On the Sovereignty of Nations…and the Kingdom of God

On the Sovereignty of Nations…and the Kingdom of God

When Margaret Fell carried the message from Friends to the new King, Charles II in 1660, declaring Friends would neither be involved in treason nor be led, as far as they knew, by the eternal Spirit of Christ to engage in war, a new chapter in history was begun. In contrast to the divine right of kings based on a misreading of Romans 13:1-7, Friends were exercising their faith in the way of Christ as led by the Spirit—refusing to go along with policies against their convictions, but also promising not to be disloyal in their dealings with magistrates. In doing so, they drew a distinction between the reign of Christ and worldly reigns of monarchs and regents, while also seeking to negotiate differences between the two. After all, the two paragraphs on either side of Romans 13:1-7 call for loving enemies and living peaceably with all, that one’s testimony to the way of Christ might be compelling.    

Today a new distinction needs to be made. The divine right of kings and queens is not as prevalent a notion, but non-violent peace work faces other obstacles. A key underlying cause of war is a false view of the “sovereignty of nations” in contrast to a genuine understanding of theKingdomofGod. The sovereignty of nations goes unchallenged as a nearly sacred modern doctrine, but it is a false one. God alone is sovereign, and those who aspire to be followers of Jesus can put no other gods before him. Worse, in the name of such a doctrine atrocities are committed, even by otherwise Christian leaders; the question is why.

To demonstrate the falsity of the sovereignty-of-nations idea, consider what it would be like if our state governments operated the way national governments did. Suppose that in response toOregonreal estate being bought up by incoming Californians, theOregonstate legislature decided upon a terrorist campaign designed to keep the housing market more affordable for the locals. Or, imagine theMichiganlegislature declaring war onOhiobecause Ohioans were taking up more than their fair share of the auto industry’s job market.

These scenarios sound absolutely absurd when thought about in terms of state borders (although when it comes to football, of course, all bets are off)! And yet, if the offending groups were international, a national government might not equally be taken back by such considerations. At least one culprit is a false conception of the sovereignty of the national state. Of course, it is also problematic for nations or individuals to act in violence against other nations, so the prevention of such is what such a doctrine is designed to avert; maintaining “sovereignty” allows a group or nation to resist being imposed upon by others. Followers of Jesus, however, live by a different standard!

To put it into further perspective, it has not always been the case that national disputes within western governments have been settled peaceably. For instance, it wasn’t until the 1660s that the British system of government (on which the American is largely based) allowed for a “loyal opposition” instead of a violent one. Before Cromwell, the only way to effect a change of government was to oppose the current leadership. Any opposition, taken to its extreme expression, would have ended in an attempt to kill the ruler. Thus opposition jailed, tortured, or executed…simply as a precautionary measure.

However, someone stood up and said things don’t have to be this way. Having sought to influence Oliver Cromwell for many years, in bringing a corporate statement to King Charles II, claiming that they believed the Spirit of Christ would never lead them to take up violence against others, early Friends sought an alternative to the norm. They also suffered violence and were persecuted as a result of laws devised to counter their expansion without resorting to force or retaliation over the next three decades, leading to the establishment of religious toleration in England. This, and other factors, eventually contributed to the emergence of modern democracy and eventually systems of government which incorporate dissent into the standard process. In the meanwhile, intramural political violence has become obsolete.

I wonder what it would take for the same shift to occur globally. Currently, nation-states at times behave on the level of gangsters and ruffians, “robbing the bank” if the repayment of debts becomes too onerous, or following up on threats, as though the issuing of ultimatums justifies their being acted upon. Unfortunately, Christians have sometimes retarded the advance of peace, either due to provincial loyalties or the failure to embrace the way of Christ wholeheartedly. But the Scriptures teach that the Kingdom of God is never identical to human empires, and this distinction is needed now, in our postmodern age, as never before. Implications are as follows:

1.) All people are beloved of God, not just one’s own. While many rejoice at the amazing success of American and allied troops, we still abhor killing done in our names. We detest the killing of innocent civilians, but we also grieve for the killing of military victims… and even victimizers. To consider one’s enemy through the eyes of Christ rehumanizes the faces of God’s beloved children, who happen to be “opponents” during a particular skirmish. Within God’s Kingdom there is no division of people along national or any other sort of lines.

