The Marks of Mission: Teaching, Baptizing, and Nurturing Believers – Br. Curtis Almquist
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The long-time religion editor of Publisher’s Weekly, Phyllis Tickle, wrote in her book The Great Emergence that every five hundred years or so, the Christian faith holds a “rummage sale.” The church sifts and sorts through beliefs and practices that have grown old, decayed, or died, to make space for what wants to emerge. That’s every five hundred years. This sifting and sorting process occurred with the Great Collapse of the Roman Empire (around year 500 ce), the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches (around year 1000), and the Great Reformation (around year 1500). Now, she proposed, we are in the Great Emergence. What is emerging? This is a crucial question when it comes to our topic for this evening – Teaching, Baptizing, and Nurturing Believers – not only because it is “politic” to know our constituency; it is also a faithful response to the work of God’s Spirit, whom Jesus says will teach us everything and remind us of all that [Jesus] said to us.”[i] What are we being taught and reminded through God’s Spirit, and where do we look?
One place to which we cannot look solelyis to the Bible, and for two reasons. For one, the Bible is not universally credible, and, at the very least, is interpreted in very different waysby practicing Christians, don’t we know. A recent Gallup poll shows about 75% of Americans believe the Bible is in some way connected to God, but how the Bible is connected ranges a wide gamut; and about 20% of Americans now view the Bible as ancient fables, legends, history written not by God but by biased, sometimes ill-informed humans.[ii] Secondly, we cannot look to the Bible alone for the Spirit’s leading because the Bible “offers us no clear categories for many of our most significant and vexing socio-ethical questions.” I’m quoting here from the author and post-evangelical pastor Brian McLaren, writing about A New Kind of Christianity.[iii] McLaren says that, in the Bible, “We find no explicit mention, for example, of abortion, capitalism, communism, socialism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, systemic racism, affirmative action, human rights, nationalism, sexual orientation, pornography, global climate change, imprisonment, extinction of species, energy efficiency, environmental sustainability, genetic engineering, space travel, and so on – not to mention nuclear weapons, biological warfare, and just-war theory.” That’s what is missing from the Bible.
So we can’t look just to the Bible. We need to seek out God’s Spirit, whom Jesus says is “like the wind that blows wherever it chooses.”[iv] The Anglican formula for discerning the leading of God’s Spirit today is a kind of faithful, expectant synergy: a kind of dialogue between:
- the Bible;
- and then tradition, i.e., how people were led by the Spirit in the past. The early Church survived and thrived for about 200 years before there was what we call the New Testament, the New Testament Canon of Scripture.
- and then use our reason, because we have been created in the image of God with minds and memories. We are not robots; we are not blank tablets.
- and then, lastly, we draw on our experience. What is my experience of God? What is your experience of God? It’s a crucial question, not just so we bequeath dignity to one another – which is important – but also because we understand that God’s Spirit doesn’t just work around us and through others, but within us, in our own life’s experience.
And I’m saying “us.” This isn’t about me; this is about us. There is no private faith in Jesus; it is always a public faith: personal yet public. Jesus always worked with groups. He spoke to groups, he fed groups, ate with groups, healed people in groups. When we read he encountered individuals, they were representatives of a group, or he sent these individuals back to groups. Saint Paul said these groups of Jesus’ followers were like a body: very diverse parts – a foot is very different from an eye – but these parts are absolutely interconnected and interdependent.[v] It’s not about me, individually, or you, individually; it’s about us.
