Saturday, February 27, 2010

No More Shame

No More Shame
Rom. 10:8-13; Lk. 4:1-13[1]
The spiritual life is a pilgrimage for us all. Like me, you can probably look back on your journey and find beliefs, actions, and words that you’re probably embarrassed to admit. For me, it’s the way in which the good news was presented as a kind of magical formula. If you said the right words, it was like a spell that would miraculously make everything alright. And this approach was even backed up with Scripture! It was called “the Roman Road to Salvation.”[2] Basically, this was a pamphlet that took selected verses from Paul’s Letter to the Romans and came up with a summary of the “good news.” It starts with “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23) and goes through “the wages of sin is death” to this very passage from our NT lesson for today: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9-10)!
In my opinion, the result of this approach to the gospel was and is a kind of magical way of looking at faith and salvation. Innumerable “evangelists” repeat the appeal that “all you have to do is pray this simple prayer” –with the promise that you will (automatically?) have a new quality of life. One of the reasons why this approach to evangelism was so “successful” is that most of us tend to have some sense of guilt or shame about our lives. Most of us can point to something about our lives that just doesn’t quite measure up. Whether we fall just a little short or a lot short of what we would like to be, the shame we feel is a powerful motivator. In our despair over the prospect of ever finding the freedom to live life with joy, we turn to these spiritual illusionists in the hope that they have the power to save us.
Among the many problems I have with that whole approach to the gospel is that I don’t think Paul was that simplistic in his notions of God and faith and salvation. So what is there about “confessing ‘Jesus is Lord’” and “believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead” that translates for us into “salvation? Well, among other things, I think that the willingness to acknowledge Jesus or God or anyone besides “me” as sovereign in my soul is a very important first step in finding the freedom to live life with joy and purpose. It means acknowledging that I cannot save myself; it means admitting—at least to myself—that I need a Savior.
Of course, the biggest obstacle to that life-changing recognition is my big, fat, German-American ego! I think there is a lot of confusion out there about the “ego.” Is it the fundamental element in the human psyche, or the “inner child” that must be nurtured in order to thrive, or the root of all kinds of evil? It may be that the answer is more complicated than just one of the above. But when it comes to religion, it seems that the ego has always exercised an influence that can only be called “sinful.”
Thomas Merton calls the ego the “superficial external self” that is false and imaginary. He says that it deludes us into making it into an “idol” that demands all our devotion and all our energy.[3] In reality this “false self” that seeks to rule our lives cannot satisfy our longings because they are directed not to the Creator but to created things.[4] Rather than providing happiness, this selfish preoccupation only corrupts everything around us and leaves us alone with our selfish desires.[5]
This is a reality we all struggle with. We all know the voice that tells us that in order to be “good enough” we have to attain a certain level of success, or our kids have to turn out a certain way, or we have to look just so, or we have to have more and better stuff than our neighbors. We think we are “taking care” of ourselves when we obey these dictates of the false god within, but in reality we are simply locking ourselves in the prison of our own selfish desires. I think many people hate the prison of selfishness that keeps them from enjoying life, but they are afraid. One of the most effective tools that this false self uses to keep us imprisoned is shame. I don’t mean by that the embarrassment we all feel when we get caught doing something we wish we hadn’t done. Shame goes much deeper. It is the notion that somehow we don’t deserve to live, or we are unwanted, or we are unworthy of basic human dignity.
One of the tragic dimensions to this story is that we tend to respond to that voice of shame by trying to “prove it wrong.” But in that very act we are actually giving shame more power over our lives. Even when we turn to the spiritual gurus who promise to take all our shame away with a wave of their magic wand, we are still feeding the selfish idol within us that demands all our attention. Only by recognizing the illusions that bind us in the prison house of shame can we find the freedom to live the life God intends for us.[6]
Acknowledging Jesus as one through whom God brings the life and joy and love of God’s rule into our lives can be a step toward that freedom. Taking that step requires that we recognize that when we obsessively pursue our own selfish agenda,[7] we remain imprisoned in our shame. The way to begin the process of becoming free from that voice of shame is to acknowledge that there is one who loves us unconditionally, irrevocably, undeniably—throughout time and eternity. To this one we are always of infinite worth, we are always wanted, chosen, and loved. To this one we can turn and know that “No one who believes in him will be put to shame” (Rom. 10:11).

