God’s peace, Jesus’ death,and the unmasking of the myth of redepmtive violence

This is a long post, but a little taste of what I’ve been working on instead of blogging. It’s a hard word for us, but I think a necessary one–a saving, hope-filled one. I am following, in part, the work of Mark Heim in his important book, Saved from Sacrifice.

In the church of my boyhood, the story of Pentecost was very important. It was the birth of the church, after all, and we were all about restoring the New Testament church. But not every part of Acts 2 was equally important to us. Tongues and signs and wonders belonged, we supposed, to the apostolic age and had ceased. So, we didn’t emphasize the opening verses when we talked about Acts 2. All of us, however, had verse 38 memorized. “Repent and be baptized…,” and some other stuff. For us, Acts 2 was important because it gave us an important description of how people were saved. While Acts 2:38 is a dramatic part of Peter’s sermon, I have come to believe that placing our focus here has obscured for us the central drama of the text.    For us, as for many Protestants, the animating question of the New Testament was “how does an individual sinner receive forgiveness of sins and secure a home in heaven?” If this is the animating question of the New Testament, then Acts 2:38 might very well be the central focus of the Pentecost narrative. But what if the animating question is different than the question of personal forgiveness and a heavenly home? For instance, what if the central question of the New Testament is closer to what Jesus focused on with his disciples in the days following his resurrection: the Kingdom of God. A question that places the Kingdom of God at the center of the New Testament story might sound something like this: “How is God at work in history to bring all of creation back under his gracious and righteous rule?” Or, we might put it in other terms that Luke uses, “How is God at work to establish his peace, or shalom, in all creation?” This is a very different question than the one about personal forgiveness and heaven. 

These questions are connected, but the priority given to one over the other makes a significant difference. For instance, favoring the second question–the shalom question–draws our eye more to what God is doing than what humans are doing, and this is always an upgrade, theologically speaking. In turn, this shift emphasizes God’s agency in the world, how it is that God establishes peace in ways that differ from human efforts to establish peace. Or how would God establish his reign in ways that differ from Herod or Pilate or Caesar or even Caiphas? It is only within this larger question of the establishment of God’s reign, or shalom, that individuals find their lives in line with God’s life. We might think here of the critique of the prophets, like Amos, who criticize the solemn assemblies of Israel’s worship while the demands of justice are overlooked. Or we might think of Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees who are religiously observant, but neglect the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy. 

I think of a multi-campus church not far from me that just announced an impressive capital campaign of several million dollars to make their campuses more appealing to prospective members. All of their campuses are in upscale communities, this in an area that features ravaged communities like Detroit, Pontiac, and Flint. Why not plant congregations of God’s people who are called to serve the world in communities like these? Their rationale is related to the first question. They are reaching more people with the gospel, which for them is related primarily to personal salvation. I wonder if their church planting strategy might change if the the question about God’s shalom had priority. So, the shift in questions is significant.

    But what difference would this shift mean for our reading of Acts 2? I would suggest that it changes the way we read Peter’s sermon in significant ways. For instance, I think the question about God’s kingdom places verses 32-33 at the high point of Peter’s sermon, not verse 38: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.” In a very succinct way, Peter explains the experience of Pentecost in trinitarian language around the theme of the Kingdom of God. The Father has raised Jesus from the dead and exalted to him to a position of authority at his right hand. In doing so, the Father has made Jesus, Israel’s messiah, Lord–the one who reigns. And Jesus has received from the Father, the “promise of the Holy Spirit,” the effective agent and source of power for God’s reign to be embodied in human communities. Moreover, the dramatic events of verses 1-4 are the result of Jesus having poured out the Spirit whom he received from the Father. Father, Son, and Spirit are working toward the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

    Peter’s sermon, then, is about what God has accomplished related to establishing his effective rule through Jesus, and now through the giving of the Holy Spirit. Everything in the sermon revolves around this theme. The odd experiences of the sound of a violent wind along with the appearance of tongues of fire and subsequent astonishment that comes from every person gathered hearing what is being said in their own native language are a fulfillment of what was spoken by the prophet Joel. “In the last days,” the Holy Spirit will to be poured out on all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy. The pouring out of the Spirit is a sign that the last days have come, that the glorious day of the Lord is near, the day when God’s ultimate reign will be established, and salvation will be available to all who call on the name of the Lord. The rest of Peter’s sermon demonstrate that what the crowd now sees and hears is the result of what God has accomplished through Jesus of Nazareth. This one was “attested to you by God through mighty deeds of power, signs and wonders that God accomplished through him in your presence.” He was handed over “by you” to be killed by those outside the law, but God raised him up, confirming him as both Lord and Messiah. This is the thrust of the sermon.

    The sermon is about our second question (God’s shalom), and not our first (the salvation of an individual). The audience is cut to the heart because they have found themselves on the wrong side of history. They are culpable in the death of the one to whom God attested through “deeds of power, signs and wonders,” having even handed Israel’s messiah to be killed by those outside the law. Not only that, but the one they killed is alive and ruling, seated at the right hand of the Father.

    To fully appreciate this moment, I want to focus on Jesus’ own understanding of his death in the gospel of Luke. Jesus consistently aligns his pending death with the previous deaths of God’s prophets. At a strategic moment in Luke’s gospel, after having already predicted his death on two occasions, Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51). A few chapters later he offers a lament over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (13:34).This lament over Jerusalem matches woes delivered to the Pharisees in 11:37-52. At the conclusion of a string of woes, Jesus implicates them in the killing of God’s prophets from “Abel to Zechariah.”
Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. 11:47-52.
In setting his face to Jerusalem, Jesus is clearly aligning his death with the “blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world,” for which “this generation”” will be held responsible. The judgement against “this generation” finds an echo in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. After calling the crowd to repentance and baptism, “he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying,’Save yourselves from this corrupt generation'” (Acts 2:40). Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection in Luke clearly has something to do with this identification with the righteous who have suffered unjustly throughout history. The salvation offered by Jesus in Luke might very well cover road rage or impure thoughts or cheating on an exam, but it is specifically offered in Acts 2 to those who find themselves on the complicity side of killing God’s prophets, reaching a culmination in the unjust killing of Jesus. But how does Jesus’ death in this circumstance offer salvation?

