If the power of the resurrection isn’t in it, why are we wasting our time?
By Pastor Tim Phillips
It’s that time of year again when I find myself dancing around the meaning, the historicity, and the theological implications of Holy Week and Easter. Some of you have made yourselves clear about what you do – or don’t – believe about the stories the gospels tell of the final days of Jesus. You all have good reasons for what you think happened – or didn’t – and you have been helpful to me in the practice of my own understanding of resurrection.
Earlier this year, I was at a meeting of American Baptist pastors at which one of them said: “If the power of the resurrection isn’t in it (something, anything), why are we wasting our time?” I couldn’t think of anything else for the rest of the day. What if the test of how I spend my time has something to do with looking, in every situation, for the power that refuses to let death have the last word?
Maybe the worst thing about death in all its forms is that it robs us of the energy to imagine anything else. Addiction robs us of the energy to imagine healing. Violence robs us of the energy to imagine peace. Sickness robs us of the energy to imagine some kind of wholeness beyond a cure. The burdens of life rob us of energy for a sense of humor that can put things in perspective. Death robs us of the energy to imagine that anything has power great enough to outlive its hold on us.
I have been carrying German pastor/martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer around with me this Lenten season and I continue to be struck by his return, at the end of his life, to the Song of Songs; that erotic love poem in the Hebrew Bible that includes the line: “Love is as strong as death.” It’s one thing to dismiss, tame, or hyper-spiritualize the resurrection. But it’s another to hear the testimony of someone who is gripped by death in a concentration camp and still can claim that he knows the power of something that is stronger.
That’s the resurrection I want to learn something about. And I see it in recovery groups and in hospital rooms and at gravesides. I don’t want to waste my time on optimism if there is the power of audacious hope available to me. I don’t want to waste my time on deadly dogmatic debates if there is a power out there that can open my mind and free my heart. I don’t want to spend my time denying death. That is a colossal waste of energy. Death is real. Death appears in many forms and comes for all of us. Death can even be gracious. I’m not wasting my time denying death if resurrection power is already at work in every situation revealing love and beauty and grace.
The followers of Jesus didn’t waste their time hating the Romans for what they did to Jesus. They lived in the power of what happened next – they gathered together in a new spirit; they re-imagined the meaning of the “Kingdom of God;” they took a second and third and fourth look at the life of Jesus and they went to work building communities where his real presence could be experienced in compassion and love and justice. Why should they waste their time in fear and disappointment when resurrection power was already at work in what was happening next?
I’m with the author of Philippians in this Holy Week and Easter: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” so that, in the end, I’m not wasting my time on anything less than the resurrection power already at work in whatever happens next. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what the “what next” will be. Resurrection power is a mystery. But I don’t want to miss it, especially if the Song of Songs is right and love really is stronger than death.
I have no interest in wasting your time this Easter season. What I do hope is that somewhere, somehow you will be able to see resurrection power already at work in whatever happens next.
By Jim Segaar
Growing up in tiny, rural communities dominated by Calvinist flavors of Christianity, I had no exposure to priests in my early years. Our church had its own authority figures – elders and pastors – but priests seemed exotic and mysterious. I was well into my 20s before I met a priest, and it was decades later before I started to think what priestly liberty might mean.
My first priest encounter occurred when my ex-partner’s mother died and we rushed to Syracuse, New York for the funeral. Life was stress-filled in those days, and the trip pushed my stress level so high that I got my first and only prescription for Xanax from my doctor.
My ex’s family was Roman Catholic, and I had no idea what to expect. My anxiety spiked when I agreed to read scripture at the funeral. The family’s priest, a middle-aged guy in a black suit and clerical collar, gave me minimal instruction. He probably didn’t know that I’d never been in a Catholic church before. Looking back, I did a lot of things “wrong” during that reading. I walked in front of the altar without bowing. I failed to call Paul “saint.” I’m sure it was plain to everyone that I wasn’t a Catholic. The priest certainly picked up that message.