2.) Responsibility for one’s own extends beyond the clan. To be willing to die for a cause is often easier than to stand by passively, allowing others to suffer victimization. Living by principle is easier when it only affects us. However, leaders who would, themselves, object conscientiously to war, find themselves in a quandary when charged with the custody of others. They feel responsible to protect “their own,” and they are. However, if one’s “own” may be enlarged to embrace all members of the human family, not just one’s own clan, new possibilities for peace might surface. The Samaritan, after all, is our neighbor.

3.) Nations have no real sovereignty; only theKingdomofGodis eternal. Might does not make right, and capital offenses are not justified if done in the name of the state. There is a higher Law, an eternal Principle, whereby the deeds of this life will be judged. Institutions? They will fade away. Governments? They will be dissolved in the passing of time. But one kingdom will eternally abide: that City of God, which has St. Augustine describes as having love as its law, truth as its king, and eternity as its measure.

The sovereignty of nations is ultimately an idolatrous notion. It also bears the additional liability of being false. There is one God over all, whose power is coined in terms of truth, love, and peace. These are values desperately needed for a new world order. TheKingdomofGodis advancing in small, unattended ways, and every act of faithfulness and love furthers the way of the Kingdom. That is the true battle of the ages, and this is the battle into which Jesus calls each of us to enlist. Over the centuries, Christians have been fierce opponents on the battlefield; but if we really took the teachings of Christ to heart, we may make even better peacemakers. Humans are not the enemy; that which is against the way of Christ, whether at home or abroad, is the adversary—overcome not by evil, but by good.

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On Peace Prayers and War Prayers

On Peace Prayers and War Prayers

At our Friends Church in Newberg, we include in our worship services once a month a “Peace Prayer.” During this time an invited member of the congregation shares a particular concern about a situation in the world, or reads a text or Scripture passage worth considering, or both. He or she then leads us in a prayer for peace around the world. In doing so, a modest gathering of believers in the Pacific Northwest feels it has a ministry in touching the world. Such concerns also lend themselves to supporting or joining Christian Peacemakers Teams, building houses for people in Mexico, making gift boxes to send to needy children around the world and gift packs to give to the needy on street corners. As we pray for peace, sometimes God answers those prayers by yoking us to his service in the world, extending the peace and love of his reign in our local communities and beyond. In that sense, prayer also forms our consciences, and that may be one of its greatest impacts.

Loving families and friends also feel the urgency of praying for their loved ones who are fighting for peace in military deployment, and prayers for their protection and success are certainly appropriate within communities of faith. There are few places where God’s help and redemptive presence are needed more intensely than in war zones, although praying for alternatives to violence might be the most important preemptive work we can do. We also need to be supportive of families whose loved ones are involved in military service, or who have sacrificed so much of themselves on behalf of noble causes and motivations, leading to suffering and anguish in long-term ways. On this note, pacifists have not always been as empathic and redemptive as they could be—diminishing the impact of their overall testimony to God’s love and peace.

In a real way, prayers for peace and prayers for protection go hand in hand, although sometimes we fail to be aware of the consequences of prayers answered. Thus, a worthy question, especially in the years following Desert Storm (which must be considered the most successful war in human history in terms of combatant casualties inflicted to those sustained—over 1,000:1) and the second set of Gulf Wars is: “Do we really want God to answer our prayers for victory?” Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” poses this query with troubling lucidity.

Central to this essay was the long war prayer, in which the minister of the local church petitioned the “Father and Protector of our land and flag”—with such passionate pleading and beautiful language, the like of which had never been recalled—to grant swift victory to our troops. At the close of the prayer, however, a mysterious stranger ascended the podium with a message from the Most High. The message was a request for clarification from God as to whether people really wished the prayer to be answered. “If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware!” he declared, “lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time.” Thus, the messenger from the Throne translated the other side of that prayer for the congregation to consider:

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle—be Thou near them! With them—in spirit—we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sunflames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it—for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

After a pause, the messenger declared, “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

As bothersome as this flip-side of the “War Prayer” is, it reminds us that the perspective of either side in battle is only half the picture. Glorious causes and justified onslaughts often obscure the horrific realities of war. Any veteran of front-line warfare can attest to that! The very enterprise of warfare is to inflict enough suffering and carnage to force the other side into humbled submission. We may rejoice at the astounding victories of “smart-technology” battles and brilliant strategies, but at the same time we must grieve the horrible loss of human life inflicted by our weapons as well as those of our adversaries. The query for followers of Jesus is whether noble ends can ever justify violent means. This question was raised for me as a teenager in a very personal way.