    As a kid, if we had a really good song leader that Sunday (I worship in an acapella tradition), we might go for it and sing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And in the literal sense, we were not there. But when we sang, “sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble,” I knew there must be some way that I was there and was complicit. I think something similar is going on here. The people in Acts 2 did not participate in the killing of Jesus the way that Pilate or Herod or the High Priest did, or even in the way Judas did when he betrayed Jesus or Peter when he denied him. It’s not personal guilt that Jesus is concerned about in Luke 11 or that Peter is in Acts 2. The problem is much bigger than personal guilt. The problem is the way the world works. The problem is that God keeps sending prophets and the world as it is arranged keeps killing them.

    At the climax of the scenes related to Jesus’ trial, Luke makes it clear that his killing is a group effort. “Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people,” he reports. This is bigger than the decision of an evil person or group of people. The momentum that leads to Jesus’ death sentence feels more like a social contagion. This is underlined by Pilate’s repeated findings of Jesus’ innocence. Four times, including three in this climactic scene, Pilate finds “no grounds for sentencing him to death” (23:). But the crowd is unmoved by Pilate’s finding and shouts over him, “Crucify him!” They prefer that Pilate release Barabbas, a convicted insurrectionist and murderer. Trading Jesus for Barabbas makes no sense from a public safety standpoint. The crucifixion of Jesus is not about justice, but unmasks a deeper motivation to maintain social control and cohesion. Though Pilate finds nothing in Jesus to sentence him to death, he gives in to the crowd’s desire to crucify him, conceivably to avoid the social unrest that might come if he refused. More, Luke reports that one result of the series of interrogations that Jesus faces is “(t)hat same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies” (23:12). Herod, Pilate, the chief priests, and the people all find a place of unity in the violent death of Jesus. The killing of Jesus has kept, and even made, the peace.

    The thing about belonging to a way of being in the world that keeps the peace through violence is that the victims need to stay dead. Jesus knew this. His woes against the Pharisees and lawyers seem to indicate this. He compares the Pharisees “to unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it” (11:44). While the image requires interpretation, Jesus seems to be saying that their surface observance of the law obscures the neglect of deeper matters related to justice. Their piety, in this case, covers death. The image is more explicitly tied to the killing of prophets in Jesus’ condemnation of the lawyers. The lawyers build tombs for the prophets who their ancestors killed. This might be interpreted in two ways. One reading is to say that by building the tombs, they approve of the activity of their ancestors. I think the implication of Jesus’ words, however, runs deeper. They are honoring these who were unjustly killed, blunting the offense of the violence, burying it, literally. They are using the deaths of the prophets as propaganda for the very system that killed them.

    The inconvenient matter in the killing of Jesus is that he didn’t stay dead. The amazing scene of Acts 2:1-4 is explained by Peter as the result of God having raised this Jesus from the dead. Not only that, but this one who was raised from the dead wasn’t just any prophet, but Israel’s messiah. And not only have they killed the one they long expected and hoped for, but this Jesus is the very Lord who now reigns over the Kingdom of God and who will judge the living and dead. Peter ends the sermon with the worst words possible, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Oops.

    They were cut to the heart, is the way Luke describes their reaction. I might have said they felt nauseous, got weak in the knees, lost bowel control. They have found themselves serving the wrong kingdom. It’s not what they thought they were doing. They are, after all, Luke tells us, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:). Jesus knew this as well, praying from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34). But having found themselves on the wrong side of the appearing of God’s kingdom, they might likely have expected divine condemnation or retribution. “Brothers, what shall we do?” might better be understood, “Brothers, is there anything we can do?”

    Perhaps Luke has prepared us to interpret their question this way given Jesus’ parable of the “wicked tenants” in Luke 20:9-16. In this parable, the owner of a vineyard leaves it in the care of tenants. When the owner sends slaves to collect the proceeds from the vineyard, the tenants beat the slaves, refusing to pay. Desperate, the owner sends his son. Surely, they will respect the son. But they kill the son, hoping the vineyard will be theirs. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” Jesus asks. “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” God, in this case the owner of the vineyard, has repeatedly sent prophets, and now even his son, and the tenants keep violently oppressing them, even killing the son, deluded into thinking this act might even secure for them an inheritance. It would not be hard for those in the crowd to see themselves as the wicked tenants and expect that God might destroy them and give their inheritance to someone else. In fact, in a world ordered by retributive violence, this is exactly what should be done. 

Truth be told, some in Luke’s story might have expected God’s vengeance on the Gentiles who have ruled over them and oppressed them. At John the Baptist’s birth, Zechariah sings of God’s deliverance “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:71, also 1:74). That this deliverance might take the form of vengeance could very well be the expectation of the hometown crowd who hears Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4. There, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, a text which proclaims Jubilee for Israel, namely “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus does not read the entire text of Isaiah 61, however, leaving out “and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Is 61:2). Israel’s comfort here depends in part on being avenged by God for their treatment at the hands of their oppressors. The audience in Luke 4 is favorably inclined toward Jesus, until he reminds them of God’s good treatment of Gentiles in the days of both Elijah and Elisha, perhaps indicating that his omission of the last few lines of Is 61:1-2 was no oversight. God’s salvation for Israel will not come with retributive violence for Israel’s oppressors. God will not oppress others for the sake of their comfort. God’s peace will come another way.

Neither will God’s vengeance come for the crowd in Acts 2. “Repent and be baptized, for the forgiveness of your sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” is Peter’s word of grace. Of all the remarkable things that happens at Pentecost, Peter’s offer of the Holy Spirit for those who handed Jesus over to death might very well be the most remarkable. They have not forfeited their right to be a part of a different way of making peace. “For the promise is for you,” Peter continues, “and for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39). 

