Mission and Unity

I’ve recently published an article in Missio Dei: Tyndale Seminary’s Journal of Missional Christianity,  entitled “That the World May Believe: Mission and Unity.”   It’s not a long read, and not overly specialized, since Missio Dei is a journal aimed at all Christian leaders, not just academics.  The journal aims to utilize the expertise of faculty and friends of the Tyndale community in such a way as to help equip Christian leaders in their day to day participation in God’s mission.

The article begins with John 17, in which Jesus prays for the church to be one, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  This text suggests that there is a strong connection between Christian unity and Christian witness.  However, Christians have never really been able to agree as to what Jesus was really saying when he prayed “that they may be one.”

The article proceeds with a discussion of seven different approaches to Christian unity: spiritual, visible, structural, doctrinal, service, mutual recognition, koinonia.   Some of these approaches are usually identified with one particular Christian tradition, but they are not mutually exclusive, and can be combined in various ways.

The second half of the article suggests that evangelicals in particular could re-examine their aversion to one of these approaches: visible unity.

I would also sug­gest that, in a post-Christendom con­text, it is time to re-examine evangelicalism’s char­ac­ter­is­tic aver­sion to con­cep­tions of “vis­i­ble unity.” In a pre­vi­ous era, when estab­lished state churches could insti­tute a kind of false unity by coer­cion, it made sense for evan­gel­i­cals to resist such con­cep­tions of “vis­i­ble” unity and stand up for our free­dom to assem­ble and wor­ship accord­ing to con­science. How­ever, we no longer live in a time when state power is aligned with one par­tic­u­lar denom­i­na­tion, and so the idea of a “vis­i­ble unity” need not carry those con­no­ta­tions. We have also rightly resisted approaches to unity which pushed towards the build­ing of a “super­church” with a cen­tral­ized bureau­cracy. But “vis­i­ble unity” need not be taken in this direc­tion, either.

To say that our unity ought to be “vis­i­ble” is sim­ply to say that the church’s unity must take shape in the world, as the church lives out its life in space and time. We can’t just pay lip-service to the unity we have been promised in Christ. In order for our unity to serve the pur­pose of wit­ness­ing to the world about Jesus, it must be a unity that is on dis­play for the world to see.

Head on over to Missio Dei to read the whole article, and while you’re there, check out the archives.

Catherine Booth at Chatsworth

I was surprised to discover during some reading yesterday that William and Catherine Booth had a bit of a holiday in Chatsworth Park when they were young marrieds.   Maybe I shouldn’t find it surprising, but it’s not the kind of place that I normally imagine the “Army mother” spending time.

Chatsworth has been home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire since Tudor times, and Chatsworth House is one of the most well known and oft-visited English country houses.  The main part of the current house was built in the late seventeenth century, and has been used as a set for many films, including the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  Apparently, Jane Austen’s fictional Pemberley was inspired by the real-life Chatsworth.

We visited Chatsworth  in September 2010, and it was well worth the trip.  I didn’t care too much for the inside of the house,  but the grounds, and the physical setting of the house itself  are truly amazing.   These pictures give  you a bit of a sense of what it is like, but of course they cannot do it justice.

Catherine seems to have been quite taken by it all when she and William stayed in Chatsworth Park in late October and early November of 1855.  Frederick Booth-Tucker’s biography, The Life of Catherine Booth, Mother of The Salvation Army (2 volumes, 1892), includes extracts from some letters she wrote  to her mother during their stay in the Park, in which she praises the scenery and the magnificence of the house itself.

This afternoon we walked through the park right up to the Duke of Devonshire’s residence. It is one of the most splendid spots I was ever in. It is all hill and dale, beautifully wooded and bestudded with deer in all directions. The residence itself is superior to many of the royal palaces, and the scenery around is most picturesque and sublime. This splendid spot is ours for a week in every sense necessary to its full enjoyment, without any of the anxiety of being its real owner (p. 150).

I suppose I am so used to thinking of Catherine Booth as an austere, self-denying warrior and advocate for the poor, that I find it refreshing to see another side of her – one that is taken aback by the physical beauty and magnificence of a fine English estate.   In another letter she again offers high praise for the beauty of Chatsworth.