“How much evil would you be willing to commit in the name of good?” I can still hear that question ringing in my ears as I listened to Professor L.A. King deliver the morning message that eventful Sunday at Canton First Friends Church. I was about to turn eighteen, and while the Viet Nam war was coming to a close, I knew I would soon have to register for the draft at the local post office.

As I pondered the implications of that question, my options became much clearer. I was not so much bothered about the prospect of dying for my country, or for any great cause. I was seventeen! Risk was second nature; I was an athlete. What bothered me was the idea of taking, and training to take, the life of another human being. How could I witness to Christ’s sacrificial love while at the same time seeking to kill someone for whom Christ died? Impossible. To allow for any harmful or lethal intentionality was to betray the way of my Lord, I felt. The only option left for me was to object to involvement in war as a matter of Christian conscience; so, within a month I registered as such at the local Post Office.

Back then it was relatively easy to object to war. The Viet Nam conflict was an unpopular one, and peace protests enjoyed their “golden age” of influence. But following the collapse of the Cold War and with declared wars on terrorism, it becomes more cumbersome to be proper stewards of a peace testimony today. Indeed, the 9-11 attacks evoke the need for survival and safety within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, making such ethereal concerns for principle and integrity seem irrelevant. When war is popular, advocacy for peace takes a beating.

On the other hand, these may be among the most pressing of times in which a witness for peaceful means to peaceful ends is needed. There is no better time to inform the conscience of a nation than when there is still time to avert future armed engagements. The time to talk and to educate about peace is always present, whether during a conflict or before a conflict emerges. Most instructive is the fact that the ways an individual or nation deals with a present conflict will inevitably plant the seeds for future relationships—either strained or harmonious—whence future conflicts will either be precipitated or averted.

So how do we help form and reform the conscience of the nation? It begins with first being sensitized personally to Christ’s will for his would-be followers. Following Jesus can be a real problem. It may not “work” in pragmatic terms. It may even get us killed! Certainly, it will bring scorn from the world, and perhaps even from other Christians. Mark Twain concludes his essay saying, “It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.” However, we do not follow the way of Jesus because we hope it will be beneficial to us or assume it to be popular; we follow it because we believe it is the way of Truth.

Forming and reforming the conscience of the nation is far different from simply making a staged demonstration or protest. It begins with first being sensitized to Christ’s will ourselves. Then, as we pray, it proceeds by asking—and helping others to ask—better questions, whence better answers come.

On Peaceable Ends and Peaceable Means

Part VI: Peace and Social Concerns

“I told them [the Commonwealth Commissioners] I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took way the occasion of all wars and I knew from whence all wars did rise, from the lust, according to James’s doctrine. Still they courted me to accept their offer…but I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strifes were.”

George Fox (1651)

“We are a people that follow after those things that make for peace, love and unity; it is our desire that others’ feet may walk in the same, and do deny and bear our testimony against all strife, and wars, and contentions that come from the lusts that war in the members, that war in the soul, which we wait for, and watch for in all people, and love and desire the good of all…. Treason, treachery, and false dealing we do utterly deny; false dealing, surmising, or plotting against any creature upon the face of the earth, and speak the truth in plainness and singleness of heart.”

The “testimony” of Friends to King Charles II (1660)

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives note in thoughts to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, nor can own its life… I have found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.”

James Nayler’s last words

“A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it.”

William Penn, 1693

“From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? “

James 4:1

On Peaceable Ends and Peaceable Means

Most Christians are committed to peace, but the question is whether they are willing to follow Jesus in using peaceable means to peaceable ends. All too easily, well-meaning deny the teachings and way of their Lord when confronting evil in the world, yet to do so amounts to a denial of Jesus and his teachings. When George Fox was invited to join Cromwell’s army as an officer and lead assaults against the King’s forces in 1651, he responded: “I told them I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took way the occasion of all wars and I knew from whence all wars did rise, from the lust, according to James’s doctrine.” The compromise of moral principle would have been advantageous to this young man, but his first loyalty was clearly to the way of Christ.