This is a remarkable story. We often think of the violent death of Jesus as something required by God in order to forgive. Seen this way, violence can be redemptive, a way to make peace. But Luke gives us a different picture. The innocent death of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection pulls back the curtain on the myth of redemptive violence. Jesus stands with all the prophets unjustly killed, their deaths hidden or forgotten, or worse, commemorated in a way that serves the interests of the very system that put them to death. Jesus would deliver us from this way of making peace, in part by showing it for what it is, injustice. More, as Lord of the alternative way of the Kingdom of God, he offers us the power to live in a different kind of peace through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. The crowd at Pentecost, and we ourselves, are called to be liberated from “this corrupt generation,” to repent and receive God’s offer of peace–forgiveness for our complicity in this way of making the world and the reception of God’s Holy Spirit. Salvation is not just the forgiveness of personal sins, but the offer to belong to a different kind of kingdom.

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Love as the way of knowing

Paul says this great thing in the opening verses of Philippians. His prayer for them is “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best…” This is not the way I’ve thought about things. It’s teaching, or information, that overflows more and more in knowledge and understanding so that I can determine what is best. This is not what Paul thinks. It’s not that teaching is unimportant. He does a lot of teaching in his letters, obviously. But Christian understanding abounds in relation to love. 

Now, it’s not surprising that I would have learned to see information as the key to insight and understanding. I’m a cultural heir of a religious tradition that has prized the rational. If we “think it,” we’ve done it. We’ve valued sound doctrine and gospel meetings and preaching and teaching. We like to figure things out. And this is not bad, and I’m particularly thankful for the tradition of strong preaching we have in Churches of Christ. But we haven’t been known much for love. Sadly, we may have a lot of facts, but not know very much.

I’m currently re-reading Jamie Smith’s books, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom. Smith wouldn’t be surprised with the emphasis in Churches of Christ on right thinking. We are, after all, heirs of the Enlightenment, and what Smith calls a Cartesian anthropology. By Cartesian anthropology (marking the influence of the philosopher Rene Descartes), he means that we understand what it means to be human in relation to the life of the mind. Our actions proceed from our conscious thought, or the way our minds order the world. Smith suggests instead that we are driven by desire. We behave according to what we desire, or love–what we worship. And desire is formed, not primarily through information, but through habits and practices–the way we live in the world.

Smith’s voice is not alone. (I would also point readers to the work of Esther Meek, Longing to Know and Loving to Know). In fact, he is following the insights of neuroscience that correspond to notions of philosophers in the phenomenological tradition (Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, among others). Much of our understanding is pre-cognitive and comes to us through bodily participation in the world. We develop practical knowledge, or know-how, by attending with others (including creation) to our world with care.

This matches Paul’s statement in Phil 1 that Christian insight and understanding comes from love, a way of being in the world that is attuned to the other. In fact, this is what transforms our thinking. As we live putting the interest of others ahead of our own, we learn to perceive the world differently. Or as he puts it in Romans 12, the secret to a renewed mind is offering ourselves as a living sacrifice, and we do that through practices: eg, associating with the lowly, offering hospitality to strangers, blessing those who curse you, rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. This is how we “prove what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable, and perfect,” or as Paul puts it in Philippians 1, determining “what is best.”

Christian understanding, then, depends on empathy. We do not come to Christian understanding by marshaling arguments into a fortress of impregnable doctrine. This way of knowing is an attempt to be self-possessing, to secure ourselves by being right. Efforts at self-possessing, which I think Paul might call “the way of the flesh,” reduce our capacity for empathy for those who do not dwell with us in our citadel of belief. Sound familiar? Our knowledge cannot abound, in these instances. It can only defend its perimeters and congratulate its possessors. As Paul says, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

In contrast, the purest path to Christian understanding is through the loving of enemies. As Jesus says, there is no credit for loving your friends. Anyone can pull that off. The real trick is blessing those who curse you, praying for those who persecute you, acting kindly toward those who hate you. Paul goes so far as to say that the love with which Christ loved us while we were enemies to God, is the very love Christ pours into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. 

This kind of love calls us beyond ourselves. To love this way, we cannot be content to dwell within our self-possessing walls of certainty. In the way of love given by the Holy Spirit, others become, not threats to our boudaries of understanding, but doors through which love may abound with greater insight. Wisdom deepens. Insight is broadened. Know-how is enhanced. We learn to perceive the world differently, to see it the way God might see it. 

Let me be clear here. The knowledge that abounds through love is knowledge of God. We may or may not know our enemy better. Even if we know our enemy better, they may still be our enemy, though mutual understanding is the surest way to peace. But God becomes known to us through love. God is most clearly present to us and to others when we practice the love of Christ. There are all kinds of reasons for this, but the biggest might be the way we learn to respond to our vunerabilities, not with fear, but with trust. Vulnerable love can only proceed in trust–not the trust of the other, but trust in God–which opens space for knowing God. Fear reduces the space for knowing. Trust widens it.

Maybe you’re skeptical. Maybe the principalities and powers of this world have convinced you otherwise. Maybe you see Christian love as impractical, a sucker’s bet, in a world where no one else lives this way. I get it. I too sometimes despair. So, find one place today to love this way and see if there isn’t a little abounding in understanding. Begin to forgive someone who has wronged you. Choose to be hospitable in a situation in which you are usually closed. Weep with someone who is weeping. See if the God of Jesus Christ show up and love abounds in knowledge and full insight.

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Starting well: managing expectations in ministry (issues of power)

The issue of power is fraught with difficulties in congregations. Let’s begin with the fact that we are in denial that power is actually at work in congregations. Many Christians think power is a bad word, especially at church. And certain forms or kinds of power are certainly bad and antithetical to the gospel. But power is simply the ability to accomplish things. No less a Christian thinker than Paul can even say, “the Kingdom of God is not about talk, but about power.” In fact, I think Paul might say that the real issue that distinguishes the Kingdom of God from other principalities and powers is the right understanding and use of power. For Paul, the “word of the cross” is the power of God. We might say that God’s power is cruciform, or cross shaped. Instead of thinking of power as the ability to control others or outcomes, Christian power is expressed as enduring love in patterns of mutual submission.

