When Christ summons someone, it’s like Genesis 1 all over again, bringing something into being that was not. – Will Willimon
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! – 2 Corinthians 5:17
There’s a School of Homiletics going on in Colorado right now. A friend of mine and classmate of Lisa’s posted the above quote from Bishop Will Willimon. It caught my eye because I was more than a little surprised someone as prominent as Bishop Willimon would say such a thing. Everything in Scripture, in our doctrine and practice, all make clear that our lives as Christians are no longer wholly a part of this Creation that is passing away. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, ours is all ready a life living in to the New Creation. Our calling, whatever it might be, is a call to bring about the full realization of the Kingdom of God. When we see, we see with eyes able to recognize those signs of the Kingdom. When we hear, we listen with ears attentive to the New Song. When we act, we are acting as those living toward the Kingdom.
Now, perhaps this distinction I’m making is some kind of piddling word play. That might be true. But, it troubles me that someone like Bishop Willimon would say that our life in Christ is like Creation. The whole New Testament understanding of our life in Christ, rooted in the prophetic promises of the Hebrew Scriptures, is that we are even now a living part of the New Creation. We are not wholly a part of that Kingdom. That tension must always be kept, and we can never fall too far to one side or the other, as Luther made clear. St. Paul above all, however, was very clear, as stated unequivocally in the above passage from 2 Corinthians, that we are a new creature. That one day all will be made new; that our current existence shall pass away to become we-know-not-what (1 Corinthians 15), yet we do know this promise will come true because it has already been made true in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
I know there is a tendency in our denomination to give celebrity writers, pastors, and Bishops a pass when they say or write things. Whether it’s Maxie Dunnam, Mike Slaughter, Adam Hamilton, or whoever, we tend to be happy enough that we are encountering another United Methodist and pass over in silence those things that might cause us to pause. Even Bishops aren’t perfect, however, so rather than repeat their words with adulation, it might be a good thing to stop, think, and maybe even raise our hands (figuratively or literally) and ask the hard question: Are you sure you want to go with that?
O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation. – The first of the seven Antiphonal responses to “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, usually used in the week before Christmas, usually during Vespers.
Today we begin the first season of the Christian calendar. It is Advent, which means “coming”. We prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child, the Light of the World, the One through whom and with whom all that was made was made. As with all proper Christian meditation, Biblical interpretation, doctrinal exposition, liturgical element, and even public action, there are elements that not only actively recall (anamnesis) the history of the faith; there is also the anticipation (prolepsis) of what God has promise God will do in the future, God’s future, the future that is the Church’s work.
What better place to begin a contemplative Advent than with Creation? If there were a contest for a more abused Christian doctrine, the Christian teaching on Creation would certainly have difficulty finding another to supersede it. A proper understanding of Creation, a Biblical understanding of Creation, a Trinitarian understanding of the Biblical texts regarding Creation, is one of dynamism, of the interpenetrating love that is the heart of the Divine Life unfolded and unfolding and perfected in all that is. We Christians have a unique perspective; we are both created and yet offered the opportunity to see through the Divine Love that lives through the Church in us. As the Psalmist wrote, while it is a wonder the LORD acknowledges our existence, we are yet just a bit below the angels. That we are those who have broken the Oneness of Creation and Creator is true enough. Yet, Scripture and a Trinitarian understanding both of justification and sanctification (as well as Creation) leaves us with eyes opened (like St. Paul’s in Damascus) by faith to see this Creation as God intended it to be; to see it as Godd will perfect it in that New Creation inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
An omelette cooked is praising God. A piece of straw praises God. The fog outside my window this morning praises God. All that is praises God just because it is, and that it is, and continues to be – that is Creation, beloved by God, called Good, and redeemed through the acts of Jesus on the Cross and through the empty tomb. We begin this Advent listening for Creation’s praise. We begin this Advent seeing in the brown grass and leafless trees the Love of God for our broken world. We begin at the beginning – praising God, because all that is, is and continues to be in and through the Love of God. Creation is testimony to Divine Love, and the promise of Divine Love for the perfection to come, a promise made clear in the birth in a barn of a baby. We prepare ourselves for this birth by starting at the beginning, and understanding what it tells us about the ending, and that the whole thing between the times is one with beginning and ending – Creation in, through, and because of the overflowing love that is our Trinitarian God.
*I’m using Finley’s little book for my morning Advent meditations. You’ll probably get tired of reading these reflections. Too bad, you, is all I have to say.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.* For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. – Romans 5:6-11
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
The discussions among we United Methodists are becoming more interesting, if less enlightening at times. For example, as much as I appreciate Drew McIntyre’s “Questions for Schismatics“, I also think that they are rather beside the point. I must confess I, too, have fallen in to the trap – yesterday was a good example; this posted at United Methodist Insight is another – where I drew the lines far too clearly, and came across, I think far too simplistic in my approach. The latter link, in particular, was rooted in anger decades old, the sameness and ridiculousness of so much of the back and forth and pretense that we are engaged in some kind of “debate” rather than a struggle over identity – who we United Methodists are to be.
While I’m part of a group called “Progressive Methodists” on Facebook, I’m always wary of associating with any group. I appreciate they are a small group working to get the word out that there is work to be done to get things moving if we are to change the language in the Discipline. I also appreciate this effort to come up with some kind of “Via Media”. I also know it will fail precisely because it accepts that sexual minorities will be welcomed fully in the life of the church, and that, for some, is unacceptable. That it also differs little from something I wrote a few weeks back makes little difference. My statement was just my own, not intended to represent the views of anyone else.