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/21/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Apparently, Rev. Jack Hyles, pastor of one of the first true “mega-churches” in Hammond, IN, at least claimed to have originated the “Roman Road” as a means of evangelizing people. Cf. Kathleen Boone, The Bible Tells Them So: The Discourse of Religious Fundamentalism, 101
[3] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 7, 21, 33-34
[4] Merton, New Seeds, 26: “Instead of worshipping God through His creation we are always trying to worship ourselves by means of creatures.”
[5] Merton, New Seeds, 21-22; cf. 34-35: “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.”
[6] Merton, New Seeds, 38: the “true inner self must be … rescued from confusion, from indistinction, from immersion in the common, the nondescript, the trivial, the sordid, the evanescent.” He continues, “To be ‘lost’ is to be left to the arbitrariness and pretenses of the contingent ego, the smoke-self that must inevitably vanish. To be ‘saved’ is to return to one’s inviolate and eternal reality and to live in God.”
[7] Merton, New Seeds, 47: “People who know nothing of God and whose lives are centered on themselves, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites.”

No More Fear

No More Fear
Exod 34:28-35; 2 Cor. 3:12-4:2[1]
Religion can be pretty scary to most people. Although for those of us who have spent our lives in a religion it may seem hard to believe, the fact is that the average person you meet on the street probably has some anxiety related to religion. What is it about religion that is so frightening? It’s true that many unscrupulous people throughout human history have resorted to religion as a means of instilling fear in order to control people. And yet, even in this day and time when we have nobody breathing down our necks and we have perfect freedom to believe what we choose, we are still plagued by fear when it comes to religion.
I’m not sure why that is entirely, but I think at least part of it has to do with the fact that we hear the gospel message of free salvation as a kind of bait-and-switch. I think deep down inside, most people believe that the real truth is that we have to earn our way into eternity. The gospel promises us new life by the free grace of God that comes to us freely as a gift and promises to set us free from the chains that bind us. But we think, whether we say it out loud or not, that it sounds good but we don’t really believe it. We still think we have to somehow earn the free gift of new life that God wants to give to all people. We still think that we somehow have to make an effort to qualify for the new world that God is in the process of creating for us all.
We hear the good news, and it strikes a chord deep inside, but we’re afraid. Where does the fear come from? Perhaps we’re afraid of getting too close to God. Or maybe we’re afraid of acknowledging that there really is nothing we can do for ourselves when it comes to our eternal destiny. Or it could be that we’re simply afraid to step over the boundaries that have been drawn by religion for fear that we might fall headlong into a bottomless chasm and forfeit our eternal soul!
Last week I talked about how the typical human response when God gets too close to us is one of fear and trembling. Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures today provides a great illustration of that fact. The people of Israel, newly liberated from their slavery in Egypt, come to the mountain of God to joyfully express their thanksgiving to their redeemer. But when they get close to the mountain, they turn to fear instead of joyful worship. Maybe it was the fire and smoke or the thunder or maybe even the notion of standing before a Holy and awe-filled God. But whatever it was, they begged Moses to talk with God so they wouldn’t have to. Then, when Moses did as they asked, and he came back down the mountain with his face freshly shining from his “conversations with God,” Aaron and the leaders of the people of Israel who ran away! So the Scriptures tell us that Moses put a veil on his face to convey the word of the Lord to them without them high-tailing it! [2]
Centuries later, St. Paul saw Moses’ veil as a symbol of all that prevents people from embracing the glory that God wants to instill in us all—God’s glory that fills the whole earth with God’s joy and love and life. [3] It is a glory that is overwhelming, and awe-inspiring, to be sure. It is a glory that will not leave us where we are, but instead convicts us, cleanses us, and commissions us all. Paul’s experience with religion taught him that we all instinctively respond to such things with fear. But Paul’s experience with God taught him that radical transformation leads to freedom.
In contrast to the people of Israel who were unable to bear the glory of God reflected on Moses’ face, Paul insists that the presence of the Spirit of God sets us free so that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18, RSV). In the freedom of the Spirit we can look full in the wonderful face of Jesus, and the life-giving presence of God reflected there transforms us. He describes the Christian life as an ongoing process of the glory of God becoming more and more a reality in and around us. [4] It is a process of becoming more and more like Christ in every way, and therefore more and more like God.
In contrast to all the ways in which religion has provoked fear in people throughout history, we now have the freedom to look full in the face of Christ and experience the glory of God, and through that experience to know the joy and love and life that the presence of the Spirit conveys to us. In contrast to all the ways in which religion has contributed to the death and destruction in our world, the presence of the Lord through the Spirit is a life-giving presence. It is a presence that transforms us all—in particular by setting us free from the fears that have plagued us. The presence of God in the Spirit blurs all the lines we like to use to restrict where we do our “coloring” and breaks down all the walls we throw up to keep people out of “our space” and bursts through all our boundaries. And what all that blurring and breaking down and bursting through does for us is to set us free to live in love and justice and peace of God’s kingdom.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/14/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] There is a significant amount of debate about Moses’ act of veiling his face in light of Paul’s interpretation in 2 Corinthians 3. The traditional understanding of this passage is that Paul believed Moses veiled his face so that the Israelites would not see that the glory of the Old Covenant was fading. Scott Hafemann advocated a view that Moses used the veil to render the glory on his face “inoperative” because in the situation of addressing Israelites whose hearts remained hardened, the glory would have consumed them. The contrast with the New Covenant is that now by the presence of the Spirit, our hearts are transformed by the experience of God’s glory in the face of Christ, so the veil is no longer needed. Cf. Scott Hafemann, “Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in 2 Corinthians,” Interpretation 52 (July, 1998): 246-257.
[3] Cf. the address by Tamara Grdelidze to the World Council of Churches, “God, in Your Grace, Transform the World,” Ecumenical Review 56 (July, 2004): 327-333. She raises the problem that Christians around the world would understand the theme for the assembly (her title) in different ways by discussing the Orthodox belief in “deification” of Christians and indeed all creation—a word admittedly problematic to many Western Christians, but in its meaning not far off from what we mean by concepts like “sanctification” and “new creation.”
[4] Cf. Grdelidze, “Transform the World,” 328, where she describes 2 Cor. 3:18 as a “dynamic process” that we can “step into” by practicing the faith (i.e. participating in the Lord’s Supper).