Configuring a congregation’s life around “enduring love in patterns of mutual submissiom” is easier said than done. This is because, I think, we value control above all else. And we feel more in control if we think someone is in charge. In my tradition, Churches of Christ, this is played out often between elders and ministers. We are elder led congregations. They can hire and fire the minister. They can state direction and veto other directions. This is their prerogative even though few of them have theological or ministerial training. Ministers, in this sytem, possess borrowed or personal authority. That is, they can accomplish things because they have been given permission from the elders, who have real authrotiy, and/or they possess the ability to get things done because they are seen as competent or personally trustworthy.

So, we have elders who have lots of official authority and relatively low training which would make them competent in their field of endeavor. And we have ministers, who have low levels of official authority, but training that would make them competant in the field of endeavor. In this environment, elders often feel inadequate and threatened by the training of the ministry staff who serve “under their authority,” and who naturally act defensively in such a circumstance. Or, they borrow forms of power and authority from their jobs where many of them are managers or executives. Here, they feel competent and are sometimes unaware of how Christian leadership should be different than GM or Intel. Ministers feel frustrated that their expertise doesn’t count for more. They are being held accountable for performance according to standards that may or may not be Christian and with limited ability to do the things that would actually make a difference. Anyone recognize this?

Look, I feel for both groups here. I have a special place in my heart for elders who carry the heavy responsibility of authority with very little practical training. And I feel for ministers whose gifts of leadership are often frustrated and underutilized. Too often the result of this arrangement is similar to my golf swing. I swing too hard, losing all my power somewhere in the air, with too little at the point of impact. 

The solution here, in my opinion, is not to flip the power differential, giving the senior pastor or minister ultimate authority. The solution, rather, is to find forms, relationships, and types of engagements that would embody “enduring love in patterns of mutual submission.” After all, the one we call “Lord” is the one who gives himself up for us.

Few ministers inherit well thought out notions of power in a new congregation. So, the candidate interview is the first place that these issues can be raised and signaled as important. So, I have two questions that might reveal the practical use of power in a congregation.

1. How do big decisions get made around here? Can you tell me about how you made the last one? How satisfied were you with the process and outcomes? Actually, a candidate might already have a pretty good idea based on selection process in which they are involved. In my experience, however, congregations tend to be more deliberate and collaborative in a minister search than they are in other decisions. 

Congregations often have stated beliefs that are contradicted by their practices that embody deeper, often unspoken beliefs or assumptions. No set of practices, in my opinion, reveal more about these deeper practices than processes of decision making. First, what constitutes a big issue? Are processes regular or ad hoc (ad hoc favoring those in positions of recognized authority)? Who has voice? Who is excluded? Are risks minimized for the sake of maintaining the status quo? Do leaders express decisions as the wisdom of the leadership or as the discernment of the leading of the Spirit among the whole people of God? All the functional elements of power are on display in decision making.

2. How does this congregation handle conflict? Can you give me examples? A lot of congregations are in denial about conflict and will tell you they have none. The results of this kind of denial are typically two-fold. The congregation lacks the kind of energy needed to make significant changes. Conflict is not necessarily bad, and transformative change rarely comes apart from it. Conflict produces energy, clarifies values, provides opportunity for greater mutual understanding and respect, etc.  Second, denial about conflict produces a slow boil around unresolved issues. A really big one might be on the horizon and might very well get attached to the hiring of a new minister. Tick, tick, tick.

Conflict denial might also be a sign of autocratis leadership that values control and can’t abide controversy. So, you want them to admit to conflict. And you want stories where conflict provided clarity, reconciliation, mutual understanding. These kinds of stories indicate patterns of leadership that trust the movement of the Spirit of God. These kinds of stories indicate that people are shown respect and feel adequately listened to, which may be signs of mutuality around enduring love. 

Conflict with less stellar results might still have been handled in responsible ways. You can’t control the responses of all involved in conflict. But it is certainly important to know what issues produced enough heat for members to have left. And it is important to ask what the congregation thinks they learned from this painful episode.

Decision making and conflict resolution are two signficant places where the congregation’s deepest values are put into practice. It is good to know going in if they have Christian practices. As I tell my ministry students, it is better to have no ministry job than to have a bad one.

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Starting well. Observations on establishing ministry expectations

I think one of the most difficult things about full-time ministry is establishing and maintaining realistic ministry expectations. I think there are two primary reasons for this: First, few really no what a ministry job entails. I’ve been asked more times than I can count, “besides writing your sermon, what do you do during the week?” People just don’t know. Fair enough. Ministry is not like most other jobs. Second, and connected to the first, most ministers work without on-site supervision, most without colleagues who observe their day-to-day routine. Without concrete knowledge of what a minister does day-to-day, members are left to fill in the blanks. As a result, they have high and diverse expectations with little realistic information. 

This is a recipe for disaster. And, making things worse, other congregational leaders (elders, boards, etc) tend to be poor at helping to set realistic expectations for church members. Ministers have to take responsibility themselves for setting and maintaining these expectations, and this begins with the job interview.

As important as it is for the congregation to get a solid picture of a ministry candidate, it is equally, even more, important for the ministry candidate to interview the congregation well. The questions the candidate brings go a long way to discovering the work environment she might be stepping into. More, however, good questions are the first way a prospective minister can begin to set ministry expectations. So, I’ve developed a list of the questions I would ask if I were interviewing for a position. In this post, I’ll deal with the first two, the rest to follow.

1. Do you have a detailed, written job description for this position? I would not take a job where one doesn’t exist. In my experience consulting with congregations, most ministers work without one. One of the unfortunate results of working without a description is that everyone in the congregation becomes your boss. You are subject to the whims of every member who have wildly different ideas about what your job should be. A written, detailed job description gives the minister a set of boundaries that are defensible. Some things are your job, some things aren’t. You report to some people and not to others. Beyond the defensive benefit of a job description, however, a good one helps a minister make choices about how to spend her time most effectively. It is easy to get overcome with the diverse demands of a ministry position. A good job description might allow a minister to make choices, might provide a basis for saying yes and no to things.

Job descriptions should be thought of as living documents. They seldom are perfect at rendering the fit between the actual job and the gifts and capacities of the minister. I recommend a re-working of the job description at the one year mark, and at least every other year after that.

