the shoulder of the author as they spoke to a particular audience.
And lest I be unclear in the importance of or the Divine nature of Scripture, lest I be confused in saying that only those who are educated can come to this knowledge, I remember the Westminster Confession which states and which I believe: “…our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts…. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”
When I think of Scripture, I think of it as guide. Whenever there is a question of what we should do as individuals, or as a congregation, Scripture can and does give us answers. Consider the Scots Confession which states: “When controversy arises about the right understanding of any passage or sentence of Scripture, or for the reformation of any abuse within the Kirk of God, we ought to not to ask what men have said or done before us, as what the Holy Ghost uniformly speaks within the body of the Scriptures, and what Christ Jesus himself did and commanded.” Throughout the body of Holy Writ, we are given the means to attain a closer relationship to God and the people of God.
The Church as I envision it is the hands and feet of Christ. We gather together in faith as a community of believers to worship the living God, to help one another, to equip the saints so that everything that Jesus Christ said and did is represented in the work of the Church today. This work is not only within the local body of believers, but is made manifest by our works within our respective communities. How is that represented at the local congregation level? I think of Acts chapter 2 where it states; “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds[j] to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home[k] and ate their food with glad and generous[l] hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. In its earliest configuration, we see the Church as community. We see the Church caring and providing for its members in a spirit of generosity and love, praising God for the blessings received and the sharing of those blessings.
What are the elements of worship? For me, first and foremost there is the worship and praise of a holy God, who through Jesus Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit brings us into communion with the divine. Secondly, it is the sharing of that faith with other believers. We get to share our stories of triumph as well as sorrow and how God is with us in all of those times. We get to build our knowledge and faith together. In that building, in that sacred space, we are given the tools to share that faith with all whom we meet both within and without the local church’s walls.
In our worship of God collectively (congregationally), I believe that our particular context determines how we might best live into that. Some are comfortable with “high” church with elaborate symbols, ceremonies, and rituals that show the majesty of God and can be meaningful to those accustomed to such displays. Others prefer much simpler gestures to demonstrate their love and worship of God. Neither is wrong. I have been moved to tears by processionals and high liturgy where I can participate through the Call to confession, the passing of the Peace and other rituals designed to glorify God and uplift even the poorest of spirit. I likewise have been moved to tears by a simple country church’s strivings to come together in praise, worship, mutual uplifting. My Grandfather wore a white collared shirt, bib overalls, and his best shoes to a service, where they would pray, some would testify, and the preacher would preach. God was in those moments as well as the “fancy” church with the choirs, the organ, and elaborate ritual. All of it is good and it all helps the believer to come closer to God and God’s people.
The Church is also, in its best iteration, the conscience of the people. It stands resolute in its fight for justice and equality. As God has taught us through the witness of Jesus, the prophets and the people of Scripture, God believes in the fair treatment and love of all. When we as the Church see these injustices and oppressions, we are to remind our communities of what is good: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. If we as a Church are not doing those things, we have fallen short of God’s plans for us and we need to change course.
Baptism and Communion
We have two ordinances within the Church, Baptism and Communion. In baptism we demonstrate publicly our faith in Jesus the Christ. In its ritual, we are symbolically cleansed from the sin which in Paul’s words so easily besets us and set apart in our new life. It also represents our birth, death, and resurrection as; we stand in the water before the believers in the old life, suffer death and burial as we are lowered into the water, and coming out of the water we demonstrate the resurrection that is to come through Christ. My own baptism being somewhat of a traumatic event, it still was important that I did it. On a funny note, I do wish I could have a second go at it simply because I now know to keep my mouth shut. It is also a commitment to live into the words that we were given, as we have been washed (forgiven), let us go and live the best we can with the aid of God and our fellow believers.