This was the first time George Fox was sent to prison, and his refusal to fight cost him six more months in jail. But the imprisonment of the soul is far more enslaving than the jailing of the individual. If asked whether he like to get out of jail (hinging upon being willing to be a participant in warfare), the question Fox asked himself is whether the example of Jesus and the life lived in submission to the way of the Holy Spirit should be followed. When you put it that way, considering what it means to be first and foremost a follower of Jesus, one’s options narrow. The way becomes clear, even if it bears a cost.

Asking better questions leads to better answers. A troublesome fact about the world Christian movement is that since the 4th century C.E., Christians have been divided on matters of war and peace. In fact, in the two World Wars of the 20th century, more Christians were killed by Christians than the total number of humans that have been killed in all the wars over the rest of human history combined. This is a troubling fact, to say the least! It is also a major contributor, from what I am told, to the rejection of Christianity by non-Christians.

One wonders how much state-sponsored violence has contributed to Europe’s becoming largely a post-Christian society. What I do know is that upon discussing Christianity with several people in Britain and Europe, thoughtful people have shared with me something of the same sentiment: “I don’t believe I could be a Christian—I don’t believe in killing or war.” This is extremely ironic, especially in the light of Jesus’ clear teachings on peaceable means to peaceable ends. Note that conscientious people sometimes reject Christianity because it is not Christ-like enough; put otherwise, “Christians” have not done well enough at following Jesus.

So how did things come to be this way, and of the various approaches to war adopted by Christians, which approach is closest to the way of Jesus? Consider these positions and the historical reasons for three basic Christian approaches to matters of violence and nonviolence:

1.) When the emperor Constantine became a Christian in 312, he marched his army through the river and said that now his was a “Christian” army, his soldiers having been thusly baptized. Until that time Christians had pervasively objected to military service on the grounds that it was not “lawful” for a follower of Christ to fight. After the Christianization of the empire, though, Christians were conscripted into service, and within a century the “Just War” doctrine was developed to help define when war was “justifiable” as well as when it was not. While many Christians and non-Christians today hold to some form of this position, such was not the way of Jesus. Although Just-War criteria may limit some violence that is done, Jesus did not teach his followers to calculate the cost of violence or even its legitimation. He taught us to calculate the cost of following him with total abandon.

2.) During the middle ages, the Kingdom of Christ was associated with geographical and political measures, despite Jesus’ clear teachings on its spiritual character. Thus, civilized Europe was called “Christendom,” and when threatened by invading Goths and such challenges as the expanding Islamic movement, popes and monarchs alike rallied the support of their subjects by applying the “Holy War” texts of the Old Testament to their current political situations. As many as nine major Crusades were launched from 1095 to 1272, and many parts of Europe are still paying the cost for violent means to peaceable ends. While many Islamic fundamentalists hold to some aspects of a Holy War position, fewer Christians do today. Even so, this is not the way of Jesus, either. The “war” into which he enlisted his followers is one which can only be waged effectively with spiritual means and love.

3.) During the Reformation (1517 and following), the authority of the Bible was recovered. This divided Christianity between those who held the Catholic Church to be authoritative and those who embraced the Scriptures as finally authoritative. During this era and the next two centuries, three groups came to believe that the early Christians were correct in their reading of the Scriptures and following the way of Christ. The Mennonites, the Quakers and the Brethren all came to the same conclusion during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively. To say “yes” to Jesus is to say “no” to violence of any sort. They advocated only nonviolent means to peaceable ends and came to be called the “Historic Peace Churches.” A growing number of Christians are rediscovering the biblical basis for this position today. In the 1980’s no fewer than eleven major parts of the Christian movement in America alone produced statements citing their commitment to peace on the basis of biblical grounds. This is a first in western history. A key reason for this unprecedented movement within Christian history is that weapons of mass destruction cannot be fitted into Just-War limitations of conflict.

Ironically, present day divisions on the topics of war and peace among Christians tend to revolve around these developments. Of these three positions, however, only one of them embraces as its central concern following the teachings of Jesus: the latter. Nowhere do Jesus or the Apostles ever encourage handling neighborly disputes by launching a holy war or by effecting justice with a sword. Instead, Jesus admonishes his followers to put away the sword and to respond lovingly to ill treatment. This fact is absolutely scandalous! It raises pressing questions about how to respond to injustice in the world as well as what it means to be a follower of Jesus. While Holy-War theologies and Just-War theories give lip service to the Bible, only the non-violent position is based on following the direct commands of Jesus. The others may make use of scriptural examples or citations here and there, but finally, they are biblically inadequate.