2. Do you have a regular process of evaluating congregational leaders? Obviously, this question is related to the first. It benefits neither the congregation, nor the minister to have a job description if there is not a regular way to evaluate leadership. Again, most congregations do not have a well-thought out evaluation process for leadership. Where evaluations are conducted, they are often poorly done and unfair. 

At one congregation I served, my first evaluation was a list of open-ended questions that had only a slight connection to my job description. Because most members had little knowledge of what I did during the week, they could only answer questions on the basis of what they knew of me publicly. Fortunately, most members were pleased with my preaching, and so gave me good evaluations across the board. One member, however, was very critical of me. She found me unfriendly and accused me of caring only for my friends. This became my performance evaluation. Keep up the good preaching, but learn to be friendlier and don’t care only for your friends. Now, this woman might have been right, especially about the unfriendly part, though I felt the characterizations were unfair and said more about her than me. The point is, these complaints were not evaluated before they became a part of my review. The process was poor and unfair.

I know its often no fun being evaluated. But regular, fair evaluations are the minister’s friend. They provide a benchmark in writing that can be appealed to when the system gets anxious about performance. And they provide the opportunity for mapping conrete steps for the minister to improve, hopefully avoiding trouble down the road. In fact, in a new position I would ask to be evaluated at the three month, six month, and one year marks. This would not only identify potential problems early, but might also establish a perception that the minister is open to suggestions for improvement.

Notice, that the question is phrased “process of evaluating congregational leaders.” I think its fair to ask if other leaders are subject to some kind of review. You want to work in a system of accountability, even mutual accoutability.

Now all of this assumes that congregations have their act together. And most don’t. In many cases, the minister will have to advocate for her own care. If the answer to the first question is “no,” then I would request that one be written before the next phase of the process. And if they fail to produce one, I would provide samples from other congregations and one you have written as a starting place for coming to agreement on one before you begin your job.

I’ve talked about why a minister should want a job description, but other leaders benefit as well when there are good job descriptions in place. In Churches of Christ, my tradition, congregations are elder-led. This means they are functionally the customer service department for members. Complainers go to them with their reports of dissatisfaction, and they are often left with little to say except, “give us some time, we’ll do better.” But a good job description and a regular evaluation process provides at least the possibility that a different response could be given. “Minister A has a job description that is regularly evaluated. She is doing what we have asked her to do. She can’t do everything and answer to everyone. Maybe the rest of us need to take more responsibility for helping this congregation become what God has called us to be and to do.” (This is my fantasy elder).

Fair evaluation processes are also likely to be something the minister has to take responsibility for. There is no HR department at church and volunteer leaders are sometimes ill-equipped and lack motivation for this kind of work. Again, I would want some examples of what other congregations do to provide fair and timely evaluations. And I would suggest two broad guidelines. First, the evaluation should be tied to the job description. Second, members should only be asked to evaluate those parts of the job about which they could make a reasonable judgment. 

One final piece of advice about receiving evaluations. Be as specific as possible about things you are asked to work on. Often evaluations remain vague and general in nature. Improve your sermons (usually shorten them, which on the whole is not bad advice), improve relations with other staff, manage your time better, etc. Ask for specifics. How are we going to measure improvement? What are reasonable outcomes? What specific steps can I take? When will we check progress or re-evaluate? Again, the minister likely will have to take the initiative and make specific suggestions. “Here are the three things I’ve decided to work on to improve my preaching. Here’s what I’m hoping to accomplish. I’ve sent samples of my sermons to David Fleer for input. Can you help me in these ways… Does this sound reasonable? Can we check in again in three months?”

None of these things will absolutely protect you in the managing expectations department. You may still find detractors with unfair expectations who wield a lot of personal power in the congregation who can make your life miserable. But at least you will have done what you can, taken responsibility for your own work, and invited the congregation into a collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship. On the upside, the process of coming up with a job description and fair evaluation process may clarify congregational values and model ways of treating one another with respect, with mercy and justice.

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A different kind of kingdom, a different kind of power

I’ve been away from the blog for awhile because I’ve been working diligently on what I hope will be a book on Acts and ministry. I’m finding I have lots of material, but am struggling with “voice.” I want the book to be for the kinds of people that I imagine as readers of my blog. So, I thought I’d put a sample here, an intrduction to my reflections on Acts 1, to see if I can get an indication that I’m hitting what I’m aiming for. Feedback is welcome.

Acts depicts the rise of the early church as a theological achievement. That is, the church arose from the experience and testimony that God has shown Jesus of Nazareth to be both Messiah and Lord by raising him from the dead. Put another way, the church in Acts is not the result of the organizational genius of the apostles or the predictable outcome of a strategic plan complete with five year goals and measurable outcomes. Rather, the church is the community swept into the wildly unpredictable experience of trusting that the risen and living Jesus is present to them through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

This fundamental theological reality shows that the church belongs to a different kind of reign under a different kind of power than the one offered by Caesar, or any subsequent empire. Strategic plans, after all, benefit those who can manage outcomes, who hold social power and make policy. A kingdom, however, consisting of the poor, the common, and the lowly makes its way in the world only by the surprising and disruptive activity of the Holy Spirit. And this is the story of Acts. The movement of the first Christians from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth comes through unlikely characters and surprising circumstances. All of this happens in spite of the best efforts of “rulers,” both Jewish and Gentile, to suppress what is happening. It is a story that is only explainable by the movement of the Spirit of the risen Lord.

It is open to question whether or not congregations in North America are explainable by the same theological achievement. Those Christians living in the American stories of progress and exceptionalism, have been hardwired to think of the world as something that bends to their efforts, as something manageable and manipulable. I fear that in this very way, the spirit of this age has conditioned the way congregations and their leaders have thought about ministry. As a former full-time congregational minister for over seventeen years, I confess to having been given over to the strategic. My energies and imagination in ministry were dominated by thoughts of “what would work” to extend the institutional health of the congregation that paid me to do this very thing. In spite of my theological training and commitments, which I took very seriously, in practice I was consumed more with strategic plans and congregational organization than discerning and being drawn into the life of the Holy Spirit. I had friends in ministry who took their theological commitments less seriously, opting instead for “leadership,” defined as stating a vision, setting goals and managing outcomes. Whether I or they, this is what we believed and this is what we practiced.

