The message below is the first of two addresses given by ABCUSA General Secretary A. Roy Medley at the Argentine Baptist Association meeting, August 9-11, in Pilar, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Read Medley’s second address here. Or learn more, here.
Faithful to His Message, Consistent in Serving
“Continuity and Context: Faith, Hope and Love”
Greetings to you in the precious name of Jesus. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing,” together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God world without end. Amen
This winter has not been a good one for the world. From the hot war between Israel and the Palestinians, the downing of Malaysia Air flight 17, the exodus of over 50,000 youth from Latin America fleeing violence, the expulsion of Christians from Mosul by Islamic extremists, the onslaught of the Ebola virus, the incapacity of the United States to create a just immigration policy, and the continuing civil wars in Syria and Iraq, we have been reminded that we live in a world in crisis. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it simply in a recent television interview: “The world is in a mess.”
And the church of Jesus Christ is in the middle of it. The question that is posed to us is, “How shall we respond to the world?” What is the vocation of the church? What is the church’s calling by God?
Simply speaking, there are three options for the relationship of the church to the world.
The first is alienation which manifests itself in withdrawal and separation. In this scenario the church throws up a wall between itself and the world as it attempts to live the way of Jesus. To a large extent the Amish in America represent this way of life in the church. For those of you who are not familiar with the Amish, they are descendants of the Anabaptist movement, the radical reformation that occurred on the European continent.
Their way is complete separation from the world. They refuse cars, trucks and tractors as being of the world and they travel by horse and buggy and plow with teams of draft horses. Their homes are devoid of electricity; their clothing is quite simple and distinctive. They practice separation from the world.
People come from across the country to see the quaint Amish at work in their fields or to buy their produce or their handmade crafts. But other than serving as a tourist attraction they have little to do with the world and little impact upon the world. They live apart, within walls of separation, to protect the purity of their faith and their hold on heaven.
In and of itself, the impulse to purity is not bad. To faithfully live in Christ is at the heart of our call to be disciples. But to separate ourselves, to set a wall between ourselves and the world that leaves us in complete separation from the world is not true, I would hold, to the vocation, the calling of the church.
The second way for us to be in the world is absorption: to be one with the world in every aspect with no distinction at all between us and the world. Again, if I look to the experience of the church in the United States, I see ways in which we have become so one with our context that we have lost a prophetic perspective and voice. One such way is our captivity to materialism as a culture that also permeates our churches. Every time I come back from a visit to Africa or Asia and see the vitality of the churches there in the midst of poverty I realize that what we in America count as our greatest blessing is our greatest spiritual challenge. In America, we refer to ourselves as consumers more frequently than we refer to ourselves in any other manner, including citizen or neighbor.
We call ourselves consumers but we in fact are the consumed. We are consumed by our need for things and the belief that joy, happiness and salvation come from what can be purchased. So people in the US live well, by and large, but at a great cost to our souls. Evidence of that are the increasing incidents of random slaughter that occur in our malls and schools. Evidence of that is our complacency with the ever expanding gap between rich and poor.
Wealth and materialism are seductive, easily replacing our yearning for the Giver with yearning for the gifts. Greed, after all, is identified as idolatry by the New Testament. We as a church in North America have largely lost any voice in the critique of materialism, greed, and the idolatry of things because we live with it as part of our lives.
In this way the church in the United States has become one with its context that is inconsistent with its identity as the people of God. I imagine the same could be said here in Argentina as well.
But isn’t the impulse to be one with our neighbors a good impulse? Isn’t that what contextualization in missiology means, to make the gospel credible by adjusting it to become one with its context? I would say that is a misinterpretation of contextualization. It is instead “acculturation” which is to live without distinction from our culture other than the fact that we call ourselves Christian.
The third way, is for us to live incarnationally as is manifest in Jesus, who was thoroughly one with us (as the church has confessed in creeds: “fully human”) and yet distinct (confessed as “fully God.”) Paul speaks of this difficult but essential pathway for the life of the church when he says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” Or as we often say in Christian shorthand, “be in the world but not of the world.”
Biblically we have no other choice if we are to be true to our vocation, our calling. Notice! In Jesus’ high priestly prayer, he prays specifically to the Father on behalf of his disciples: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world…” And he utters that prayer for the divine purpose for the church which he reveals moments later when he prays, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
The new thing that God has created in the life of the world following the death and resurrection of Jesus is his new community called the church. And this is the purpose for which we have been called: to live in the world as Christ, to witness to the great reclamation project God has begun in Jesus, namely restoring his creation according to God’s original intent in order that God, humanity and all of creation might live in shalom.
We are both recipients of and bearers of God’s great plan of redemption that Paul speaks of in cosmic as well as individual terms. He says of Jesus, “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Did you hear that? “All things!” That is the cosmic scope of Christ’s redemptive work. God’s plan of redemption touches all of creation.
And the glory of our message is that it also touches each of us. Listen! Paul then says, “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him—” (Col 1: 19, 21-22). In the midst of God’s cosmic work to reunite all things in and through Christ, God stoops down to bring you, me and our neighbors into the great work of reconciliation and salvation. The invitation is addressed to each of us personally by Jesus, “Come, follow me.”
Let us be clear. God has created the church for the sake of the world. That is our calling, our vocation. We can neither run from the world nor be absorbed into the world. We are sent to live as a community that is the presence of Christ, an icon of Christ and his reign.
Several years ago, my wife and I were looking for a dishwasher for our home. We went to several stores, but finally were stopped and captivated by a dishwasher that had been set up in a store as a demonstration model. Instead of a door it had a clear plastic front. As we stood there, entranced, we watched as the cleaning arms twirled and water swirled, knocking off every particle of food and speck of grease. Looking at that demonstration model we saw what a dishwasher is.