So what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? Can one really profess to be his follower while ignoring one of his central ethical teachings? If so, which of his other major teachings—or even of the Ten Commandments—may simply be disregarded, or rationalized away? If one takes the teaching and example of Jesus seriously, then nonviolent peacemaking cannot be slighted as just another denominational “distinctive.” It must be seen as basic to the following of the Jesus revealed in Holy Scripture.

I once heard John Howard Yoder object to the label “Historic Peace Churches” (as a reference to the Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren) within a consultation of interdenominational leaders because it implied the converse was the norm. His suggestion was to consider those using peaceful means to peaceful ends “The Faithful Church” and to affix the rest—even if it is the majority for a while—with a more aptly named title, such as “Violent Christians,” or “The Lapsed Churches.” He may have overstated the concern a bit, but the point was well-made, and all members of the consultation understood it, as smiles and nodding heads suggested. Why is it that those who aspire to follow Jesus centrally, on his central ethical teachings, should be a minority rather than the majority of Christians? Like the first Christians, these former three groups have asked not, “What is expedient?” or “When is killing justified?” but “What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ?” Not a bad question!

As a Quaker was debating with a Christian officer regarding the merits of participating in the Revolutionary War, the officer finally conceded that he would be happy to follow Jesus regarding peaceable means to peaceable ends if others would lay down their arms and refuse to be a threat to others. At this point, the Quaker said: “I see that you would be among the last to follow Christ; I hope to be among the first.” If we really take Jesus seriously—his teachings and his example—a commitment to nonviolent action becomes compelling for authentic followers of Jesus across denominations and various parts of the Body of Christ. The bulk of the Christian movement moved away from a largely pacifist stance in the day of Constantine; perhaps it might swing back to a more faithful stance at some day in the future. And, why not start that shift in direction today? Perhaps authentic “friends of Jesus” can help that happen for the whole Christian movement and beyond. If so, the world would be better for it, and the Kingdom of God would indeed have advanced.

On Letting Our Lives Preach

On Letting Our Lives Preach

If the sacramental principle involves the means by which God’s spiritual realities—his love, presence, and truth—are conveyed physically, the Bible has an answer that Friends indeed affirm. When in the fullness of time God spoke to humanity in world-changing ways, he sent a person, his Son Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh—in whom the glory of God is encountered and revealed. This involved an incarnational sacramentality, and if that is how God worked in the Christ Events, perhaps that is also how God is at work in the here and now. After all, the dynamic lives of persons have greater capacity to convey God’s messages to the world than do inanimate objects or symbols, so the changed and changing life of the believer has greater sacramental potency than inanimate forms or objects. Because God works here and now through persons, as his hands and feet in the world, the sacramental question is whether we are willing to become sacramental extensions of God’s redemptive and revelational workings in the world. It involves letting our lives preach.

George Fox exhorted Friends of his day with these words, and they certainly speak to members of every generation: “and this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” As I think about the meaning of this passage, the incarnational and sacramental question is this: “how well we do as followers of Jesus in living into the baptism of Jesus and the drinking of his cup?”

Baptism with Fire and the Holy Spirit

When it comes to the baptism of Jesus, the operative question involves how to be baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit. Here, the water baptism of John is completely misunderstood by many well-meaning Christians over the centuries. What John the Baptist was really doing was not instituting a means of ritual cleansing; he was challenging such within Judaism, calling for the “real thing”—genuine repentance from sin and a washing off of old ways of living in favor of living in ways pleasing to God. He thus challenged moral and religious compromises of leaders and called people to higher ethical standards, making a public statement (washing in non-cultic, natural settings) to declare judgment against practices involving outward means of ritual cleansing while unrepentant ethically. So, to infer John was setting up an external ritual requirement of water-cleansing completely misunderstands the water baptism of John. John challenged ritual means of purification rather than bolstering them—of which the Jewish religion of his day had many. Jesus’ followers also were criticized for not performing the “correct” washings of hands and other legalistic approaches to more central Jewish values.

