Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Whole Christ

St. Augustine is hailed by both Protestants and Catholics as one of the greatest and most consequential fathers of the early church.  His struggles with sin and eventual conversion to Christ, cited in his great autobiographical work, The Confessions, is as powerful today as it was in the summer of 386.[1]  When reading Augustine, we often find him embroiled in some of the great theological debates of his time – against the Arians, the Donatists, the Manichaeans, the Pelagians. 

When we read his sermons, however, we see an altogether different side of Augustine, more personal, more psychological.  Scholars encourage us to pay close attention to the preaching of Augustine because there “we come to listen to the voice of his soul.”[2]  So if St. Augustine preached a message and reiterated it tirelessly would you listen to it?

In his sermons we find Augustine proclaiming a particular message over and over again – the idea of the “Whole Christ.”

All men are one man in Christ, and the unity of Christians constitutes but one man.  Let us rejoice and give thanks.  Not only are we to become Christians, but we are to become Christ.  My brothers, do you understand the grace of God that is given us?  Wonder, rejoice, for we are Christ!  If He is the Head, and we are the members, then together He and we are the whole man.

When by faith Christ begins to abide in the inner man, and when by prayer He takes possession of the faithful soul, He becomes the whole Christ, Head and body, and of the many He becomes one.[3]

Augustine stresses the point that we together, all baptized followers of Jesus, brought together under one Head, we are the whole Christ.  The whole Christ is not the Savior alone but the Head plus the members, Christ united with the Church, all gathered together in unity – one soul, one man, one person, one Christ.  Thus Augustine built on the foundation of St. Paul (1 Cor 12) and elaborated on the doctrine commonly called the “Mystical Body of Christ.”  And what did Augustine make of the divisions, the biases, and the slander of the early church?

When the Head and the members are despised, then the Whole Christ is despised, for the Whole Christ, Head and body is that just man against whom deceitful lips speak.[4]

Think about it.  Pause for a moment and reflect.  What does this mean for us as Protestants and Catholics today?  What does it mean for Young Life leaders ministering to Protestant kids and Catholic kids?  What does it mean for us to consider the many members of the one body?  What does it mean for us to truly embrace the whole Christ?

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!”
And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”
Now you are the body of Christ,
and each one of you is a part of it.[5]

[1]             The famous account of Augustine’s conversion can be found in The Confessions, Book VIII.
[2]             Emile Mersch, The Whole Christ: The Historical Development of the Doctrine of the Mystical Body in Scripture and Tradition, Eugene, OR: WIPF & Stock Publishers, 2011, 413.
[3]             Augustine of Hippo, In Ps. 39, enarratio 2a, P. L., Vol. 36, 219; In Ps. 127, P. L., Vol. 37, 1686; In Ps. 90, sermo 2, P. L., Vol. 37, 1159.
[4]             Augustine of Hippo, In Joh., 21, P. L., Vol. 35, 1568.
[5]             1 Cor 12: 14, 21, 27.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"What do you want me to do, Lord?"

I’ll never forget my first calling into ministry.  I was in India at the time, sowing some last adventurous oats before returning to the states.  I had spent the last two years in Africa, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small mountainous village.  It was there that I gave my life to Christ and began a life-long process of letting go of my own plans and letting God direct my path.

The Lord had started “rewriting my script” almost immediately.  My college years had been spent on two primary vocations: partying and getting into medical school.  I was in Africa when I got the letter of acceptance.  I should have been the happiest man alive.  Yet as my Muslim friends were preparing for a magnanimous party, I held the letter in my hands, that key to my gloried future, and felt nothing but emptiness.  It was my first introduction to the process of discernment, the art of figuring out what God really wants us to do in life.

Fast-forward now to India.  After saying no to med school, I had spent nearly every waking moment with God asking him one primary question: “What do you want me to do, Lord?”  Of course I was thinking big things, consequential things, things that would redeem my decision to sacrifice a career in medicine.  Thoughts of scaling mountains and dangerous missions into forgotten jungles danced through my head.  Surely the Lord had “big” plans for me and I was ready for any challenge, anything to share the glorious story of Christ, a story that had changed my life.

And then the moment came.  It was about 10:40am in Jaipur (NW India) and I was praying.  “Lord, what do you want me to do?  You know I’ll do anything.”  The Lord spoke these simple words to me: “Go home and love your mother.  I thought I had misheard, or perhaps God didn’t quite understand my question.  I rallied, “No God, I’m giving my entire life and my future to you.  I’ll do whatever you want.  I’ll go to the farthest lands and endure the most challenging circumstances – BIG things, Lord.  Just tell me what to do!”  Yet the message was unchanging: “Go home and love your mother.”

Somewhat deflated but nonetheless obedient, I returned home.  It has taken me years to understand the power and import of that first calling.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was indeed my first calling into ministry.  I have come to understand that as Christians ours is a call to reconciliation.  The apostle Paul reminds us that after we are renewed in Christ, when the old has gone and the new has come, Jesus gives us the very “ministry of reconciliation”(2 cor 5:18).  And so it was with me.