This morning we were just preparing to visit Chatsworth House and to explore a part of the park we had not seen, when to our surprise Mr. and Mrs. Fenton and Mr. Mark Firth, brother to the gentleman named in my former letter, came to the door…So we set off to climb some tremendous hills, in order to reach a tower built in the highest part of the Park grounds. I got about half-way up and then my strength failed me, and I begged to be allowed to sit down and wait, while the rest of the party completed the ascent. After much persuasion I carried my point and was left alone, sitting on a stone, my eyes resting on one of the loveliest scenes I ever expect to witness in this world. I enjoyed my meditations exceedingly. I was on an elevation about as high as St. Paul’s, with a waterfall on one side of me and the most romantic scenery you can imagine all round, above and below (p. 152).

Even in the midst of her revelry, however, she did not lose herself completely.  So she continues:

The old Duke ought to be a happy man, if worldly possessions can give felicity. But alas! we know they cannot. And, according to all accounts, he is one of those whom they have failed to impart it (p. 152).

Sermon: the Kingdom for Beginners


Matthew 18:1-14

Preached at Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church, Scarborough, ON

March 11, 2012

Henri Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest, psychologist, and author, who is considered to be one of the finest spiritual writers of recent memory; his books have impacted millions of Christians around the world.  He was originally from Holland, but came to United States for graduate school and ended up teaching at some of the finest universities in the world: Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard.  But in his early fifties, after 20 years of living a very privileged life as an academic and famous author, Nouwen decided to give it all up and move to Richmond Hill, believe it or not.  Why Richmond Hill?  He came to join the l’Arche community there, called l’Arche Daybreak.

Some of you have probably heard of l’Arche.  It was founded by Canadian Jean Vanier in 1964 as a community for people with intellectual disabilities, or mental handicaps, and has spread around the world to 40 countries.  L’Arche is French for “the ark,” as in Noah’s Ark. L’Arche takes a unique, faith-based approach to providing homes for people with disabilities.  It is not at all like a nursing home. There are no “clients,” there are no “patients,” and there are no “staff.” At l’Arche, the “able” the “disabled” live together in community, in fact they live together in regular houses, and they relate to one another like families more than anything else.  Everyone is treated as a person of equal respect and dignity; they all take responsibility for their household, and they have relationships of mutual support and accountability.  Their households have close to a one-on-one ratio of non-disabled and disabled people.  You might think, that doesn’t sound very efficient!  Do they really need one non-disabled person for each disabled person?  But the point of l’Arche is not to be efficient, but to be a place where everyone is valued as a child of God.

So in 1985 Henri Nouwen left Harvard to move to l’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill. He abandoned the most exclusive circles of intellectual life in order to live amongst people who were intellectually disabled.  And, for the rest fo his life, much of his writing focused on how much he learned from these supposedly disabled people.  In his wonderful book, In the Name of Jesus, he says,

“The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking or disliking of me had absolutely nothing to do with any of the many useful things I had done until then.  Since nobody could read my books, the books could not impress anyone, and since most of them never went to school, my twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard did not provide a significant introduction.”(27)

The fact that he was a Harvard professor meant nothing to these people. He was used to relying on his credentials and his accomplishments to impress everyone, but suddenly he was put into a place where people didn’t care about how many letters he had after his name.  He continues,

“I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment.  In a way, it seemed as though I was starting my life all over again.” (28)

In spite of all that he had accomplished, this very accomplished man was learning to become a beginner again.  And he found that, when he humbled himself and became a beginner, he learned a lot about following Jesus.›š

I think of Henri Nouwen’s experience of “starting life all over again” when I read this story in Matthew 18, where Jesus calls the disciples to humble themselves and become like little children…

Read the rest here: Sermon 120311 MATTHEW 18 1 to 14

How the Wesleys Describe the Goodness of God

If you had to choose a set of hymns or worship songs to describe the goodness of God, what would be at the top of your list?

I would initially think of something to do with creation, maybe dealing with how God provides good things for his creatures.   Maybe “Great is thy faithfulness.”   Possibly a setting of Psalm 23.  Or something about God’s love.

A few years ago I ordered a copy of A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, from the Bicentennial Edition of Wesley’s Works.   It is an amazing piece of literature, and everyone who is interested in Wesleyan history and theology should spring for it.  The Wesleys put out numerous hymn collections throughout their lifetime, but this is the one that really stuck and became the standard of Wesleyan hymnody.