Following John, Jesus took that radical move even further, calling for inward purification by the Holy Spirit and with fire as the essential baptism. In Jesus’ teaching, empowering baptism takes place by being filled with the Holy Spirit—so that rivers of living (and purifying) water arise from within, and being immersed in the Holy Spirit—so that one abides in the Spirit in the entirety of one’s life. Sometimes water and spiritual baptism were associated together in the New Testament era, but sometimes they did not overlap, as was the case in Acts 8 and 18-19. If people had been immersed in water but had not received the Holy Spirit, were they really baptized? This caused early Christians to distinguish outward baptism from inward baptism, always prioritizing the baptism of the Spirit as the “real thing” in believers’ lives.

Of course, this creates another problem: how does one recognize baptism in the Holy Spirit and with fire? Is it manifested in particular spiritual gifts over others, or by charismatic empowerment over more modest Christian expressions? Here, Paul too poses an incarnational answer. The greatest measure of whether one is filled with the Spirit is not a particular gift or two; rather, it involves demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Against such there can be no objection! So how will Jesus’ true followers be recognized, by their religious trappings? No; they will be recognized by their love (Jn. 13:35)—itself, an incarnational measure.

So, how do we receive the baptism of Jesus, with fire and the Holy Spirit? By faith. Just as the gift of salvation comes by grace received through faith, so the gift of sanctification comes as a gift of grace, likewise received through faith and lived out, with divine assistance, in faithfulness. Therefore, the place where spiritual baptism occurs may relate less to rivers, pools, sprinklings, or fonts and more to the daily devotional practice of receiving the spiritual empowerment of God’s grace and availing oneself again and again to the transformative work of God’s Spirit in our lives. Like the manna in the wilderness, requiring a daily gathering lest it spoil or become stale, so Jesus as the Bread of Life must be fed upon daily if the carriage and being of our lives are going to effectively “preach” the gospel, walking cheerfully over the world.

Ingesting the Flesh and Blood of Jesus

A pivotal misunderstanding of John 6:53, where Jesus declares that unless one ingests the flesh and blood of Jesus one forfeits eternal life, infers the outward eucharist is required for salvation. Upon this inference, some Christian groups continue to claim that without taking the eucharist, either in their church or at all, eternal life is forfeited. Such a teaching, however, contradicts John 14:6-7, which declares that Jesus himself is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that all who come to the Father do so through him. Note, however, that verse 53 follows directly on verse 51. The bread that Jesus offers is his flesh, given for the life of the world—a reference to the cross. Therefore, the meaning of this text is that without embracing the Way of the Cross, the believer cannot hope to receive also the promise of the resurrection. As Paul would have put it, unless one is willing to suffer and die with Christ, one cannot hope to be raised with him on the last day. Note also the importance of abiding in Jesus in the larger passage:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.…Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (Jn. 6:51, 53-56)

While this passage has eucharistic overtones, it does not specify a cultic act, but acts of faithful discipleship in the world; “take the eucharist or be damned” was never the authentic meaning of John 6:53 for its original author or his audiences. The reason Jesus’ disciples were scandalized is not that they failed to understand this “hard” saying; the problem is that they understood it all too clearly. The Way of the Cross always challenges human notions of popularity and success, yet “the flesh” profits nothing. The words of Christ alone are life (Jn. 6:63), and his followers are exhorted to seek the life-producing nourishment that following Jesus brings versus death-producing alternatives (Jn. 6:27). The stark reality of Jesus’ call to embrace the cost is narrated a bit later, where “even some of his disciples” abandoned him and walked with him lo longer (Jn. 6:66).

Just as Jesus had challenged James and John to drink his cup and to be baptized with his baptism, he called his true followers to be willing to suffer with Christ if required by the truth. Mark 10:38-39 is not a promise that Jesus’ followers will share with him in cultic rites; it is a warning that authentic followers may suffer with him in martyrological faithfulness. Whereas false prophets denied that Jesus came in the flesh (1 Jn. 4:1-3; 2 Jn. 1:7—implying that followers of Jesus need not suffer in dealing with the pressures of living under imperial Rome), John’s leaders called for faithfulness even if it involved suffering in the world. The faithful witness thus testified that water and blood did indeed flow forth from his side (Jn. 19:34-35) calling for the willingness to suffer with the Lord as companions on the Via Dolorosa. Therefore, an incarnational view of sacramental living involves not only letting our lives preach, but it also implies being willing to suffer with Christ in the world, in solidarity with him and his community of followers.

