The Challenge: The Cogito
Christian mission, spirituality and theology have been navigating between the Scylla of isolated individualism and the Charybdis of autonomous collectivism from the third century to the present. Both the Old and New Testaments confirm the necessity of personal faith and repentance toward the Lord as a condition of divine favor and ultimate salvation. An equal number of texts affirm participation in the community of God’s people, with an ethos of humility, love and service.
Monastics and mystics attempting to escape human contact found their hermitages overrun with pilgrims. From Augustine’s Confessions to Luther’s “Here I stand…” at Worms to Descartes’, “Cogito, ergo sum” a fervent strain of self-consciousness and personal encounter permeate Christina history. The North American focus on the individual’s decision for Christ amplifies this and it is ratified in contemporary literature and liturgy, ministry and mission.
The communal/collective impulse runs deep in the ethos of every stream of global Christendom, including the West with its foci on proper authority and the interdependence of the Body of Christ. Non-Western cultures see life through more communal lenses and their evangelization, discipleship, church structures and missional engagement reflect such values.
As we reimagine mission for the West, we face external extremes of narcissism/solipsism and collectivism/ethnocentrism as the pressures of rapid global change assault our sensibilities. Whether it is the isolation of iPods or the oversimplifications of gender and race, navigating the individual and the communal (whether local or global) is challenging for spiritual leaders that wish to do more than compete for religious consumers.
Fortunately, there are rich biblical resources that inform our theopraxis and liberate us from extremism. For this essay, we will integrate two Pauline texts with the journeys of Luke-Acts and discover that when the Spirit comes, each receptive person is made new and the Lord creates a new community and sociology that displays the glory and wisdom of Christ.
A New Creation: 2 Co. 5:17
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
This text comes in the midst of one of the great summations of Christian theology and mission. This great “apostolic digression” from 2:14 to 7:1 explores the paradoxical power of the glory and grace of the new covenant in Christ, culminating in the most powerful summary of reconciling love through atoning sacrifice in 5:18-21.
Being “in Christ” is not religious observance or self-improvement. It is not ecstatic expressions divorced from ethical imperatives. “In Christ” is no less than a complete change of being and direction, disposition and trajectory of life. Love compels mission (v.14). Grace is open to all. True recipients of grace now live for Christ and others instead of themselves (v.15). Christ is not one prophet among many. He is not another Rabbi with maxims to parse. He is the incarnate Lord, offering himself for the reconciliation of all, bearing the pain and penalty of sin so that believers are accounted righteous before a holy and loving God (vv. 16, 18-21).
In the middle of this profound passage is verse 17. We are each declared a “new creation.” One writer describes the Christian as a “microcosm of the new heavens and new earth.” We are in Christ – and Christ is in us by the Spirit. New access to God’s presence, new favor, new identity, a new nature and secure destiny are all contained in these two words. When the Spirit comes in the proclamation of the gospel and a responsive heart trusts Christ and turns from self to service, he or she begins to live the future now. Because Christ is alive, our hope makes all our efforts signposts of the reign of God.
Wait! There is more!
A New Community
This new creation does not happen in isolation. We baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, with power over sin and eternal hope animating our service (Ro. 6, 8). We are also baptized into the Body of Christ and through faith we are now part of a new community, a new humanity, a new nation (1 Co. 12; Eph. 2-3; I Pt. 2). Each member of the Body – locally and globally – belongs to all the others. Our callings and gifts, mission and purpose only unfold in connection with the plan of God for the whole church (Ro. 12:1-8; Eph. 2:10; 3:10).
The Apostle Paul’s insights dovetail with the pneumatological narratives in Luke and Acts. The “freedom ride” of Jesus in Luke’s gospel and the boat ride from Jerusalem to Rome illustrates the inclusive passion of the Triune God for all people. When the Spirit comes, there is a new community, a new sociology, and, in the words of Vincent J. Donovan, a new song arising from this holy and heterogeneous miracle. Let’s see who gets on the bus to Jerusalem and the nautical passage to Rome:
Youth and old age unite in the opening chapters of Luke as the infant Jesus is held in the arms of elderly Jewish saints, Anna and Simeon.
Jesus’ opening Sabbath sermon in Luke 4 ends religious exclusivism. The favor of God is bestowed on non-Israelites in the Old Testament stories Jesus cites as he announces his mission.
Outsiders are insiders in Luke 7 as a woman with a past and a Roman soldier touch the heart of Jesus.
Men and women are equally welcomed as devoted followers (Luke 5, 8).
Education and reputation are swept away as the power and revelation of the kingdom are given to the unlearned (Luke 10).
The materialistic are allowed to walk away and a greedy tax official is transformed through encounter with Jesus (Luke 12 and 19).
These narratives encourage personal discipleship and point toward the new community emerging in the book of Acts. When the Spirit comes, people that would normally have no social interaction are now enjoying table fellowship through Christ. Here is the boat ride from Jerusalem Jewish sect to universal faith touching the heart of the Roman Empire:
Jewish factions are united through Spirit-led generosity (Acts 6).
Former enemies become friends as Jerusalem Apostles welcome Samaritans into the Church (8).
Persecutors are on board – to the astonishment and disbelief of many (9).
Inquirers and seekers receive the same Spirit and are welcome to baptism and the Table (10)
And in Acts 11-15 we discover there is room for those utterly unfamiliar with Judaism – all Gentiles are welcome. Yes, there are some guidelines for obedience to Scripture and respect for others.
Intellectuals are respected and the superstitious are called to reformation (17-18)
Even pagan leaders are evangelized and the gospel finds its way to the centers of power (20-28).
Worship and witness, liturgy and life are all transformed. With our historical distance, it is sometimes hard for us to grasp the significance of Jew and Gentile drinking from a communal cup and touching the same loaf of bread. Our divisions are sometimes more subtle, with economics, education and consumer preferences often trumping the radical inclusiveness of the gospel.
Only Christ can make a beautiful temple of living stones fitted together by the mortar of faith, hope and love. Only the Holy Spirit offers the complete perspective and power needed to overcome prejudice and preference.
On a Good Day…
…The Church is a miracle. Whether we meet in homes or cathedrals, the gathering of God’s people is amazing. Faith and fear, hope and hurt, past regrets and real potential all gather for worship, responding to the Spirit’s call and creating a symphony of praise and prayer that pleases the Lord.
New creation and new community: we see individual transformation woven together with community engagement. In a polarized public square and partisan battles raging, we have the opportunity to demonstrate our love for God by participating in the reconciling mission of Jesus. Our mission unites personal accountability with community affection, displaying the unity of the Triune God to a watching world.