In Communion, we are recreating at the very least that last meal Jesus had with his disciples. It is a holy meal in which we remember Jesus and all that he has done for us and the terrible price he paid in his body for his integrity and love of humanity. Also, we are reminded in this simple meal of bread and wine to share our largess with others as Jesus did for us. This table is for all, as Jesus often hosted meals and was not above bringing those whom society considered unclean or unworthy. Jesus made no distinctions, he invited tax collectors, prostitutes, the unclean, the marginalized, and everyone was welcome at his table. As we partake of the sacred meal, we not only glorify his love and his sacrifice, we glorify the love he has for us and the love we should have for all of God’s creation.
Having grown up as a Southern Baptist, I have a real discomfort with that word evangelism. The discomfort comes from as I wrote in my evangelism paper: “…brings images of revivals with special “evangelists”, membership drives, and re-dedication of your life to Christ. It is a tradition that focused on Matthew chapter 28 which exhorted the disciples to go forth and make disciples of all nations, a “Great Commission” church. Hey, Jesus said it, so we should be doing it, right? Yes we should, but the manner in which we accomplish this is important and we cannot entertain thinking or practices that cause us to think that “saving souls for Jesus” while building our Sunday numbers as the ultimate goal.” In this I feel that we have missed the meaning of the word εὐαγγέλιον, which means good news, specifically God’s good news.
When I consider that “Good News” I think of a sermon I gave recently talking about this where I spoke from Luke: “In Luke Chapter 4 we see Jesus at the synagogue; he walks up and unrolls the scroll to the words of Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The Lord has favored us and what is the best expression of that favor? My evangelism is based in Matthew Chapter 25. As the Church is the conscience of the people, it can best represent it’s faith by caring for the least of these, without regard to church attendance numbers. I once again refer to my evangelism paper and as a disclaimer, I was still on the Presbyterian track, although nominally hence the reference in this paper regarding the Confessions, as well as the PCUSA Book of Order: “I think perhaps it was a misunderstanding of the text which leads individuals and congregations to focus on this “Great Commission” kind of church. Yes, we are to make disciples of people and are called to preach God’s word, but it is through God’s grace, the work of the Holy Spirit, and our faith being put into action that accomplishes this. The “Great Commission” style of evangelism as it has been practiced within this country has been one that seems to be more concerned with personal/individual piety based on a particular doctrine rather than sharing the good news. Evangelists preached the salvation of Christ not to communities per se, but to individuals with the goal of “saving their souls from Hell,” with the added benefit of as souls were “saved”, they became members of the local church’s congregation. Usually in this model the individual is made to focus on their complete unworthiness before a holy God who is looking for some retribution. This model does not concern itself with the present day trials and tribulations of God’s people (read here: all of creation) and how their suffering may be eased. It looks to a future recapitulation by God in some eschatological end time scenario and seeks to provide an “escape route” for those coming to the altar. In this model, there seems to be a dismissal of the overarching grace of God which provides for the divine creation.
But is this really good news? Oh yes, you can get fire insurance escaping a devil’s hell, but does this really get at what is the “good news?” How is this relevant in the present day world? I guess the question in all of this is twofold: What is the good news and how does that call to share the good news of God manifest itself in a person’s life and in the life of a congregation?
I think that part of this problem comes from the particularly American perspective of individual over community. From the inception of this country there has been the idea that the freedom of the individual trumps, (pardon the political reference), the needs of the community as a whole. Our society exalts the achievements of the individual regardless of whether it came at the expense of the community. “A significant characteristic of our US culture is a focus on the individual as the source of achievement and the reference point for gauging success and happiness.” This is not a biblical view of humanity or the relationships. Whether we look to the Hebrew Bible or the “New” Testament, we find a call to be in community with all of humanity, caring for all with whom we come in contact.
There is a statement within the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Order that gets at this Good News and where we might begin to focus our efforts. This is not to hold Presbyterians over other faith traditions, but rather to give us a starting point. F-1.01 states that “The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people…. The Gospel of Jesus Christ announces the nearness of God’s Kingdom, bringing good news to all who are impoverished, sight to all who are blind, freedom to all who are oppressed, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor upon all creation.”