Near the start of the hymnal, there is a section of introductory hymns categorized as “Describing the Goodness of God”.  The first hymn in this section, no. 22, written by Samuel Wesley (father of Charles and John), reads as follows:

Behold the Savior of mankind
Nailed to the shameful tree!
How vast the love that Him inclined
To bleed and die for thee!

Hark, how He groans, while nature shakes,
And earth’s strong pillars bend;
The temple’s veil in sunder breaks,
The solid marbles rend.

“’Tis done!” The precious ransom’s paid,
“Receive My soul,” He cries!
See where He bows His sacred head!
He bows His head, and dies!

But soon He’ll break death’s envious chain,
And in full glory shine:
O Lamb of God! was ever pain,
Was ever love, like Thine?

It seems strange at first, because our inclination is to think that “describing the goodness of God” should mean dwelling on his eternal attributes, his care of creation, or his care of us amidst the trials of life.   But Wesley launches right into a description of the cross.

Hymn 23 begins with an even more concrete description of Calvary:

Extended on a cursed tree,
Besmeared with dust, and sweat, and blood,
See there, the King of glory see!
Sinks and expires the Son of God

In hymn 24 we find the opening lines, “Ye that pass by, behold the Man / The Man of griefs, condemned for you!” and in verse two: “See how his back the scourges tear / While to the bloody pillar bound!”

I was moved when I read through this section and realized what John Wesley had done in organizing the collection in this way.  All seventeen hymns in this section are focused on the cross and the atonement.  There’s not one that speaks in general terms of God’s goodness.  Wesley’s christocentrism is on full display in his ordering of these hymns.

How do we describe God’s goodness?  Rather than beginning with an abstract conception of a good God, and then theorizing about what that might mean, we begin at the cross, the climax and centre of God’s self-revelation.  We begin, strangely, with Jesus at his most human – suffering, bleeding, and dying for us and for our salvation – even though this is the point in the gospel narrative that most clearly underlines the inadequacies of our preconceived understandings of God and his goodness.

It is sad that many churches today shy away from a focus on the cross, even on Good Friday!   People seem concerned that it the crucifixion story is too gruesome, or too depressing.   One time I remember someone saying to me that we needed to end the Good Friday service on an “upbeat” note – as if we somehow need to “spin” the Good Friday story into a “positive” message.   The cross doesn’t need spin doctors.  It doesn’t need to be turned into something “positive,” and it doesn’t need to somehow be reconciled with a preconceived notion of “goodness.”  The cross is God’s demonstration of his goodness.  To describe the cross is to describe the goodness of God.  The story just needs to be told.

As we move through the remaining weeks of Lent, looking towards Good Friday, let’s not rush through our contemplation of the cross.

I give the last word to Charles. This is hymn 27 in the Collection.

O Love divine, what hast thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Is crucified for me and you,
To bring us rebels back to God.
Believe, believe the record true,
Ye all are bought with Jesus’ blood.
Pardon for all flows from His side:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Behold and love, ye that pass by,
The bleeding Prince of life and peace!
Come, sinners, see your Savior die,
And say, “Was ever grief like His?”
Come, feel with me His blood applied:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Then let us sit beneath His cross,
And gladly catch the healing stream:
All things for Him account but loss,
And give up all our hearts to Him:
Of nothing think or speak beside,
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

[revised and re-blogged  from a post on March 31, 2010]

Israel and the Church: reclaiming the continuities

Generally speaking, most ecclesiological thinking has tended to overemphasize the discontinuity between ancient Israel and the church.  There are many reasons for this, some of which explicitly and intentionally emphasize the discontinuities, and some of which do so in an implicit way.  This overstress on the differences between Israel and church can lead to a static understanding of the church, which misses out on the dynamic, historical nature of the people of God, and thereby leaves us less sensitive to questions of renewal and reform.  I would suggest that thinking more intentionally about the continuities between the church and Israel can help to recover a more biblical understanding of the people of God.

My perspective on this question has been greatly influenced by George Lindbeck’s argument for an “Israel-like” view of the church.  I’m not going to summarize his work here (though maybe I should do that another time), but if you are interested in what he has to say, I would recommend reading the following two essays: “The Story-Shaped Church: Critical Exegesis and Theological Interpretation,” in Scriptural Authority and Narrative Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 161–78; and “The Church,” in The Church in a Postliberal Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 145-165.