God didn’t need me in sweeping programs and global movements.  He wanted me to focus on people.  And not strangers in exotic and faraway places but people right here at home, people quite close to me, people who need to understand reconciliation with God through the tangible reality of reconciliation with me.  More than anything else in the world, it was the relationship with my own mother that needed mending.  Before I could move on to any "bigger" reconciliation project, I would have reconcile things much closer to home.

In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity[1], we are tempted to think about ecumenism in terms of grandiose movements and official declarations between church leaders.  Yet I think God would guide us to something more personal, something closer to the beating heart of Young Life.  Not programs, but people.  Spend a moment to pause and reflect.  What does God's call mean for you, “Go home and love your mother, your father, your brother, your friend, your neighbor”? "Go home and love the Catholic, the Evangelical, the conservative, the liberal, the fundamentalist."  We are one body, called to love and reconciliation in Christ Jesus.  God is calling, each and every one of us, “home.”
This picture taken in Calcutta (Dec 1998), just before coming home.

[1]             I encourage you to explore the beautiful richness of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity by visiting the World Council of Churches webpage at:  Grounded in the prayerful question of the prophet Micah, “What does God require of us?”, the 2013 resource guide (or “brochure”) reminds us that Christian unity can never be separated from humility, kindness and a commitment to justice.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

"Come, Holy Spirit": NST 2013

“I am a person first.  I am a Christian second.  I am a Catholic third.”  Those were some of the opening words I shared on stage at NST 2013 before two hundred and fifty staff associates recently hired by the mission of Young Life.  For many, so I thought, having a Catholic on stage would be uncomfortable.  I figured that some might even object.  But I soon came to realize that the young people responding to God’s call to serve the lost and build the kingdom today resonated deeply with the vision of unity and mission, together, as one body in Christ.  I was profoundly touched.

Those words were not my own, truth be told.  I borrowed them from a dear friend of mine, a Catholic priest, who is in the midst of a painful trial.  His own commitment to unity and reconciliation had put him at odds with some who would rather dwell in the divisions of the past than to embrace a common future together.  Standing valiantly in the face of persecution, even at the hands of the church that he loves so dearly, he stated, “I am a person first.  I am a Christian second.  I am a Catholic priest third.”

What he was saying is that all of us as human beings are bound by a deep unity that begins in our personhood.  We are bound, each of us from every country and creed, by our common identity as children of God, image-bearers of the One who breathed life into our very souls.  This is the unity that allows us to see the face of God in a glorious diversity of humanity: in a Muslim who gave his coat to an impoverished stranger without counting the cost, in Young Life staff (Evangelical, mainline, Catholic or otherwise) who sacrifice their lives daily so that teenagers might know the love of God, in the kind gestures of the woman who served me breakfast this morning. 

What postmoderns can see, what postmoderns are yearning for, is a universal church, a church that is truly “catholic” (small ‘c’), that can lift up and glorify the face of Jesus Christ wherever He is found.  What postmoderns are waiting for is a love that transcends the divisions and heals the wounds of our past.  What postmoderns are beginning to see within Young Life and the Catholic Church is the power of the Holy Spirit to inspire a new Pentecost where people gather from every nation to speak, in their own cultures and languages, about the “wonderful things God has done”(Acts 2:11). 

As the liturgical season of Christmas draws to a close today, the united chorus of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” anticipates the next movement in God’s redemptive symphony – Resurrection, Renewal and the irresistible Revolution of Pentecost - "Come, Holy Spirit."

Come Holy Spirit,
Fill the hearts of your faithful
And kindle in them the fire of your love.

Send forth your Spirit
And they shall be created.
And You shall renew the face of the earth.

O, God,
Who by the light of the Holy Spirit,
Did instruct the hearts of the faithful,
Grant that by the same Holy Spirit
We may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations,
Through Christ Our Lord,

~ Catholic prayer drawn from Psalm 104 and the Gregorian Sacramentary of the ninth century.

Friday, January 4, 2013

By the Better Angels of Our Nature

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States in 1861, it marked the beginning of a painful series of divisions.  South Carolina seceded from the Union only six weeks later, to be followed by Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas.  Lincoln’s inaugural address was a somber yet eloquent overture to unity, one graced with the language of “the Almighty Ruler of nations” and “a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land.”[1] 

The last lines of this famous speech ring powerfully today. 

We are not enemies, but friends.
We must not be enemies.
Though passion may have strained
 it must not break our bonds of affection.

And in a final stirring crescendo, Lincoln rang the “mystic chords of memory” and heralded the swelling chorus of unity across the land. . .

 . . .when [we] are again touched by the better angels of our nature.

These poetic words ring with a truth that resonates in the deepest part of us.

By the better angels of our nature,

                                    we know that God designed us for relationship.

By the better angels of our nature,

                                    we know that unity is the distinctive mark of God’s reign.

By the better angels of our nature,

                                    we know that truth is more than a belief but a living commitment to love, forgiveness and humility.

By the better angels of our nature,

                                    we know that God is hidden in the stranger, the wanderer, the outsider.

As we ring in a new year, may we choose to live into understanding, reconciliation and unity befit the kingdom of God alive within us (Lk 17:21).  May we live, all of us as members of the one body of Christ, by the better angels of our nature.

[1]             Stephen Mansfield, Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle With Faith and What It Meant for America, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012, p.111.