My last post on here, which was just a quote, was from May 14. A lot has changed in my life since then. While I don’t often post about my life on this blog (in fact, I don’t recall ever doing so), I thought that the number changes of the last month and a half are deserving of a post of their own.
This spring I successfully defended my master’s thesis, “For the Sake of the World: The Ecclesiology of Karl Barth in Critical Conversation with Jürgen Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas.” Writing a thesis was a very rewarding venture. I learned a lot about the process of writing a sustained argument. Writing a thesis for my degree was not required. Many students choose not to write one, opting to take an extra course and compile a portfolio instead. While I found writing a thesis much more difficult than taking a course (even more difficult than taking two courses), I am so very glad that I did it. Having professors engage with my own sustained theological writing will prove invaluable as I begin doctoral studies.
I graduated with a Master of Divinity degree with an academic concentration in Christian Theology from Emmanuel Christian Seminary. I absolutely loved my time there. While I wasn’t sure how much I would benefit from seminary studies (since I studied Bible and ministry in my undergraduate studies), I can now say with confidence that seminary was an amazing experience and a good choice for me.
I was ordained into Christian ministry by the elders of Hopwood Christian Church. Spending the last five years at this church as an attendee, member, intern and eventually as a staff member, was deeply formative for me. While living life among this congregation, I saw the gospel of Jesus take on flesh and blood. It is one of the greatest privileges of my life to be ordained by this church. I have thought about ordination for many years (and have even written about it on here). As I discerned that I was called (at least for a time) toward academic theological endeavors, I choose to pursue ordination so that my study would always be an exercise of my vocation as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I have accepted an generous offer of admission into Saint Louis University’s doctoral program in historical theology. My concentration will be in modern theology, which covers theology since 1500. In my dissertation I hope to focus upon the doctrine of the church in the theologies of Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar. I will begin my coursework this August. The program will take five years to complete. Saint Louis University is an excellent school and I am very excited to begin studies there.
I have joined the Lotus House, an intentional Christian community in the north city of St. Louis. This is a community that formed in 2008. We live in a single three-story house. There are daily times of common prayer and shared meals. The community is committed to service to the church and neighborhood and practices hospitality in a number of ways. I just moved in yesterday and am looking forward to living life together here.
On June 2 I was privileged to preach to Hopwood one final time before my departure. After struggling with the lectionary texts all week, I decided to focus in on the question, “what is the gospel?” It seemed appropriate given the epistle reading. Here is the audio from that sermon. Below is the text.
I was enjoying a nice relaxing family vacation in the picturesque mountains of western North Carolina about a week and a half ago. My parents, my siblings and their spouses, and my eight nieces and nephews enjoyed a few days in a spacious mountain lodge. At dinnertime one evening I sat down next to my five year old niece Isabelle, who was puzzling over a deep theological problem her father (my brother) encouraged her to ask me about. She looks at me suspiciously, as though she’s about to set a trap that she knows there is no way out of. She asks, “If God made everyone and everything, then who made God?” An understandable question; predictable even. I try to give her the basic answer, that no one made God; that God has always been and always will be. She doesn’t buy it. I try to tell her that God is unlike any person or thing that we know or experience in creation. I remind her that everything she can think of has had a beginning and will have an ending, and then I tell her that God is different than all of those things, for God has no beginning or ending. I see in her eyes that she believes I am hopelessly trapped by her astute question. In my growing exasperation contemplate referencing the poet John Berryman’s description of God when he wrote that God is “Unknowable, as I am unknown to my guinea pigs.”
But I managed to restrain myself.
Having just a few days prior received my Master of Divinity, having just been ordained into Christian ministry, I found myself humbled by a five year old’s honest question about God. I ended up giving her a half-hearted answer about not having to understand God in order to know and love God. As she ran off to play I couldn’t help but remember the admonition of a wise philosopher that “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”
There are a lot of words that we use in church, words that we find in the Scriptures, that are like this. They seem straightforward at first brush, but when we look a little deeper, when we stop and ask a few questions, they slip through our fingers. Words that buck against clean and tidy definitions. When we stop and ask the questions hidden in the words “God” “Spirit” “salvation” and “church” we are left stammering for the right way to speak about something bigger than human speech. We end up in silence. Theologian Rowan Williams says that this silence is “not an absolute, unbroken inarticulacy, but the discipline of letting go our own easy chattering about the gospel so that our words may come again with a new and different depth or force from something beyond our fantasies.”