Friday, February 26, 2010

Highlights from "Living Faith" on Scripture:

"Jesus Christ as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death" (Barmen Declaration, 1934, article 1)

The Bible's "basic function is to deepen our love, knowledge and service of [Jesus] as our Savior and Lord" (The Study Catechism, 1998, question 57)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Merton on Hatred

In New Seeds of Contemplation, 73-74, Merton says that in contrast to self-hatred which is directed toward one's own unworthiness, "There is a proud and self-confident hate, strong and cruel, which enjoys the pleasure of hating, for it is directed outward to the unworthiness of another. ... Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy ... . It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit. From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God Who delivered Himself to the Cross and suffered the pathological cruelty of His own creatures out of pity for them. In conquering death He opened their eyes to the reality of a love which asks no questions about worthiness, a love which overcomes hatred and destroys death. But men have now come to reject this divine revelation of pardon, and they are consequently returning to the old war gods, ... . It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion. To serve the God of Love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one's neighbor."

Friday, February 12, 2010


Isa. 6:1-8; Lk. 5:1-11[1]

Over the last few weeks we’ve been talking about the season of Epiphany as a time to celebrate the good news that Jesus came to fulfill the dream and the hope of the ages. It is a time to rejoice in the Gospel message, that Jesus brings to us all God’s life, God’s freedom, God’s joy, God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s love.[2] It is a time to remind ourselves joyfully that God’s new world is in the process of “emerging” all around us, that God’s glory is even now filling the whole earth!

And yet I think we have to pause to recognize that joyful celebration is not the typical way in which we human beings respond to the presence of God working among us to reveal the light of his glory, transforming us all into the people we were created to be. I would say that Isaiah’s response in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today is more typical of the way we tend to respond to a powerful encounter with God—“Woe is me! I am lost!” (Isa. 6:5). We find this pattern reflected throughout the Scriptures—whenever anyone experiences the presence of God, their first response is one of fear and trembling![3]

Simon Peter demonstrates this common tendency with his typically bluntness when he responds to the experience of God in Jesus of Nazareth by saying, “Get away from me, Lord!” (Luke 5:8).[4] I think what Simon Peter shows us about ourselves is that we’re really not very comfortable with God getting that close to us. Some of you may object that in point of fact there have been many saints throughout the ages who have developed disciplined practices to cultivate a deeper experience of God’s presence. And yet, I would insist that when God really breaks into our world in the ways depicted in our Scripture lessons today, our typical reaction is one of fear and trembling.