This corporate identity for the followers of Jesus – “corporate,” you’ll remember comes from the Latin, corpus, which means “body” – will inform everything. It will inform how we treat one another – our dignified speaking and listening to one another, our kindnesses, our offering of forgiveness and peacemaking, and the sharing of our resources. Our belonging to one another will make us especially attentive to those who are different from us: in language, in culture, in race, in age, in their orientation and values and marks of distinction. Jesus talks about this repeatedly: our belonging to one another because we all belong to God. What he shows in practice and talks about in parables is the principle of our eating from a common table. Table fellowship. The need to eat is absolutely baseline. On Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” the need to eat is a foundational need, undergirding all of life. Whether you are a prince or a pauper you need to eat. One person is the same as the next when it comes to eating, but, of course, Jesus’ point is that we all are welcomed equally as guests to the same table.[vi]
This is a storyline which Jesus tells repeatedly, in so many forms. In the New Testament, the Greek word used to describe this is philonexia, which is “the love of strangers.”[vii]Philonexia is the opposite of zenophobia, which is the fear or hatred of strangers, the discrimination against strangers. Philonexia, the love of strangers, becomes the New Testament norm for hospitality as it is repeatedly described. We read, for example, in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Let love of brother and sister continue; do not forget the love of the stranger (philonexia).”[viii]Philonexia, not xenophobia.
If I were meeting with someone, talking about Jesus, and they asked how they could know Jesus better, how they could practice their faith in Jesus, I would tell them that Jesus puts a face to God, a name we can know, with hands and a heart and a life experience like ours here on earth.[ix]
- I would tell them that they do not need to find God. God has found them, like a shepherd finding a lost sheep. God has always been with them. God has always loved them, and that love will never end. I would ask them what they already know about God?Our very conversation would have been prompted by God’s revelation, God’s intercession, perhaps God’s intervention in this person’s life. What do they know about God, both in their experience of the fullness of life, and in their experience of the emptiness of life? I would inquire about their practice: how they have lived up to this point with what they know about God? What makes for meaning in their life? What is their practice of liturgy, that is their practice in the day, the week, the year that celebrates beauty, and that expressesgratitude, and that callsfor help? These experiences of revelation, celebration, and supplication will be very important for them to remember. God is the beginning and end to these revelations and the inspiration for those practices. Very important for them to remember.
- I would then want to talk about a community to which they can belong, because they cannot be a follower of Jesus alone. We read in the Acts of the Apostles, the early followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”[x]Where is there a group with whom can this person meet at least weekly to offer prayer and praise to God, to reclaim the teaching of Jesus, and to sit at table and eat with one another? The early Christians called this an agape meal, a love meal in remembrance of Jesus. The meal may even include a prayer of thanksgiving over bread and wine, remembering how on the night before he died, Jesus took bread and wine into his hands, offered a prayer of blessing and then said, “This bread is my body. This is the cup of my blood. Do this in my memory.”[xi] Take Jesus at his word, that he is really present in this as you come together in his name and sit at table together.
- And then I would want to talk about their prayer. I would point them to the prayer that Jesus taught us, what we call “the Lord’s Prayer,” as a template for their prayer.
- The prayer begins with “Our Father.” Not “my Father,” but “our Father.” As different as we all are, we are like spokes on a wheel being drawn into the center. We belong to one another; we need one another. We all bear God’s image.
- We then pray “hallowed be your name.” We’re acknowledging here the awesome greatness of God. God is God; we are not God. God invites us into a relationship where we align ourself with God – God’s plan, God’s purposes, God’s provision. We’re like clay to a potter.[xii] We surrender trying to be God of our life and God of our world.
- We then pray for God’s kingdom to come here on earth and we align ourselves with helping make that happen. In Jesus’ day, there were two kingdoms already, in a very uneasy alliance. One was Caesar’s empire; the other was the jurisdiction of King Herod of the Jews. As Marcus Borg says, “If Jesus had wanted to avoid the political connotations of ‘kingdom’ language, he could have spoken of the family of God or the community of God or the people of God. But he didn’t. He used ‘kingdom’ language.”[xiii] This grounds Jesus’ prayer in the here-and-now. This isn’t just a future “spiritual” reality.” This is about how we live our lives, and broker our power, and lay down our lives for the world which God so loves. This is Jesus’ passion, and so it must be ours.
- Jesus prays, “your will be done.” He must have learned this from his mother, who earlier prayed, “Be it unto me according to your will.” God has given us a will, and we’re to use our will to align ourselves to God’s will, especially on matters of justice and mercy.
- We then pray for “our” daily bread. Not my bread alone, but “our” daily bread, especially for those who are without bread, those who are otherwise hungry.