There are many telling us that the church in North America is being moved more to the cultural margins. Our experience confirms their observations. We no longer build churches across from city hall, signaling our influence in the public life of our towns and cities. Instead, we cater to the private needs of inidivdual religious consumers in the suburbs. We can no longer assume that our neighbors are Presbyterians, or Catholics, or Baptists, or Methodists. They are just as likely to be Muslim, Budhist, or “nones.” Perhaps most telling is that our congregations’ battle for the hearts, minds, and attendance of our own members, often results in a loss when pitted against a youth sports culture that no longer considers Sunday mornings to be sacrosanct. The end result of this marginalization is that the world bends less to our efforts and we are less in a position to set policy and make rules that would allow us to shape the world according to our purposes. I often get knowing glances from congregational leaders when I suggest that thay are doing everything they know to do, better than they’ve ever done it before, but with diminishing impact. In light of this, perhaps Luke’s story of the church in Acts offers us a fresh alternative, a chance to once again live as the power-filled powerless in the free bounty of the Holy Spirit.

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15:28 compliant: spaces for the storytellers

Let me remind you what I’m doing here in my recent blog posts. I’m taking Acts 15:28 as a decisive clue for Luke’s understanding of the church. That is, the phrase, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” says something definitive about what it means to be the church. So, what are the elements that make moments like these possible?

One of the remarkable things about Acts is how many stories are told by the characters. Peter tells stories. Paul and Barnabas tell stories. Stephen tells stories. All in an overall story about the Spirit leading the church to the ends of the earth.

I’m fascinated by Peter’s story telling in particular. The events that lead to his meeting with Cornelius in Acts 10 also lead directly to the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. What’s fascinating is how Peter’s understanding of what God is up to grows with each telling of this story.

You remember how it begins for Peter. He receives the exact same vision three times while in a trance, in which a sheet with unclean animals comes down from heaven accompanied by a voice imploring him to “rise, kill, and eat.” Peter, however, protests because he’s a good church boy and keeps the food laws religiously. The voice from heaven persists, clarifying the moment, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Yet, despite this interpretative clue, “Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision he had seen.”

Following the vision he receives the messengers sent from Cornelius, who inform Peter of Cornelius’ visitation from an angel who brings instruction to send for Peter. The next day Peter returns with them to meet Cornelius. By the time he arrives at Cornelius’ house, he is no longer puzzled about the meaning of the dream. He flatly declares, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” The vision Peter received is about food, or unclean animals. And while the voice from heaven gives a hint that this might be bigger than just food, Peter’s declaration makes the expanded meaning clear. No person is unclean. The story has received added clarity in the retelling.

In chapter 11, Peter is compelled to relate the story again to his Jewish brothers in Jerusalem. In the retelling, the meaning of the story is again expanded. Now Peter relates the story of Cornelius’ conversion to the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. The Spirit fell on the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house the way it did on Jews on Pentecost. We might say now, call no one unclean upon whom the Spirit has fallen. It was, after all, Peter himself in Acts 2 who suggests that the Pentecost event is a fulfillment of the word of God spoken by the prophet Joel, “In the last days…I will pour my Spirit out on all flesh.” In Acts 11, he connects the two stories.

Luke’s account of all of this is fascinating to me. In each re-telling, the significance of the story for those telling it, and hearing it, grows. Part of this has to do with the adding of new events, for example, the angel’s appearance to Cornelius and the Spirit falling upon the Gentiles. But it’s not just new information that gets assimilated into the telling of the story. It is also older stories that take on new meaning in light of the retelling of the more current story. And it takes multiple persons to provide the full meaning of the story. Peter’s confusion related to the vision is surely cleared up by in part by the visit of Cornelius’ servants and by Cornelius’ own account of things. The full meaning of the story is held by a community, not just an individual. No single person holds the entire meaning. It takes multiple storytellers.

This kind of telling and re-telling is essential to a 15:28 moment. And if my premise is right, then this kind of storytelling is also crucial to the church’s identity. That is, the church is not simply an organization with formal characteristics or marks, but it is a story-formed, story-performing community. The church lives in its Acts birthright when it bears testimony (a good Lukan work) to the movement of a living God through the stories it tells and performs.

This narrative understanding of the church, that the church is a story-formed, story-performing people, isn’t surprising given the fact that we express meaning primarily in narrative ways. We are constantly picking and choosing details from our life and placing them into a meaningful plot. And part of the way we pick and choose is by what others notice in our stories, or how others put little threads together in ways that we might otherwise miss. This telling and retelling is inescapably communal.

I’ve seen this dynamic at work in some pretty important ways in my work with congregations. I am a consultant for the Partnership for Missional Church (PMC), which works with clusters of congregations over a three year period. During this process, we have “cluster gatherings” where “process leaders” gather for reporting and training. Our consistent practice on the opening night of a cluster gathering is to tell stories. Each congregation decides on a story to tell the others from the work they’ve done since the last cluster gathering. We do it in a round-robin style where the storyteller stays put and the congregations rotate around to all the storytellers. So, a storyteller might tell the same story five or six times in an evening. At the end of each telling, those who are listening can make comments or ask questions.

As a consultant, I eavesdrop on the stories. Here’s the thing. They get better as the night goes on. The storyteller gets better with each rehearsal. But it’s more than just better communication. The storyteller is interpreting the story anew every time she tells it. The very effort to bring the experience to words clarifies its meaning. And the questions and comments made by others also pushes and shapes the story in certain ways. Things that others noticed now become a part of the story. It’s significance grows and becomes clearer with each retelling.

I think this dynamic is typical of the work of the Holy Spirit. From the initial experience that gives rise to a story, through its telling and retelling in community, the Spirit of God often moves to bring a meaningful testimony to the work of God.

So, congregations hoping for 15:28 moments must leave space for this kind of activity. It may take the whole church to tell the story of how the Spirit is leading. It will surely take the the creation of space dedicated to the telling of stories.