The truth about us all is that we prefer to keep God at arm’s length. We like our religion good and shallow—we’re very happy with God as long as we don’t really have to undergo any significant change. We want to do all the “religious” things we’re supposed to do, as long as it doesn’t really affect the way we live our lives. We want a God who is domesticated” enough that we can stand before the presence without having to endure any kind of “fear and trembling.”[5] One one contemporary prophet says we’re much more comfortable fishing with Jesus of Nazareth who teaches us wisdom about life, and even occasionally points out our social injustices, than we are with the Risen Lord who “rocks the hell out of my dead and dying world” with yet another demonstration of God’s new creation.[6] As Paul Tillich so eloquently reminds us, whenever and wherever we truly experience the presence of God, we must expect the foundations to be shaken![7]

Our response to God is truly bewildering—we celebrate the good news of God’s presence transforming all things and all people, and yet we shrink back from having to undergo too much change ourselves. How do we explain this puzzle? I think part of the answer may lie in the fact that we tend to assume it’s all those other people out there who need to be changed by the presence of God. We celebrate the gospel of Epiphany that God is in the process of filling the whole earth and setting right everything that is broken in part because we tend to exclude ourselves from what needs to be changed. But the truth is that we are all a part of this broken world that needs so desperately to be transformed by God’s presence.

The good news of Epiphany is one that is double-edged. The glory of God that fills the whole earth with God’s freedom, and God’s joy, and God’s love is a glory that will not leave us where we are, but instead radically changes us all. It convicts us, it cleanses us, and it commissions us all, just as it did the prophet Isaiah and Simon Peter the fisherman. Yes, let’s celebrate the glory of God in the process of filling the whole earth even as we speak. But we must also remember that it is a glory that is so powerful that our experience of it will leave us trembling as we are being radically changed.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/7/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 124.

[3] Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith130-31. The classic statement on this is that the experience of God is a mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a mystery that is terrifying and fascinating at the same time; cf. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy ).

[4] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke 69: “Simon Peter gets a glimpse of the power and knowledge of Christ and falls before him in the profound grip of his own sinfulness.”

[5] Darrell Jodock, “Called to Change,” The Christian Century (January 25, 1995): 81. He adds, “A God this high and lofty cannot be domesticated into an American God or a capitalist God or a God who protects the ‘good guys’ from the bad. The holy God brings us up short, jars us into self-recognition, and beckons us to a radical reorientation.”

[6] Will Willimon, “Get Out Of Here,” The Christian Century (January 27, 2004): 21.

[7] Paul Tillich, “The Experience of the Holy,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 89 ; by contrast, he observes (p. 91) that people tend to want false prophets who will satisfy their longing “to be flattered in regard to their desires and virtues, their religious feeling and social activity, their will to power and utopian hopes, their knowledge and love, their family and race, their class and nation.”