Brothers and sisters, we are the demonstration model of the reign of Christ. God intends for people to have a glimpse into what it means to live in the reign of Christ when they look at the church.
To that end we are called to live into the fullness of Christ. Paul speaks of us as being “in Christ” which is an evocative phrase. And he equates that with the church being “a new creation.”
This summer we have seen fully the destructive Power that is at work in the world, and we have seen the instability, fear and death that it spawns. How do we live for the sake of the world in a way that mirrors the presence of Christ?
In I Corinthians 13, Paul examines many expressions of the life of the church of his day, including dramatic ones such as tongues and prophecies. And he concludes that unless the outward manifestations of our life as the church are rooted in faith, hope and love, they are of no value. Only faith, hope and love shall last as permanent marks of life in Christ and the greatest of these, he reminds us, is love.
How do we, in the midst of an anxious and terror filled world, live so that faith, hope and love counter death’s destruction? I believe we find our answer in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In this letter, Paul urges the church to “have the mind of Christ.” What is the mind of Christ? Namely that “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:7-8). That is to be our way of life.
Faith, hope and love find expression among us 1) when we live as a body of servants; 2) when we are marked by humility; and 3) when we are obedient even, no especially, to the way of the cross. When the church lives as servant, humbling, serving and witnessing in our willingness to bear the cross of Christ, we most closely follow Jesus and point to his reign which is rooted in trust in God and God’s love which alone can produce hope that is substantial enough to defy Death and all its powers.
To be servants means that we enter the pain of the world in the Spirit of Christ in order that the world might experience the healing power of God’s love. The world has grown weary of the imperial church which clothes itself in riches and aligns itself with the powerful in prestige and domination. The world hungers for a church that will open its heart and life to the poor, the outcast, the lonely and destitute, that will offer a way of hope, joy, and peace. We are called to the margins of life where death, despair, and dehumanization reign offering living water to those who thirst, and the bread of life to those who hunger. That is why American Baptists are so pleased to partner with you in Catamarca, Villa Constructora, Santa Brigida, and Lomas de Mariló.
The most powerful image of our way of life is Jesus taking the towel and washing his disciples’ feet. What does it mean for the body of Christ in Argentina to live as a community that serves in the name of Christ, gladly embracing the ministry of the towel?
When the church lives in humility, we create space for others to enter and abide with us and ultimately with Christ and in Christ. In humility we are called to recognize our radical oneness with our neighbor: oneness because we have but one Father, oneness because we all are marked by sin and brokenness. What we know within the church is that life can be lived in forgiveness, grace and redemption. All of these are gifts from God in Christ, unearned. So we share them not in judgment, not in condemnation, not in gloating, but in joy knowing the liberating power of living in them as the gift of Christ.
When we take up the cross, we express an obedience to Christ that is possible only through his grace. For the way of the cross challenges the powers of death, which actively resist the power of the resurrection and God’s love and his reign. The way of the cross takes courage, courage to place our lives in the hands of God as much of the church in the Middle East is called to do in these days of persecution. Such a way can be sustained only through prayer, worship and surrender. The way of the cross, says Paul, is foolishness to the world. But to us it is the very power of God. Power rooted in love, perfect love that casts out fear. To take up the cross is to place our trust in the redemptive power of God’s love in the worst of circumstances.
Let me end with a story that captures the transformational power of the church when we live in the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection as servants, humble and obedient.
After the Civil War ended slavery in the United States, racial segregation and the subjugation of blacks to whites in all things was enforced in the South by state laws and in the North by attitudes. In the 1950’s, cries for justice and equality began to sound forth in what would become the Civil Rights movement famously sparked by Rosa Parks and led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist preacher, and many other African American Christians.
Their voices with joined with others, one of which was that of Clarence Jordan. Jordan, also a Baptist minister but white, desired to create a living community where blacks and whites lived in equality as followers of Jesus. He called this social experiment “Koinonia,” the New Testament Greek word for fellowship. Clarence chose to situate Koinonia not in the north where it might have been tolerated if not embraced, but in the Deep South in my native state of Georgia, where the US system of apartheid had strong support.
Koinonia was a farm, but it could not raise everything needed, so Clarence and others would have to venture into local towns to buy goods. It was common for them to be spit on as they walked along the sidewalks and common for merchants to refuse them service out of fear of reprisal by the Ku Klux Klan. Those fears were well founded for the Klan was known for its violence against any who promoted or gave support to those who promoted racial equality.
One night as the folks of Koinonia were gathered in their big farmhouse, they heard the sound of cars approaching, a lot of cars, which was most unusual for that time of night in rural Georgia. As the cars drew close, they turned into the farmhouse yard and began to surround the house, parking with their headlights pointed toward the house. Men in white hoods and robes began to get out of their cars and trucks, rifles and shotguns in hand. Inside the house, Jordan ordered everyone onto the floor and then he stepped out on the porch to face those who had come to do them harm.
Standing on the porch, looking at the men surrounding them in the glare of the car lights, Jordan’s words were few. “We are not afraid. We are children of the resurrection.” He stood there facing them, fully expecting the impact of bullets against his body and the slaughter of those within. But as he stood there, the power of his words and his witness defeated the evil intentions of the Klansmen. First one, then another let their rifles fall and turned back to their cars.
That night, this servant community in humble trust that led them to be obedient even unto death, this community of believers, began to turn back the dark night of hatred and segregation that lay over the South like a pall.
When we live as Christ and in Christ as humble, obedient servants in the world who do not shun the way of the cross, we transform the world. Brothers and sisters, let the mind of Christ dwell in you richly as you live faith, hope and love. These three alone shall endure.