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Is your worship renewal pagan follow-up

I thought yesterday’s post was a little one-off kind of post, published on a Saturday when no one reads blogs. But the post struck a nerve, both positive and negative. I’m fine with people disagreeing with my blog, especially respectfully, but I want to be understood. Some negative comments in particular didn’t seem to locate the critique I was making in the way I intended. I’m sure this was due to my lack of clarity, so I’d like to take another shot at being understood.

First, I didn’t say that any particular worship practice was wrong. I wondered at the end of the article whether how we plan worship might change if we connected silence to the living presence of God in the world. But I offered those as questions, not prescriptions. To focus on specific worship practices obscures my point.

I am very concerned that we are lacking in capacity to be attentive to God, which requires slowing down, absolutely requires it. It requires being still among other things. Absolutely requires it. I think it requires simplicity, which in turn produces a singleness of vision. Absolutely requires it. Silence is not simply a metaphor, as one comment suggested. It’s an actual practice, as are lifting hands and bending knees and singing and praying (which I’m in favor of).

Our world pulls us in exactly the opposite directions. Our lives are frenetic. And, again, to quote my friend, Randy Harris, “if you’re too busy, God didn’t get you there.” We are constantly being bombarded with things demanding our attention, one after another, producing a cultural attention deficit disorder. We have a hard time being still, and our lives are anything but simple. As I argued in previous posts, Matthew Crawford, in his book, The World Beyond Your Head, has brilliantly laid out the case for why we lack the ability to be attentive to anything, much less God, and calls for the preservation of “attentional commons,” public spaces that refuse to be filled with noise or unending ads. I am arguing that churches could be such spaces, but not as we are currently configured.

We don’t slow people down. The biggest sin a worship service could commit is boredom, which places certain kind of performance pressures on those who plan and lead worship. We’re on the clock, members needing to get on to the next thing. And as I said in the previous blog, we are seldom called to silence or stillness. I am of the opinion that this is a deep spiritual challenge that is deserving of our attention.

So, this is my critique. We might be feeding cultural appetites that make it tough to attend to God by offering more of the same in our worship assemblies. So, if you want to disagree with me, you’re welcome to, I may very well be wrong. But I would simply suggest you make this issue of attentiveness the focus of our disagreement.

On a less germane (to my argument) point. Some of you accused me of poor exegesis, particularly in my use of the Amos text. And if by exegesis you mean a historical-critical reading of Scripture, then you might be right. I certainly didn’t study it all out before I used the texts. But let’s check my work a bit.

I don’t see how you could say that Randy’s reading of Habakkuk, which I was following, is wrong. You might disagree with his application of the text, but clearly idols are being contrasted with the living God, precisely at the level of being able to address worshipers. Because God is not a dumb idol, because he can address the world, the appropriate posture is silence. I would go so far as to say that this should be the predominate gesture or posture of worship. It measures the distance between us and God, that God is God and we are not. It says that life works best when we wait for a word from God. You get the point.

But let’s look at Amos. I’ll admit that I wanted a text that contrasted the noise of our assemblies with silence, and Amos was the closest text in memory. I thought about whether or not I should use it, and decided that it was precisely because of its allusive power that I should. A few readers objected to its use, saying that this was a totally unfair comparison, one saying that Amos had in mind people who had abandoned God, which is not what is going on in our assemblies.

Ok, maybe a bridge too far, but…maybe not. I think we could all agree that Amos is concerned with practices of injustice in which the rich are complicit, and that they are papering them over with displays of piety. Would you agree with that reading? Now, Amos can see this clearly. Can those whom he is critiquing?

I doubt they would say that they had abandoned God. They are, after all, praying, fasting, offering sacrifices, worshiping God. Are they deliberately mocking God? If not, what belief would allow them to hold these things together? They might very well be explaining their circumstances as God’s favor related to their piety or to their status as God’s chosen people. These practices of piety, then, function as a hedge against the prophetic voice that they shout down. Amos, needless to say, sees this all very differently than they do.

So, what would be a legitimate analogy? Well, you would need wealthy believers living in the midst of economic injustice that they are at least ignoring, and in which they are likely complicit, but are papering that over with impressive performances in worship, which in turn allows them to ignore prophetic voices.

Well, that clearly doesn’t apply to us. Yeah, you’re probably right. After all, in our country, poverty is a matter of choice. I heard a Christian candidate for president say that just the other day. It’s simply a matter of how hard you work. Poverty in America, at its roots, is a moral problem. The poor must lack the will, the effort, the industriousness, to lift themselves out of poverty.

I wonder if Amos would see it the same way. Anyway, that would be my exegesis of Amos. I’ll let you decide whether or not it has any bearing.

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Are your congregation’s efforts at worship renewal pagan?

Last weekend, Randy Harris, from Abilene Christian University, spent a day with our new missional leadership cohort at Rochester College, helping them to write a shared rule of life. Randy’s the guy to do this work, and we get so much more than rule of life help. He says things every 30 seconds or so which challenges us to more and deeper.

For instance, he was talking about being attentive to God and how important the contemplative life is to that end. Along the way he noticed a text from Habakkuk 2 in which idols are compared with the living God. The thing about an idol is that it doesn’t speak or do anything. You have to supply all the energy. In contrast, Habbakkuk says, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab 2:20). We keep still because God is active. Randy then said something to the effect that most efforts at worship renewal appear to him to be more pagan than Christian. We’re working up a performance because we’re not sure God is doing anything. Too harsh?

I don’t remember the last time I sang the song, “The Lord is in his Holy Temple,” in worship. But here’s the thing I remember about that song. It has a four beat measure of silence toward the end in which no one sings. I never encountered a song leader who treated that measure as anything more than a brief pause. We were never silent for four beats. We couldn’t endure it. It was too awkward. Which is totally ironic, given the intent of Habakkuk 2 and the parallel intent of the songwriter.

The fact that we never seem to sing this song anymore and, could never be silent when we did, seems to me to be a parable of sorts that might indicate Randy is on to something.