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Here and Now

Here and Now
Luke 4:16-21[1]
I think there is a great deal of confusion out there about what Jesus was up to in his ministry. If you conducted a poll of people who identify themselves as Christians, I think a majority would say that Jesus came to die on the cross and rise from the grave so that “my” sins could be forgiven and so that “I” can spend eternity in heaven with God. It is a faith that is focused narrowly on the salvation of individuals; the overarching concern is “my” eternal destiny. But if you read the Gospels at all, you find that this idea of what Jesus was up to doesn’t really fit with what the Gospels say Jesus was up to. The Gospels are all on the same page in identifying the focus of Jesus’ “mission” as fulfilling the “Kingdom of God.”
In fact, the Gospels all pretty much at one time or other summarize Jesus’ “gospel” as “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” You probably know that already. What you may not know is that there was a great debate among NT scholars of the 20th century over just what Jesus’ meant when he said “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Scholars debated up one side and down the other whether Jesus meant to say that “it’s here” or “it’s near.”
You can understand the problem—if Jesus was saying “the Kingdom of God is near,” I would think the typical response would be something like, “Well that’s nice but wake me when it’s here.” And if Jesus was saying “the Kingdom of God is here,” you might be tempted to look at him as if he had lost his mind. As a matter of fact, many did! It’s still hard for us to believe that God’s Kingdom is real in our lives here and now.
Most of the people in the synagogue at Nazareth would understand what Jesus was talking about when he said to them, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). They knew what the reading from the prophet Isaiah was talking about—the restoration of justice, peace and freedom to the people of Israel, and through them to all the nations of the earth![2] It was the dream that had inspired them through good times and bad, through exile and return, through renewal and rebuilding against all odds. And while they were “still standing” despite the worst that history could throw at them, I doubt that many of the Jewish people would have thought that their life under the boot of the Roman Legions constituted the “restoration of justice, peace, and freedom”! And yet, Jesus’ message to the people of Nazareth was fairly straightforward. In effect, Jesus said that the dream they had been dreaming and hoping would come true for centuries is here; it’s real right now.
I think the people of Nazareth understood what he was saying—that’s why they tried to kill him! The Scripture Jesus was referring to, Isaiah 61, calls this restoration of life “the year of the Lord’s favor.” This was a well-known concept to the Jewish people of Jesus’ day—it was called the “Year of Jubilee.” It was a provision in the economic system of the Torah that was intended to be a recurring reminder of the dream of justice, peace and freedom that inspired them. Although there is no evidence they ever actually observed the Jubilee, they knew very well what it was—it was to be “the time in which God’s … compassionate justice is restored.”[3] It was to be a time of healing, of releasing those who had sold themselves into slavery, of returning debtors to their confiscated property. Every 50 years, the slate was to be wiped clean and everybody was to get a fresh start.
Jesus said to the people of Nazareth—with a straight face—that his reading of the scripture from Isa. 61 was the beginning of the fulfillment of that dream. God’s compassionate justice, God’s peace, God’s freedom was to be extended to all people everywhere. The “Year of Jubilee” was to be applied to everyone—the whole human race getting the chance to have the slate wiped clean and to have a fresh start. Jesus said that was what he had come to do—to fulfill the dream and the hope of restoring all things in the Kingdom of God.[4] And they found it all just too much to take.
I think that one of the reasons why the Christian faith shifted to hoping for the salvation of “my soul” is because we are like the people of Nazareth—we like the sound of his voice, and his words are pleasing, but what he preaches is just too good to be true. The restoration of all things is a pretty big thing to hope for! And to claim that it’s already going on here and now! It’s just too much for a body to take. I wonder if at least part of the problem is that we have trouble with the word “fulfilled.” We tend to think of “fulfillment” in terms of getting the whole thing right now. But if we think of “fulfillment” in terms of the first glimmer of the light of a new day, or a taste of what is to come, or the beginning of a process, then perhaps we can embrace the hope of Jesus’ words, “today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The Good News of Jesus’ ministry is that everything he did was a beginning in the process of restoring all things.[5] It’s the good news of Epiphany—that God’s life, God’s freedom, God’s joy, God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s love are here. [6] What Jesus came to do was nothing short bringing all that to all of us—right here and right now. What that means is that God’s new world is in the process of “emerging” all around us. The good news of Epiphany is that God’s glory—which consists of God’s “boundless freedom, exuberant joy, and inexhaustible love”—is even now filling the whole earth.[7] God’s glory is already shining among us here and now!

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/24/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 224, says that Isaiah 61 describes “the concrete form” that “the liberating work of God” would take. As Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 326 points out, this may begin with the restoration of the nation, but it extends to a “covenant relationship with the nations”
[3] Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 205; cf. also Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 325.
[4] Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 188: “God … [is] even now active to restore all that [has] fallen and heal all that [has] become broken.”
[5] Fred Craddock, Luke, 62, points out that Jesus’ first word in his adult ministry according to Luke’s Gospel is “today.”
[6] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 117-18: Jesus fulfills the “glory of God” in humanity by drawing them into the love he shares with the Creator and by imparting to them the freedom he enjoys.
[7] Moltmann, God in Creation, 124.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