Near the end of the funeral it came time for Communion. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but just followed those around me as they walked up to the altar rail in single file. I carefully observed what the people in front of me did – holding out their cupped hands to receive a white disc of “bread” from the priest and reverently putting it in their mouth. When I reached the front of the line I held out my hands too, but the priest placed his own hand over the container of “bread” discs, and said “Bless you” in a tone that said “next please, let’s keep the line moving.” I was shocked and confused, but knew enough to walk back to my seat. The experience left me feeling like an outsider, an unwelcome presence, a violation to the sensibilities of all the “good people” around me. In time I came to understand that the priest was just doing his job – controlling access to the body of Christ, ensuring that only true believers of the Roman Catholic variety partook of the sacrament. He did what priests have done for eons – controlled access to the Divine.
A few years later I had another close encounter with a priest with a very different outcome. It occurred at a memorial service for a friend who died of AIDS. Bob was a devout, “pre-Vatican-Two” Catholic who attended mass only when it was said in Latin. He left instructions that a Rosary be said for his memorial service. Most of us, his friends, had no idea what that might entail, but we gathered at his favorite Catholic church in San Francisco nonetheless to honor him.
When the priest came into the side chapel where we were gathered he was wearing street clothes, with another bunch of clothing over his arm. “Bob was a traditional one,” he joked as he gathered us together. “I know many of you cared deeply for Bob, but that you also have no idea what a Rosary is.” He continued to explain the entire ritual, beginning with each item of ceremonial clothing he donned and continuing on into what the Rosary itself included and what each part of it meant. He then proceeded to say the Rosary. What could have been an excruciating 45 minutes for a bunch of non-Catholics became a cherished remembrance. This priest did not block access to the Divine; he invited us in and enabled us to be included.
The Baptist concept of Priestly Liberty speaks to both of these encounters. First, no one can control our access to God, to the Sacred, the Holy. Priests do not stand between Baptists and Communion, determining who may participate and who may not. At Seattle First Baptist Church all are welcome to partake and we serve each other the bread and the cup as we pass the plates around. It’s not just a matter of convenience or expedience; it is a ritual in ministering to each other.
And with that freedom comes responsibility. We all must seek out the Divine, and help each other find our way to what is Holy. We all are empowered to minister to each other. Yes, our pastors who this professionally, but each of us has the right and the duty to commune with the Sacred, and to invite others into God’s presence.
The world needs priests. Even Baptists need priests. Not to control access to God, but to enable it. Each of us has a part to play in communing with the Divine.
By Pastor Patricia Hunter
Scriptural liberty is generally understood to mean, every person has the right and the responsibility of reading and interpreting scripture. As a young child, I yearned to know what was in the Bible. Instead of sleeping some nights, I would take a flashlight to bed and read the Bible under the covers. Somehow I knew if I read the scriptures, I would know more about God and what God wanted for my life. I had the right, even as a child, to read scripture and innocently try to discern God’s word.
I grew up in a Black evangelical Baptist church where every true believer was expected to know the Bible and bring their Bible to church with them. Memorizing scripture was routine along with knowing all the stories in the gospels and most of the stories in the Hebrew Bible. The Bible was seen as our most important tool for better living.
Having a child’s knowledge of scripture is acceptable when one is a child, but as we mature in our faith, it is important to use scholarly biblical tools to research the scriptures and get a more complete understanding. That is where the responsibility of interpreting God’s word becomes real. It is not enough just to open the “book” and then tell others what to think and do. There are Hebrew and Greek language resources, scholarly research, and commentaries, that can help us understand the historical and literary context, and purpose of biblical texts.
Progressive Christians have frequently rebelled against evangelical or conservative Christians’ interpretation of scripture. Often those traditional interpretations have not allowed for a fresh breath of God’s revelation through the sacred texts. While we may rebel against an interpretation not of our liking, we must be willing to engage the scriptures and interpret the texts for ourselves.
I, along with my progressive sisters and brothers, cringe when we hear someone say they believe every word of the Bible. No one follows every word of the Bible. If scores of people were following every jot and tittle of holy scripture, then bacon wouldn’t be nearly as popular as it is today and shrimp cocktail would rarely be on a menu.
Even my ancestors knew some biblical texts were suspect in their literal interpretation. My ancestors questioned how a loving God who freed God’s chosen people when enslaved in Egypt in Hebrew scriptures could condone chattel slavery when scriptures like Titus 2:9 slaves be obedient to your masters were quoted to them. Even biblical novices who were legally not allowed to learn to read, knew enough to engage in a hermeneutic of suspicion when it came to biblical interpretation.