Most congregations I attend have no space for reflection, no moments when we are invited to be still or silent. When there is silence, it is typically because someone has missed their cue to lead a prayer or read a Scripture, etc. And everyone fidgets in these moments, embarrassed at the lack of performance. We cannot abide silence. I cringe to think that our assemblies might be closer to Amos 5, “Take away from me the noise of your songs,” than Habakkuk 2, “Let all the earth keep silence before him.”

In fact, this might be an important way the church learns to serve the world. My wife, Donna, and I were talking about this and she noted how even when we are asked to observe a moment of silence in the wake of a tragedy at a public event like a ballgame, those moments used to be much longer than the brief pauses we now observe. A few posts ago, I noticed that silence is now a luxury commodity to be sold, for instance in the premium flyer lounges at airports, or with apps that allow you to avoid pop-up ads for a small fee. We are trained not to be attentive, not to be still, not to be silent.

This is an instance of the larger cultural environment, constantly bombarding us with information, influencing the way we worship. It should be the other way around. The way we worship should prepare us to live a life not given to us by the principalities and powers of the age. And that life should be attentive, because our God is no dumb idol.

So, what if our Sunday worship took Habakkuk’s distinction as the starting place for worship planning? What if silence was a prime indicator of belief in a living God? What if worship was intended to form us for greater attentiveness in the world? Would we sing less? (In my experience, we could sing less and still be singing a lot). Would we have fewer powerpoint slides? Would we have more moments for reflection? Would our sermons be less performance oriented? Would worship be a space for slowing down? I think these are things worth thinking about.

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15:28 compliant: got some prayer?

Churches pray. I know they do. But sometimes I feel like they pray as a congregation the way some families pray at mealtime. They’ve got the perfunctory prayers down. They pray when they’re expected to, so that prayer is one of many activities the church does. But, it’s not a way of life. They’re not known for prayer like they’re known for their singing or for their youth programs.

I have no doubt, however, that Luke sees prayer as the church’s way of life, not just one among a number of activities. In Acts, the church does what Jesus does in the gospel of Luke. When Jesus is baptized, only Luke tells us that Jesus is praying when the Spirit descends on him. Only Luke tells us that Jesus is praying when he chooses the twelve. Only Luke tells us that Jesus is praying when he is transfigured. These examples could be multiplied. Clearly, Luke wants us to associate prayer with Jesus. It’s not something he does. It’s his way of life.

In Acts, the church is gathered for prayer when the Spirit descends with tongues of fire at Pentecost. The summary of life post-Pentecost at the end of Acts 2 emphasizes the church’s devotion to the prayers, and in Acts 3 we find Peter and John going up to the temple “at the hour of prayer” (3:1). When people are appointed to a task, there is prayer. When people escape prison, there is prayer. The early believers are a community of prayer.

This one is hard for me, personally. I’m not a great pray-er. Part of it relates to my conflicted views about God’s agency in the world, principally prayer designed to get things or have life break my way, though I believe God invites the concerns of our hearts. I think, however, that prayer is less a way of tracking outcomes and more a way of being mindful of God in any and all circumstances. A prayerful person is a less anxious person. A prayerful person is more apt to be patient, less likely to take matters into their own hands.

So, I am convinced that prayerfulness is necessary for a life attentive to God. And I am convinced that prayer as a way of being still before God and listening is more important than prayer that simply piles up requests. The great prayer-ers I know are good at this. And I am convinced that a congregation should be characterized by more than just its public, perfunctory prayers. Prayer should be its way of life.

I guess I would say that a congregation that has prayer as a way of life does more than pray together as occasion arises (illness, big decisions, crisis or opportunity), but prays as a way of being attentive to the leading of God.

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15:28 compliant: considering the testimony of boundary transgressors

One of the implications of the Spirit being poured out on all flesh is that The Spirit’s influence won’t be limited to people you hang out with. And Acts isn’t the story it is without people who transgress the perceived boundaries of the group. There border crossings may very well be instigated by the Holy Spirit.

The big example here is Peter and Cornelius. Peter, staying at Simon the tanner’s house (we’re already in iffy territory), has a vision in which he is told to kill and eat food considered unclean. But Peter is a good church kid and refuses the offer of a little guilt-free bacon. But the Spirit has bigger ideas than Peter and has been working on the Gentile, Cornelius, to send for Peter. Peter provides lodging for them and then travels to stay with Cornelius and enjoy his hospitality, all border crossings. And the Holy Spirit shows up.

As Peter returns to Jerusalem, he is encountered by the boundary police. They care little for a report about the Spirit, or speaking in tongues, or baptism. They want to know if Peter ate with Gentiles. Peter’s story about his time with Cornelius ends up becoming a major part of the reasoning of the church to accept the Gentiles as Gentiles.

My favorite story of boundary transgression comes after the persecution breaks out after the stoning of Stephen. This sends some believers “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, but they spoke only to Jews.” Except for these guys from Cyprus and Cyrene. They didn’t get the memo. They were low level operatives. They thought “Go, Ye, means Go-im.” (Give it a minute). And so they preached to the Hellenists, and low and behold the Spirit was with them and they became obedient to the gospel. And in Antioch these Gentiles began worshipping with Jews, and Luke tells us this is the first place the early believers were called Christians.

And the boundary police send Barnabas to Antioch to make sure everything is kosher. And later, Christian Pharisees travel to Antioch to insist Gentile believers receive circumcision, the dispute that became the immediate occasion for the Jerusalem conference. The Spirit drew early believers beyond the recognized boundaries of the faithful and drew the church to the moment where a decision had to be made, to the “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” moment.

Apart from disruptions, apart from surprises or things that don’t fit into our framework of understanding, there is simply no need to discern anything, to make sense of anything. All that work has been done and boundaries suitably erected. The status quo rules. This is why I teach my ministry students that one of their evaluative questions should always be, “what was surprising?” This may be a disruption caused by the Spirit that leads to fresh discernment.

This will also require that congregations find ways to value their boundary crossers, people who may feel more comfortable with non-church people than with the Saints, who make the faithful develop a little purity rash, the voices of dissent.

Holy Spirit, Come!

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