In the midst of all this back-and-forth, part of the confusion is the insistence by some – including some self-styled progressives – that those supporting full inclusion of sexual minorities in the life of the church are forsaking doctrine. I have dealt with this, for example here, as has Joel Watts at United Methodist Insight. There is nothing “unorthodox” or anti-doctrinal about the insistence that all persons, beloved of God and worthy of full acceptance by God through the grace available in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, are welcome in the Body of Christ, full to participate in all its ministries as well as have their marriages blessed by God through an ordained representative of the Church.
Whether using the words “doctrine” or “theology”, what gets lost in far too many of these discussions is the necessity to keep the Gospel message – the love of God for all Creation, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth crucified and risen, faith in whom comes through the blessings and anointing of the Holy Spirit – central. That’s what we’re about. That is who we are – we are people of the Good News. Doctrine is nothing more or less than the detailed explication of how, through the centuries, we Christians have come to understand who this God is who acted this way. Yet, this same understanding, in less detailed language, is available in Scripture, for example the two passages from St. Paul’s epistles that form the epigraphs to this post. The painting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well makes the same doctrinal point, using the story to illustrate what this Divine Love looks like in action.
We profess doctrine as the teaching of the Church about who God is, and how we as Christians are to live our lives together in light of what God has done for us. It is not what we “believe”. What we believe is what we confess – that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to the world to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. That is Gospel. That is Good News.
Theology is how each generation in the church explains to itself what those doctrinal statements mean for us, in our ever-changing circumstances. There is nothing confessional about theology; it is, rather, a practice or habitus we in the church use to clarify all those doctrinal statements in light of the Internet and the nation-state and space flight and genocide and racism and democracy and all the things that weren’t even a dream in the minds of the authors of Scripture or the original doctrinal statements. Even less than doctrine, theology is just the church talking among ourselves about what the “Good News” means in a world where we lose several species a day, our industrial civilization is causing dramatic shifts in global climate and local and regional weather, and we have yet to lose the desire to kill one another in large numbers for whatever reasons we continue to concoct.
Yet, the Good News is our mandate. Spreading the word of God’s love for this broken, sinful creation; spreading the even better news that we can become a part of restoring this broken, sinful creation to its right relation to God – one of continual praise, a renewal that will spread not just among people and nations, but across our solar system and galaxy. After all, this is Good News for all creation – even black holes and neutron stars and planets in galaxies millions of light-years away are beloved by God, in need of the healing available in Christ through the Spirit.
While outside this morning, I saw this beetle lumbering through our newly mowed grass. About an inch long, this photo doesn’t really capture just how beautiful it is. Its carapace is an iridescent green. There is a reddish-orange rim around its head. It had largish mandibles, so I assume it’s either predatory or a scavenger of some kind. Not frightened of it, I marveled at the beauty of something so small, going about its beetle-business, not even noticing the rather large creature hovering over it. This beetle, the grass through which it was trundling – it was rather clumsy – the ground from which the grass grows – all of it is part of God’s Creation, beloved, for which God the Father sent the Son. These, too, will be redeemed, living in a world transformed by the Spirit for praise for God. This beetle is as much a part of God’s plan as our arguments over sexual minorities; more so, really, because this creature is one of those over whom we human beings have dominion-in-care. It is to be loved and preserved not for its own sake, but for God’s.
That is Good News. That is the Gospel. That is what we are about. Everything else, to quote St. Thomas Aquinas, is straw.
UPDATE: It took me very little time to discover that our green friend above is known as . . . a ground beetle, from the family Carabidae. How boring. It is beautiful, though.
God establishes a creation which is itself a ‘return’ to him, brought into being to praise its Creator. And God establishes creatures who very existence is to voice creation’s praise, to focus the song of creation on creation’s Maker, to be ‘secretaries’ of praise (Herbert). Hu,mankind finds its tru being in improvising on the givennness of the created worldd with the others who are given to us, never treating givens as something to be owned or enclosed in finality, but ‘over-accepting’ them in such a way that they are regarded as intrinsically interesting, and rendered more fully felicitous for a potentially enormous number of fresh melodies, harmonies, and metres. – Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time, p.252
The keystone for understanding what we call Christianity is the passion event of Jesus of Nazareth. In the suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection from the dead, we have enacted both the whole internal relationship of the Trinitarian interrelationship of eternal generation, eternal return, and the love that flows between this eternal act. We call this eternal act Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and rightly, because these are persons in the technical sense – fully realized in and of themselves, yet never for themselves. It is precisely in the Christ-event that Divine gratuity becomes revealed in all its clarity; that the Divine “for-otherness” of the Trinity is revealed in its fullness.
It is from this central revelation that we can then look back to the story of Creation and understand the central point – existence itself is grace. There is no necessity to what is. The creation was the prodigal love of the Trinity overflowing in the desire for an other, a not-God, to be so to praise the love and abundant joy of being-with that is the Trinitarian life.
We humans, more than any other creature, are the voice of creation’s praise to the Creator. In the discovery of our limited, constrained freedom, we also discover all sorts of possibilities for creating sounds, sounds that might yet be new, might yet be a thing never before heard. Whether in a cathedral, a club, a concert hall, or sitting around a living room – our musical creations are the grace-filled expression of human joy at the simple fact of existence. And it is precisely because all that is, including the Divine life itself, is sheer gratuity, those who create music need not be aware that is what they are doing. In fact, their intention might be quite the opposite! This does not diminish the power of the Holy Spirit to take our music – all of it, from chant and polyphony through hymnody, spirituals and the blues, jazz and hip-hope – and make of it praise from creation to Creator.