I want to talk about one of these words today; one of these words that we can’t talk about, that can’t be captured by our language. It’s a word that crops up six times in our short reading from Galatians. Gospel. What is the Gospel? What do we mean when we say that we believe and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Or, conversely, as is the case in the church in Galatia whom Paul is addressing, what would it mean to abandon the Gospel?
Well the simple answer, the first brush answer, is that the Gospel is good news. The Greek word that the earliest Christians adopted, the word euangelion, (which we translate as “Gospel”) simply means an announcement of some great goodness. People might use the word to describe a victory in a major battle or perhaps the Empire would use the word to describe the ascension of a new Emperor to the throne in Rome. Euangelion simply means that something very good and very significant has happened.
You can see why the earliest Christians used this word. They believed and preached that through a specific set of historical events, the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, that the very best thing that could ever happened has in fact happened. That the Word became flesh and walked upon earth. That through Jesus, God has defeated death and sin. The Gospel is indeed good news, a welcome announcement of staggeringly good events happening in the midst of this world.
And yet, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is more than those events only. It’s more than an isolated historical occurrence in the first century. Paul accuses the Galatian church of abandoning the Gospel, and if we read the whole letter we aren’t left with the impression that they were somehow discounting the veracity of any of the events of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. It’s not as if they decided to pick some other historical event and ascribe to it the same status as Jesus’s resurrection. No, what they were doing that prompts Paul’s harsh condemnation is requiring believers in the Gospel who came from non-Jewish background to abide by certain Jewish practices in order to enter into the Christian community. That’s it. And for that Paul accuses them of abandoning the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel is good news about events, that’s true. But it has to be more than that. In order for the Gospel to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ it cannot simply rest satisfied in affirming that a certain set of events happened in a particular place two mallenea ago. No, the Gospel requires that these events continue to be worked out in a particular community called the church. While the Gospel is always about pointing to Jesus, from its inception the church has affirmed that in its own life Jesus is made present—that in some important sense the gathering of believers animated by the Spirit of God is the very Body of Jesus Christ. This means that the church, the Christian life that is visible in the people sitting around you, is in some sense the Gospel. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has this point in mind when he writes, that “There is no way, if we are to be faithful to God’s gift at Pentecost, that the church can avoid calling attention to itself. To be sure, like Israel, the church has a story to tell in which God is the main character. But the church cannot tell that story without becoming part of the tale.”
So, as I reflect upon what the Gospel is, about the good tidings it holds, about what it requires of us, I am pulled in two directions. On the one hand, I see in your lives, in the past five years that I’ve spent among this congregation, the good news of Jesus Christ. I see your faithful witness and your steadfast perseverance and I admit that I am drawn into that New Age that dawned on that first Easter morning. On the other hand, I am pulled into affirming that the Gospel is bigger than us too, that it draws us out of this congregation. That the Gospel is not simply what we think it is or would like it to be. It can not be mastered or domesticated. That is, the Gospel is cannot be wholly reduced to any human experience or action. As Paul says, the Gospel does not have a human origin or a human source.
And so, I want to offer some reflections for today on both of these directions. I want to recount the ways that I’ve seen the Gospel in this congregation and I want to suggest ways in which the Gospel pushes us into new and unexpected places.