I was first challenged to interpret scripture for myself while struggling with my call to ministry. Church leaders against women in ministry would quote me, I Corinthians 14:34, women are to be silent in the church. But I knew God was tugging at my heartstrings and leading me to fulltime Christian service. I trusted God’s voice more than I trusted narrow-minded church leaders. As a young adult I knew the Bible could no longer be my final authority on all things. I would have to interpret biblical writings in light of scholarly research and God’s contemporary revelation.
We may not agree with everything in scripture, but it is important to know what is there and why we believe as we do. Soul damage has been done to many by the misuse and abuse of scripture. Yet, life, hope, grace, forgiveness, belonging, and salvation, have also come from knowing and trusting the scriptures.
By Bob Sittig
When I tried to explain Baptist Freedoms to a newcomer to our church, the question was asked of me, “So you can believe anything you want?” I then realized that a more in depth understanding, and certainly a better way of expressing these concepts was necessary to avoid the “school’s out” reaction to Baptist Liberties. Other authors have taken on the task of expanding several of the Baptist Freedoms during this Lenten season on this blog and I hope that those postings, as well as this one, help to clear up some misconceptions about those liberties that may be held.
Roger Williams, founder of the first Baptist Church in America in 1638, believed strongly in the separation of church and state. The basic concept underlying this belief was that no entity should come between an individual and his or her relationship with God. So it’s not hard to understand where the root of most all of the Baptist Liberties originates from. Church Liberty, or Church Autonomy, is a natural extension of the concepts of Religious Liberty, Soul Liberty, Scriptural Liberty and Priestly Liberty, all of which will be expanded in other postings to this blog.
An expanded definition of Church Liberty states:
“The local church is an independent body accountable to the Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church. All human authority resides within the local church itself. Thus the church is autonomous, or self-governing. No religious hierarchy outside the local church may dictate a church’s beliefs or practices. Autonomy does not mean isolation. A Baptist church may fellowship with other churches around mutual interests and in an associational tie, but a Baptist church cannot be a member of another body.”
The word “church” is often used to refer to an entire practice or denomination, such as “the Catholic Church” or the “the Presbyterian Church” meaning the entire body. Because of Baptist church autonomy there is no “Baptist Church” in the entire organizational sense of the word.
In practical terms, autonomy means that each Baptist church gets to select its pastoral leaders, determine its worship practices, decide on financial matters, and direct church related affairs without outside control or supervision. Baptist denominational organizations such as associations of churches and national conventions have no authority over an individual Baptist church.
Perhaps now you may have a little more in-depth understanding of the concept of Church Liberty, but in the words of Dr. Phil “How’s that working for you?” If each church is the highest authority, how can a national Baptist convention preclude women or gay pastors in the pulpit? How can one church or group of churches dis-fellowship another church? The greatest threat to Baptist church autonomy does not come from any national or local government, it comes from the Baptist churches themselves. When individuals or churches or associations or governments or conventions try to prescribe how a local church should conduct itself, the system fails.
Research on the internet, which is often questionable, shows that there are more than forty distinct Baptist conventions or groups active in the United States today. I think it’s fair to assume that several of these organizations were formed by splitting off from another because of some philosophical difference. It seems to me that we humans have a great deal of difficulty with the “live and let live” concept. We have seen doctrinal digging-in in our government as well as in religious affairs. Certainly the current political campaigns demonstrate this human failing clearly. Is it ego or is it fear? The fear of living side by side with those who are different from us can be a powerful force of separation. Our tribal instincts are strong and often preclude us from developing relationships that could be richly rewarding.
During this Lenten season I hope the concept of Church Liberty awakens a tolerance for others who may not practice their faith exactly as we do. Perhaps the words of Herschel H. Hobbs in his book “The Baptist Faith and Message” offer some valuable advice. “To many Baptists, autonomy has become anarchy. This is true when either a church or an individual Baptist says, ‘I can do as I please!’ Both should do as Christ pleases or wills.”
This blog includes thoughts from various contributors at Seattle First Baptist