We see a lot of action in this statement; creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms. These are actions involving all of creation and that the Lord looks on this creation with favor. This is definitely good news. We see a God who looks at all of us as one; not dividing by faith tradition, denomination, doctrine, nationality, race, gender, sexuality, etc., but as a part of the divine family. It is this family that our evangelism should embrace and sustain. Our faith is put to work in a very real and practical way as we live into our roles as the hands and feet of Christ.”
Ecumenism and Interfaith Relationships
And finally, understanding that we live in a multicultural, multi-faith world, how do we engage that and be true to our faith in Jesus Christ? I add here what I have written on Inter-faith dialogue from my Senior Seminar:
“First of all I would like to say that it is vital to our survival both within and without our individual faith contexts that society learns how to navigate the often perilous and conflict laden waters of Interfaith dialogue. The leadership of the various religious communities within this country as well as rest of the world has to engage positively with peoples outside of their own faith tradition to insure at the very least cooperation in the everyday, public expressions of our lives. It becomes all the more important as political ideologies and the capacity to wage war stand as a threat to our very existence as a species.
This will require us to first of all to recognize that all peoples do not share our own faith tradition. We cannot look to the other and say, “Oh how quaint,” or “You must convert to our way to be accepted in society.” We cannot, by political or legislative edict, favor or punish one tradition over the other. As individuals living in a multicultural, pluralistic world we have to agree on our shared humanity and the right to exist within whatever faith tradition an individual or group chooses to follow. This will necessarily require leaders in the faith communities to relinquish control over what is “right” dogma and doctrine outside of their own faith context.
As a Christian, I can only speak of this from a Christian perspective. As an American citizen, I can only speak from an American context. However, this does not and should not prevent me from recognizing my ignorance of other faith traditions as well as other cultures; I must educate myself on the variety of traditions, all seeking to connect with the Divine to find meaning for both themselves as individuals, as well as in their particular context of community. It is in this education and actual connections with those outside of my context can I, or the community in which I live, for that matter, find dialogue, leadership, and cooperation.
This education cannot be just as individuals though. We as leaders in our respective faith communities must educate our families, our friends, and our congregations on how living into our faith tradition can respect and welcome those outside of our faith context and engage in real dialogue and work together for the betterment of humanity, all the while respecting the peculiarities of our individual traditions.
Our religiosity and the praxis of our faith, whether it be Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, or other traditions is cultural; we have learned it over centuries of practice; it has been influenced by the theologians and leaders in our traditions as well as following the traditions of our families and in the communities in which we live. In the Christian tradition, we see the call and response of the Black Church, the high liturgy of the more mainline denominations, and informal practices of the small country church have all been formed and reformed over the years by how any one particular community interacts with each other. These influences have been not only of a particular faith tradition, but also the social, political, and economic realities of any given community.
As I consider that, I believe that while God speaks to all of us and desires community with me as well as the community in which I live, one of the primary reasons I am a Christian is that was the dominant tradition in the communities where I was raised. Had I been born in India, I most likely would have been Buddhist or Hindu, or a Sikh. Had I been born in Turkey or Iraq, there is a good possibility I would have been Muslim. My views of God and the right practice of my faith have been influenced by the hegemony of the Christian tradition within the United States as much as the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Sure, I switched from Southern Baptist to Presbyterian, (and back to Baptist)but how much of a change is that when you consider that these two traditions are Christian and both enjoy the cultural protections and advantages provided by an overwhelming majority within the faith world of this country?
Our views on Deity, God, Allah, Vishnu, YHWH, or the Buddha have all been a product of the culture in which we have lived. One view could be that the Divine reaches out to all of these different cultures in ways known to them and reveals the Divine nature or ultimate purpose to these communities. Within my Christian context, this is considered Universalist at best and at worst, heresy. But let us consider Christianity for a moment and how it obtained this hegemony of what is “right” faith and practice within the Western world.
