Posted: November 30, 2008 by Matt Horan in ReEmergent Church
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By Matt Horanceltic-cross-stained-glass

          Turns out that we’re right back where we started.
          The new vision cast by Jesus–the lame healed, the blind receiving sight, the meek inheriting the earth, the peacemakers being called the children of God, the hungry fed, the first being last, the last being first, kings becoming servants of all–was radical and exciting and very welcome to to those in the margins in the 1st century.  Even though it faced intense scrutiny, the message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus spread like wildfire.  Gamaliel of the Sanhedrin said in Acts 5: “If this is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them.  You may even find yourself fighting against God!”
          The challenge came because this good news was spreading to Africa, Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy.  It was the same story, but the hearers of the story did not all come to the story with the same questions.  As missionaries tried to make the connections between the needs of wide varieties of people who had different needs and experiences, and who even spoke different languages, the question arose: How much are we allowed to personalize this story?  How much are we allowed to emphasize some parts of the story over others?  How much of it is non-negotiable, and how much is flexible? 
          In the 1st century, there were letters being carted all over the place from the apostles to the budding communities of men, women, and children who were responding to the good news that the Kingdom of God was breaking into this world.  Once the good news arrived, it turns out that questions arose and different interpretations led to debates and struggles and accusations of “false teaching” and “heresy.”  The apostles’ letters tried to maintain, and in some instances were forced to create, some sense of orthodoxy around the good news.  The instinct to personalize found itself sometimes at odds with the orthodoxy set forth in the letters of Paul, James, John, Peter, Jude, Polycarp, Clement, Ignatius, and others.  Some of their letters were lost, but still others are preserved, and some even elevated in stature by their placement in the New Testament.  They give us a window into this ancient struggle, and it does not take long for us to see that it’s a struggle that we see going on today.
          The new communities looking for answers are today played by the Emergent Church movement (ECM).  The ECM challenges us to allow the gospel to become localized–to allow it to be expressed in whatever way most appropriately equips local communities to live out God’s call to service, generosity, hospitality, grace, hope, and love the best way that they can, in the way that allows them to be most effective in spreading these kingdom values.  They challenge us, appropriately, to allow a response to Jesus to emerge from the community, rather than have the “proper response” dictated by people that don’t even know them.
          The letter writers are today played by the mainline denominations.  They feel the pressure of a fluid orthodoxy.  Ever time that some cherished tenet of faith is challenged and changed/adjusted/abandoned, they instinctively ask, “What’s next?”  They feel the responsibility to hold the line, so that the historic Christian faith does not fade from a living movement to a mere period in history.  They challenge us, appropriately, to think about how Christianity bonds together all of the local communities around the world through it’s common practices and creeds.
          With these two sides in place, the tension is created between local, flexible expressions of faith on one side, and the historic, traditional expressions handed down to us over the centuries.  It is an important and necessary tension–one that was not really in place before the ECM began its conversations over the last decade or two.  Before that, the church was drifting towards preserving itself, and away from expressing itself in ways that might open its doors to people that don’t necessarily “fit the mold.”
          So who is right?  Should we scrap tradition and let each community do with Jesus whatever they think appropriate?  Should we all get in line and stop rocking the boat?  Of course, neither extreme is the best place for the church to be.  The ECM is drawing the mainline denominations into an uncomfortable, yet healthy place of asking the hard questions and challenging assumptions.  Further, most ECM authors and leaders are expressing great vaule for understanding and appreciating the historic traditions of the church, and for careful scholarship in the study of the Scriptures.
          A beautiful result emerges from Paul’s visit to Jerusalem when he goes to meet with the apostles of Jesus.  He doesn’t seem to write about them with much deference, but he is obedient to their perceived authority, and visited them in order to get on the same page.  They agree that he is called to share the good news with those who are not Jewish, while the apostles are called to share it with those who are.  They gave Paul “the right hand of fellowship,” and then he says, “They only asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.”
          We shouldn’t minimize the division that was caused over the differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians, but do you hear the result of this conversation?  The apostles heard of Paul’s ministry, recognized it’s fruit, and trusted that it was from God.  They offered friendship, accepting their differences while offering only one non-negotiable element–“to remember the poor.”
          If we rejoice in the fruit that communities are producing, if we offer each other the right hand of fellowship (maintaining our connection to one another), and if we remember the poor, then perhaps we can continue to seek the right place between these two sides, trusting that such a journey is well worth taking, especially if we can all take it together.


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