A World Emerging

A World Emerging
Ps. 36; 1 Cor 12:1-11[1]
Sometimes being a Presbyterian who used to be a Baptist can be a pain in the neck. But there are also benefits to having worked in more than one Christian denomination. It does give me a unique perspective on institutional churches—all of them. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that churches of all stripes face similar problems. Denominations from the Methodists to the Baptists to the Presbyterians to the “Christians” all fight some of the same battles. This may come as a shock to you, because I’ve learned that whatever the brand of church, “we” are always the ones who do “it” best. It’s built into the very way in which we describe ourselves. For example, we Presbyterians recognize that other groups are quicker to respond to disasters. But the way we describe what we do is that we’re the ones who stay until the job is done. You get the implication—“we” do “it” best.
This tendency shows up in an interesting way in the fads that come and go—“contemporary” music, for example. The very language implies that it is better than the alternative—after all, nobody wants to be “outdated”! I find this to be true as well with the latest effort to find new ways to do church: the “emerging church.” You may or may not have heard about it. It’s been a movement for at least the last ten years. All over the world, there are groups that identify with the “Emerging Church.” Of course, actually defining what it means to be “emergent” is much harder. Its worship can be very “up to date” or it can be positively ancient. The message can range from straight Bible teaching to “pop psychology” and everything in between. About the only thing they all have in common seems to be their desire to change the structures in which church has operated. If you’re willing to be innovative enough to meet in a coffee shop, or to combine visual arts with the spoken word, or simply to color outside the lines of any and all institutional churches, you can be part of the emerging church.
What I find amusing about those who get so wrapped up in the “Emerging Church” is the fact that they call themselves “emerging.” From my perspective the church has been in the process of “emerging” for a lot longer than just the past ten years. Let me hasten to add that if the church is to be “reformed and always reforming according to the word of God,” there’s nothing inherently wrong with innovation. My problem with is the language they use. For these folks to call their particular innovation in how they do church “emerging” seems to me to imply that the rest of us have missed the boat. If we’re not “emerging” does that mean we’re “regressing”? Or maybe just “stuck in a rut”?
In my understanding of Scripture, I would have to say that the church has been in the process of “emerging” ever since the day of Pentecost! Through all the ebb and flow of history, the church has been constantly and consistently “emerging.” There may have been times when we did a better job of “bearing witness to God’s reign” than others, but to call one particular expression of the Christian faith “the Emerging Church” misses the message of Epiphany—that God is in the process of creating a world that has been “emerging” since the time of Creation, and the Church is a very important part of that new creation.[2]
Epiphany is the season when we celebrate God’s glory revealed to all people. It is the time of year when we celebrate joyfully the good news that the new life we have in Jesus the Christ through the Spirit of God is itself one of the signs of the new world that is emerging. We look forward to the time when God will dwell with all people in such a way as to enable them all to experience all the freedom and joy and love that define God’s very being.[3] Epiphany is the time when we pray fervently, “Let your glory be over all the earth.”
But we should not think that this is something different from God’s original work of creation. The Bible presents all of God’s work as one great, beautiful tapestry.[4] Beginning with the Creation, through all the mighty works of redemption, and continuing to the present day, God has been in the process of producing a wonderful world. As the Psalmist so eloquently puts it in our lesson for today, the skies, the mountains, and the oceans serve as tangible reminders that God’s work is beautiful beyond imagining and God’s determination to finish this beautiful world is unshakable. It is a work in progress—it is in a very real sense always “emerging.” From the very beginning of Creation, what has been “emerging” is a world where all people and all of nature itself are filled with God’s love, God’s freedom, God’s joy, and God’s life.[5]
In a very real sense, this is what the Spirit has been up to in the church—the gifts, the ministries, and the “workings” that the Spirit pours out on and through us (1 Cor. 12:1-11) are all signs of God’s new world that is always emerging all around us. Through all the ebb and flow of history, the church has been and will continue to be “emerging.” It cannot help but continue to emerge because it is a part of God’s new world that has been “emerging.” And it will continue to be “emerging” until the day when God’s glory—God’s love, God’s freedom, God’s joy, God’s very life—fills the whole earth.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/17/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX
[2] This theme runs throughout Scripture. See especially Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 299 where he talks about the importance to the second section of Isaiah of the idea of the “inbreaking of a new age of salvation.”
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 184; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 222.
[4] Cf. Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology II:240 where he summarizes the unity of creation and redemption in the Hebrew Scriptures by saying that in the second section of Isaiah “creation is the first of [Yahweh’s] miraculous historical acts and a remarkable witness to his will to save.” Cf. similarly, Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 14, where he says that only a God who is Creator and Lord of History “can be imagined powerful enough to bring about the new miraculous deliverance” promised by 2nd Isaiah.
[5] Cf. Moltmann, Trinity, 124, 178.