- And we pray for forgiveness of our sins – which presumes we are quite capable of sinning,repeatedly, and that God is quite prepared to forgive us, repeatedly, and to forgive us as we forgive others, who are quite capable of sinning against us, repeatedly.
- And then there is kind of heraldry due a sovereign: “for yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever.
We are invited to ask for a great deal in the Lord’s Prayer. And we are also expected to be part of the answer to the Lord’s Prayer.
Teaching, Baptizing, and Nurturing Believers. Remember:
- God is powerfully at work within us – always has been; always will be – and that God is able to accomplish far more than we and ask or imagine.[xiv] Pay attention.
- We cannot do it alone. This isn’t private religion. We regularly need to be with other followers of Jesus with whom to pray and praise and worship, to listen and speak, and to sit at table and eat.
- And we need to pray and practice our lives in sync with what Jesus was about, the mission of God on this earth.
In the end – in the last book of the Bible, the Revelation to John – we get a picture of the kingdom to come: “…a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…” and in the meantime we’ve been given life to bring to earth what is in heaven.[xv]
[i] John 14:26 “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
[ii] The Gallup Poll, June 4, 2014: “Twenty-eight percent of Americans believe the Bible is the actual word of God and that it should be taken literally. This is somewhat below the 38% to 40% seen in the late 1970s, and near the all-time low of 27% reached in 2001 and 2009. But about half of Americans continue to say the Bible is the inspired word of God, not to be taken literally — meaning a combined 75% believe the Bible is in some way connected to God. About one in five Americans view the Bible in purely secular terms – as ancient fables, legends, history, and precepts written by man – which is up from 13% in 1976.”
[iii] Brian D. McLarenin A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith (HarperCollins, 2010).
[iv] John 3:8 “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
[v] See Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31.
[vi] For example, Saint Paul writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
[vii]Philonexia comes from the Greek roots philos,a friend or neighbor, and xenos, foreign or alien.
[viii] Hebrews 13:2.
[ix] John 14:9.
[x] Acts 2:42.
[xi]See 1 Corinthians 11:23-26: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
[xii] Isaiah 64:8; Jeremiah 18:6; Romans 9:19-21.
[xiii] Quoted from an online blog by Marcus Borg from November 9, 2013: “What Is the Gospel?”
[xiv] A riff on Ephesians 3:20.
[xv] Revelation 7:9.
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Margo, agreed. My perception is that slavish devotion to cherry picked passages from the Bible is a huge obstacle to discerning the Truth contained therein.
I am very concerned that the individual connection to Christ has been so needlessly belittled in this piece. The idea that Jesus relates to us ONLY in groups is so bizarre as to be offensive, and it lays the groundwork for cult-like power structures in the church.
Douglas, while I can’t speak for Br. Curtis, this is what I understand regarding your comment from last year:
First, in the initial “blurb” for this sermon, it says, “We cannot do it alone. This isn’t private religion.” I think that’s the key. I have had many personal experiences with Jesus, and that can happen in community (e.g. in a church service, a vigil, a prayer service, etc.), or by myself in the room where I normally have my quiet time in the early morning, during a long walk, sitting alone in nature, lying in bed at night, looking into the eyes of another human being…
I believe we all need a personal experience with God/Jesus, and I also believe the purpose of that is to be able to share that experience in whatever way we are led from and through that experience. In church, I am the only one holding the cup when I take a sip of the wine, but it is a communal cup that we share. I am the only one holding and eating my piece of bread, but it is communal bread. It has to be that way or—in my understanding—we’re not following the way of Christ, and thus becoming the Body of Christ. Jesus prayed alone often, but he didn’t “leave it” there. His prayer alone—connecting him to the God he called Father—helped him to know what was his to do in the community, in the world. He never kept that to himself. He invited us all into the Kingdom of God. I really don’t think Br. Curtis was insinuating that Jesus relates to us only in groups. I think he was saying that if our spiritual encounters with Jesus don’t lead us into community, we are not following Jesus.