First of all, why is it that Christian thinking about the church has overemphasized the discontinuities between Israel and church?  I would suggest four significant reasons, though their are probably more.
  • An idealized, platonic understanding of the church.  This is particularly true of ecclesiologies which place great stress on the “invisible church” (that is, the elect, known only to God) as the “real” church.  If the “real” church is invisible, then the historical, visible church can be undermined as “unreal” or unimportant.
  • A triumphalistic view of the church as holder of the keys to salvation.  If the church’s role in mediating salvation is stressed too much, such that the church itself is seen as possessing the fullness of the means of salvation (rather than serving as God’s instrument), then it becomes easy to play off the “triumphant” church against the unfaithfulness of Israel in the Old Testament.
  • Divisions among Christians leading to different groups claiming to be the “true” church.  The triumphalist tendency in the Christian church has only be exacerbated by divisions.  In a situation of division, ecclesiology has often become about proving that your church is complete and lacking in nothing, in comparison with other churches.  Again, this can easily lead to a presumption that we are above the failures of Israel.
  • Some forms of supersessionism and dispensationalism.  Obviously, supersessionism in all forms is going to stress the discontinuities between Israel and church, since supersessionists argue that the church as replaced Israel as God’s people.  The most extreme form would be dispensationalism, which, in arguing that Christians and Jews live under different “dispensations” of God, are able to justify strong discontinuities between the Israel and church.

So, what then, am I proposing regarding the continuities and discontinuities between Israel and church, scripturally speaking?  Clearly, from a Christian perspective, things have changed for the people of God post-resurrection.  But how much has changed, and what hasn’t changed?

First, what are the discontinuities between Israel and church?

  • Pentecost marks the beginning of a greater fullness of the Spirit, poured out upon all (Joel 2:28-32 / Acts 2).
  • Jesus Christ offers a more complete revelation of God than was available to the OT people of God (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 1:1-4)
  • The church is given a universal mandate to evangelize the world (Matthew 28:16-20)
  • The sacrificial worship and priesthood of OT Israel are replaced by Jesus’ work on the cross (Hebrews 10)
  • The church is not intended to be a nation with a theocratic civil government, but a dispersed community of exiles, spread among every nation (1 Peter 1:1-2)

What are the continuities that I believe should be re-emphasized?

  • The church is still a historical and visible community of persons.
    • It is not an “idea”; the church is a real, living human community, with a history of ups and downs, successes and failures, faithfulness and apostasy (Acts 5; Revelation 2-3)
    • The church is still a communal entity. Though salvation is personal it is not individualistic.
    • The people of God can still be seen as a people on a journey – a pilgrim people headed towards the new creation (1 Peter 2:11)
  • The church is still subject to judgment under the lordship of Christ. This judgment is not only a future event, but is reflected in the church’s historical life, here and now. Judgment begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17).  NT Christians viewed OT history as their history, and took warning against unfaithfulness (1 Cor. 10).
  • The church is still a holy and priestly people, witnessing in word and deed to the world about the faithfulness of God (1 Peter 2:9-10).
  • The people of God still need a Saviour. The church is not, in itself, the fulfilment of Israel; Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Israel; he is also the fulfillment of the church; we find fullness in him, not in ourselves (Eph. 1:3-10)

If we take these continuities to heart, several implications will follow.  These are thoughts which I try to keep in mind as I think theologically about the church.

  • Though the church enjoys a greater fullness of the Holy Spirit, we are still fallible and capable of unfaithfulness, as was ancient Israel (1 Corinthians).
  • Because the church is historical, it always exists in a particular time and place, as a particular community embedded as a bodily presence in a particular culture.  Being rooted in a specific time and place, then, is an essential aspect of the church’s identity.
  • Though Christ has taken our judgment upon himself, he still disciplines his people as their Lord, just as the people of Israel were disciplined.  That is to say, all forms of “triumphalism” should be rejected.  Being “in Christ” and having the Spirit’s presence does not imply automatic blessing – it may also mean judgment, rebuke, and discipline (1 Cor. 11:32).
  • Finally, we should expect to see periods of decline and renewal in church history, and we should attune ourselves to these dynamics.  This is part of our journey as the living, breathing, embodied, historical and visible people of God.