Here the meaning of an often misunderstood statement by George Fox also comes into clear and striking focus. Notice that in letting our lives “preach” by our “carriage and life” involves not walking cheerfully over the earth, as though it were part of a frequent-flier program; no. Jesus’ faithful followers walk “cheerfully over the world” trampling under all that is contrary to the ways of God because they are willing to suffer for Christ and with him as witnesses in a hostile world. As Martin Luther King, Jr. used to teach, undeserved suffering is always redemptive.

Therefore, the call to sacramental living is ultimately a call to sacrificial living. Our bodies are offered up as living sacrifices to God, not as a part of some cultic rite, but as a daily offering of our lives to God no matter what the price. To share with Jesus in the fellowship of his death is to participate with him in the promise of the resurrection. That is finally what it means to be immersed with him in his death and to ingest his flesh and blood. Paradoxically, though, such is the only way to be baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit and to be raised up with him on the last day; and, when that happens, our lives will indeed “preach” and walk “cheerfully” over the world.

On Graven Images and Riven Veils

On Graven Images and Riven Veils

Sometimes the appeal is made that because persons are physical beings, outward sacraments provide a physical help to a meaningful spiritual encounter with God. The ancient Israelites might also have been attracted to the practice of other religions around them—representing their gods with images of stone or wood, but God forbad such “helps” for the children of Israel. For one thing, to worship an image made by human hands becomes a way of worshiping the maker of the idol rather than the Transcendent Being. Idol worship thus becomes self-worship. For another, the object of their worship was not a real God, but a projection of human imagination. Although some must have questioned: if the God of the Israelites was the true God, why not invite the making of symbols to represent the Living God? With the Israelites, Yahweh established a covenant of faith, whereby God’s ways were declared as precepts to be written on hearts of flesh as well as tablets of stone. Therefore, honoring God was expressed as a celebration of God’s Presence rather than venerating an image of a distanced God.

As Israel gathered reminders of God’s workings in the past, these were placed in the Ark of the Covenant, imbued with the Shekinah Presence of Yahweh. As they prized the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s budding rod, manna, and writings of Moses, these items were placed in the Ark. Memories of the power of God’s Presence in the Ark were that it was so strong that humans could not survive touching it. When God appeared to Moses on Mount Zion, Moses was sheltered by the cleft of the rock, lest he be smitten by the power of it all. Later, when Israel’s temple was first built, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed to enter—and only once a year—offering a sacrifice for Israel on the Day of Atonement. While the Ark was lost when the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem and sacked the temple in 586 B.C.E., in the second temple period, a veil continued to separate the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. At the crucifixion, however, the earth shook, and the veil in the Jerusalem temple reportedly was torn in two—riven from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51). As a result, Christians believed that the separation between the Holy Presence of God and humanity was removed. In the Christ Events, God’s Presence and Power are now made available not only to priests, but to all.

This is a sign of the New Covenant, inaugurated by the blood of Jesus Christ. Because of Christ’s epoch-changing work, there is no need for a human priesthood, or a physical temple, or animal sacrifices, or the former covenant. He has opened a “new and living way” through the curtain by means of his body given for the life of the world (Heb. 10:20; Jn. 6:51). Because of this world-changing Event, all have access by faith now to the Shekinah Presence of God, revealed in the Word-made-flesh, in whom we encounter the glory of God (Jn. 1:14). Therefore, if the full reality of God’s saving-revealing Presence is available here and now, it need not (and should not) be symbolized. It should simply be embraced and encountered as the heart of the New Covenant.

And yet, out of human insecurity or a failure to glimpse the radicality of the New Covenant, people are at times tempted to stitch the riven veil back up, creating divisions between people and God and between one religious group and others. The unmerited and scandalously free gift of God’s grace scandalizes all that is of human origin, which is precisely why a divine revelation is required. No one can come to the Father except being drawn by God (Jn. 6:44, 65), not because God requires it but because humans cannot imagine God’s grace on our own. As a result, in an attempt to get it right or to make something happen for people as a transaction with God, well-meaning Christians too often yield to the temptation of religion—seeking to create or further a religious value or experience by something humans do. As a result, Christian celebrations of communion are often among the most divided religious experiences—ironically, in the name of Christian fellowship and unity. A troubling fact, for instance, is that when the ecumenical officers of North America meet for their annual sessions, all worship services and meetings are held together except for the sharing of communion on Sunday mornings. At those meetings, denominations gather on their own—in divided groups—partaking of the outward elements to the exclusion of even national Christian leaders outside their groups. Here the open and spiritual approach of Friends offers a unitive and non-divisive way forward—and ecumenically so.