One almost forgotten example of your message: 1870s D.L. Moody’s, (preacher and founder of the Northfield Mt. Hermon School in MA) early life was dramatically changed when a teacher spoke to him of Christ’s love. He went on to spread the gospel to thousands all over the world while championing the rights of women and poor children. Lives changed and some dramatically because 2 people dared to share the love of Christ —— One saying of DL Moody is – “1 out of a 100 might read the bible while 99 will read the Christian.” There is no private faith in Jesus. Thanks for this.
Because we are challenged by another’s words, we do a disservice to ourself and “the other” if we simply dismiss, minimize or try to correct what appears to be his/her wayward thinking. It makes more sense to reflect and sort thorough the other person’s thinking and then make your own determination as to what we accept and what still puzzles us. Our estrangement and disregard for others always start with the words we choose
Yesterday I spoke with a woman recovering from cancer. I have regularly sent her excerpts from the daily SSJE devotional. She told me that she had recently had a very tough time and that she got through it by reading what I sent her from SSJE daily. Today’s devotional explains that Philonexia is the opposite of zenophobia, which is the fear or hatred of strangers, the discrimination against strangers. Philonexia, the love of strangers, becomes the New Testament norm for hospitality as it is repeatedly described. We read, for example, in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Let love of brother and sister continue; do not forget the love of the stranger (philonexia).”[viii]Philonexia, not xenophobia.
No matter how challenging life gets we are exhorted to love the stranger. Each day I read the first epistle of John which commands that we love one another. Love God and loving others as ourselves is challenging but each day I wake up and thank God for another day to accomplish that through God’s mercy and Jesus shed blood on Calvary. Thanks for the encouragement today!
Re: today’s Daily Word… no I or you.. just Us.
Yes… AND… no we and them… just US. One World.
The three-legged stool’s legs are not the same length…longest is Scripture, next Tradition, then Reason. Jesus didn’t always work in groups…the woman at the well comes to mind. Otherwise well said.
The woman at the well was a member of the Samaritan group who lived in that town that she went back to in order to tell them about Jesus, the man who “told her everything she ever did.” She may have been alone with Jesus at the well, but she was definitely part of a group. It was because of her witness to her group that Jesus and his disciples stayed with them for a few days.
Dear Brother, As a priest of the Church I was glad to hear the position of experience placed so well with the 3 legged stool…Experience is the natural outcome of the use of the 3 legged stool. The Stool casts off the burden of being slaves to Biblical statement. To insist otherwise reveals the practice/adherence of a God too small. Yes, there are words, stories, scenes that are of things promised and eternal. But wisdom in an era uses past with present given trust of a moving, living God.
Terrific that you included experience. The traditional three-legged stool leaves that out, although the Methodist quadrilateral puts it in. I always thought all four were important, because the work of the Holy Spirit in each of us is seen in our experiences. If my life had not been broken into by God, I would not have the faith I do today; the Bible, tradition, and reason would not have been enough.
Pam, “if my life had not been broken into by God . . . .” Thank you for that lovely description of “experience!”
Br. Curtis, I see the original date for this sermon. How prescient you were! Thank you for sharing true wisdom in such an accessible manner.
I am concerned how Br Cutis lowers the worth of the Bible, God’s word. As he the Bible doesn’t address some of today’s issues directly ,but in it are the principles and the spirit in which we are to address them. I enjoy your sermons but this one not so much.
Br. Curtis is not so much lowering the worth of the Bible ,I think, but taking what comes out of it as a whole picture and applying it to the lives of those who follow the one who we meet in it Jesus.. We worship a person not a book. I love this sermon. I think it is one of his best. Margo
I agree. At first I didn’t know where Br. Curtis was going with this message and that was unsettling. But as I continued to read, I loved this message and found so much truth in it. Even before I got to the end, I, too, believed it was/is one of his best! You expressed this well, Margo, and I especially like “We worship a person not a book.” I think it’s important to remember that there are and have been many people who don’t own a Bible and/or can’t read, and at the same time have been faithful followers of Jesus and have a fulfilling relationship with God the Creator. Often these people benefit from sheer *experience* with the Divine without using the Bible as a weapon or a means of personal justification by misconstruing or misunderstanding the words of the Bible.
Amen Brother Amen! What else is there to say! Margo