What is the Gospel? It is the way this congregation mourns with those who mourn. It is the way that we help bury one another. Every year we gather early on a spring Sunday and walk to the graveyard together. Every year, we read the words of resurrection hope from the gospels. And year after year I have seen you embody that resurrection life as you have mourned with hope our brothers and sisters who have died. Faithful witnesses like Billy Polly, Harmon Gouge, Ray Giles, Julie Newby, and Melissa Dahlman. I have seen you entrust these saints to God with the steadfast faith in the God who gives life. And while we still weep for these friends, just as Jesus wept for his friend Lazeraus, we do not weep without hope. That is the Gospel. That is the visible manifestation of Jesus’s destruction of death. That is what it means when the author of Hebrews writes that Jesus has freed “those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
What is the Gospel? It is being patient with one another. It is recognizing that those who are different than us are not obstacles to be overcome but brothers and sisters within whom the Spirit dwells. I have seen this congregation embody this kind of stubborn patience with one another. I have seen you patiently listen to Ben Lee’s constant quoting of T. S. Eliot. If you’ve been part of this body very long you are probably aware that there are real differences among this congregation. Differences of opinion in politics and philosophy, for sure, but also differences in our understanding of important theological points regarding Christian ethics, baptism, and worship. These differences are not swept under the rug here for the sake of the status quo. Nor are they affirmed as an ideal. Rather, they are set within a larger story, the story of God’s work among us, a work that requires a diversity within a larger unity of spirit in the bond of peace. That is the Gospel. In a world where ideological and theological differences fuel violence and isolation, the patience of this congregation with one another is a manifestation of Jesus’s preaching of peace to those who are far off and to those who are near.
What is the Gospel? It is this shared Table. Around this table we gather as broken, sinful beggars and our eyes our opened and Jesus is recognized among us. What seems at times to be simply a happy thought actually becomes the first course of the marriage supper of the Lamb. I have seen this congregation welcome Christ to this Table by practicing hospitality to the stranger and the homeless. I have seen this congregation manifest the Gospel by being a place where Christians from divided denominations and traditions can gather to pray for and practice the unity figured in this one bread and one cup. That is the Gospel. The fellowship that welcomes all to God’s abundance given in Jesus Christ.
It is clear to me that this congregation is a congregation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In these ways and in countless others the people who gather hear have allowed themselves to become Good News for a world in need. And yet, the Gospel is not bound by this congregation. It is not exhausted in what we do here. No, the Gospel is like a never-failing stream of fresh water. (Wendell Berry) “We did not make it. Though we drink till we burst we cannot have it all, or want it all. In its abundance it survives our thirst.”
The Gospel is not only in this place. We believe that the Good News of Jesus creates a crack throughout this world in which another world can be seen advancing. We believe that the Kingdom is coming in those cracks. We believe that what happened in a garden tomb outside of Jerusalem 2000 years ago put a crack in everything, for all times and in all places and called into question the world “as it is.” Let us find these Gospel cracks, which appear in surprising places [like a Roman Centurion with greater faith than the Jews]. Let us find these places where light is advancing in darkness. Let us be Gospel people by working for the Kingdom where the Spirit moves.
The Gospel is not a fixed tradition or people. It is not bound by any time, by any place, by language or by any people, even by the church. The Gospel is constantly moving and drawing us outside of ourselves, outside of our congregations, outside of even our ministries, in order to awake us anew to God’s powerful work in the world. Let us not rest content by saying that the Gospel has already been figured out and all we need to do is affirm that something happened long ago and far away—that people long dead have already figured out everything that the Gospel is and we simply need to bend a knee to that. No, we need to resist traditionalism, and awaken to a living tradition—one animated by the Spirit of God that constantly questions and pushes our boundaries.
The Gospel is both very complicated and very simple. You know it when you see it and yet it can still surprise you and show up in unsuspected places. It is clouded in mystery and it clears that which is clouded. It can be perfectly understood by children just as it can bewilder the trained scholar.
Theologian Karl Barth wrote that “By the Gospel the whole concrete world is [both] dissolved and established.” (REPEAT). He writes that “The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather it sets a question mark against all other truths. [It] is not the door but the hinge. … The Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome.”
Let us continue to be people of the Gospel in this place. Let us continue to follow the Spirit into new places and discover there new life-giving waters. Let us remember when God has given us good news through the people around us and let us be prepared to be surprised for good news to appear in new places. May we be constantly awakened to the story of cross and resurrection which is the very foundation of the universe.