Move past the life and witness of Jesus Christ when Christianity was a Jewish sect, to the year 313 when the then emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine, made it the state religion. The Western world had a political entity making decisions on what was considered the right way to engage with God. Faith was expressed, often at the end of a sword, to promote and spread the new religion throughout its empire. Councils were called at the request of the emperor to determine what correct orthodoxy was and what the acceptable Scripture was. Theologies were discussed and argued, often with those outside of the political sphere of influence declared heretics and banished or worse.
Through the 1700 plus years since 313, through Reformations, and Counter Reformations, through centuries of religious strife and political machinations, Christianity was established within the Western world as the dominant religious practice. It is recognized and promoted by not only our culture, but also the political entities that serve the Western world and especially within the United States. What does this tell me? Am I to discard all that I have learned and lived because my practices are as much politically, socially, economically, and culturally produced as divinely inspired? My own Seminary education, while enlightening as well as affirming, caused me to look anew at what we as Christians consider “Scripture.” It causes me to look beyond the printed words and seek meaning between the lines. This study tells me that when I read it, I must look to the context of the time of the writing, the person writing and their audience, and to the real life situations experienced by the individuals within. It leads me to even question its veracity and dismiss the “inerrancy” claims of some Christian traditions.
As a Christian then does this mean that we have a lukewarm tradition? Is it just another philosophy? I would say not so. But what it does tell me is that while we as a particular faith tradition may be able to say with some assurance that we are upholding the faith in the proper way according to our holy books and traditions. But even this is arguable among Christians, as we have had schisms and doctrinal arguments among theologians and leaders of the many Protestant denominations represented in the United States. But it is incumbent on all faith traditions to recognize that they have no hegemony or preference in the divine prerogative whatever that may be within the world in general and especially when we are deciding how to operate and cooperate within a multicultural and pluralistic society. Recognizing this is the first step to real interfaith dialogue and cooperation.
Secondly, we all must realize that our faith practice is a personal act and that not everyone will agree with us. Political institutions cannot ever be involved when deciding what is considered a recognized or unrecognized faith tradition. We only have to look at the wars fought over religion from Constantine through the Crusades, through the Western world’s attempt to spread Empire through faith, and the current Islamophobia being promoted through two Gulf wars, the war in Afghanistan, and our current US policies designed to hinder Muslim immigrants from entering this country, we see the devastation brought upon the world by governments getting involved in the faith practices of individuals.
As leaders within our respective faith communities, we must give up the notion of our particular tradition being the “Right or Only” way to engage with the Divine. We as leaders must recognize that in our traditions we are commonly called to care for the other, practice charity, and practice mercy. It requires us to be in community with all people and not just the members of our church, synagogue, temple, or other places of worship. We all share a common humanity and in all of our traditions we are taught that the creation of “God” is good and is to be cared for. As far as who is “Saved”, or “Not Saved”, well, we just have to realize that that is above our pay grade so to speak and is the province of the Divine not the province of humanity.
Keeping these things in mind then, our universal humanity and the commonalities of care for the earth and its peoples, we can, in spite of differing traditions can work together in common for this betterment of society and still remain faithful to the peculiarities of our individual traditions.”
In conclusion my friends, I leave you with what I have written, both presently and in the course of my education for your consideration. Feel free at any time to get with me to discuss these statements of faith and practice at length.
 Walter J Harrelson, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003).
 William C Placher, Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).
 M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010).
 Harrelson, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible.
 Encountering Evil, Live Options in Theodicy, Steven T. Davis ed., John Hick, An Irenaean Theodicy, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2001, 40
 Ibid 40
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 Placher, Jesus the Savior.
 William C Placher, “How Does Jesus Save? An Alternative View of Atonement,” The Christian Century. 126, no. 11 (2009): 23.
 Frances S Adeney, Graceful Evangelism: Christian Witness in a Complex World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2010).
 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and General Assembly, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Part II, Part II, (Louisville, KY (100 Witherspoon St., Louisville 40202-1396): Office of the General Assembly, 2015).
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