When the FWCC General Secretary and I were asked to lead a brief worship service at the Conference for World Secretaries of Christian Communions in Rome in 2006, a schedule conflict for the person who was to lead the first worship meeting moved the Quaker contribution to the beginning of our sessions. In addition to reading Scripture responsively and playing a Bill Jolliff recording of a song about the wondrous surprises we’re likely to discover in Heaven, we introduced a time of silent waiting on God as “Communion after the Manner of Friends.” During that time, we invited each one to receive inwardly Christ’s gifts of grace, mercy, and empowerment as each needed, doing so with grateful and responsive hearts. We closed the meeting with the shaking of hands, and all seemed to have felt included in the meeting. An interesting thing followed. Virtually every one of the half dozen or so worship times after that, led by other leaders of denominations, included a time of sacramental silence before God. Most importantly, Christ was indeed present, and despite differences of doctrine and form between the different groups, we indeed experienced the spiritual oneness we authentically share in Christ.

In celebrating the spirituality of the New Covenant through Jesus Christ, Friends affirm with Paul “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5), realities which are spiritual in essence rather than religious, dogmatic, or cultic. To celebrate the sacramental Presence of Christ in the gathered meeting, wherever two or three are gathered in the name of Christ (Matt. 18:20), becomes a means of including all believers—even welcoming potential believers to encounter the life-changing experience if they are open. Indeed, the new and living Way of Christ calls us to come into God’s presence through the new veil, which is the body of Christ. For those tempted to symbolize that reality, the New Covenant invites us into something far more transformative: a first-hand encounter with the Living God and his world-changing gift of grace.

On Spiritual Reality and its Representations

On Spiritual Reality and its Representations

The Testimony of Friends as to the spiritual character of God’s working in our lives gets misunderstood in a variety of ways. On one hand, people describe the Testimony in negative terms, claiming Quakers do not believe in baptism or communion, but this is not the case. Friends do believe in authentic baptism and communion as spiritual realities, which are accessible to all because of the pivotal work of Christ and the present workings of the Holy Spirit. Believing in God’s direct mediating work, Friends emphasize the spiritual character of sacramental realities rather than their formal expressions.

Some religious groups, including some Christian ones, seek to form a priestly bridge between humanity and God, but Christ alone is that bridge. He indeed is the high priest, and anything or anyone attempting to occupy that place actually detracts from his all-sufficient role. Some might even assume that God does not, or cannot, communicate directly with humanity, but the Scriptures and Jesus say otherwise. Indeed, humans fall short in our attempts to attend and ascertain God’s Presence and Direction, but the remedy is to affirm the reality and accessibility of God’s active workings rather than resorting to second-hand attempts to represent or effect the real thing. All too easily, the medium becomes the message, and it is Christ alone in whom the world has any hope.

Another misconception is to see the formal disuse of forms as the Quaker approach to sacramentalism. From that perspective, “dry-cleaning” and “fast-feasting” may be set forth as better ways of “getting it done,” but this also misses the point. Friends are not arguing for silence or informality as a new and improved form. The primary concern is the inward and authentic celebration of the sacramental life of the gospel—directly mediated through the work of Christ and the workings of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we seek to create the space to be receptive and responsive to the divine initiative, not to compete with other forms by instituting liturgical informality.

If Jesus indeed came declaring that God is not impressed by formalistic approaches to worship, it is wrong to see Christian religion and forms as the supplanting of Jewish religion and forms; likewise, it is wrong to see Quaker religion as supplanting other forms of Christian religion. The work of Christ does not replace one religion or form with another. Rather, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ supersede all that is of human origin as the epoch-changing gift of God to the world. It shows that the only way forward for humanity is to receive what God does and has done toward us and to respond in faith to God’s saving-revealing initiative.

A further misconception is that early Quakers opposed the “dead formalism” of their day, and that this applied to other groups, but not Friends. Indeed, people who come to worship out of a dull habit or pattern without expecting their lives to be changed are missing out on the central goal of worship: transforming encounter with the Living God. This, however, also includes Quaker worshipers. As the first generation of Friends was being followed by a second, a young Friend was awakened from his customary dozing during worship by Anne Wilson, a fiery Quaker preacher. That morning at Brigg Flats Meeting in Northwest England, she challenged him with this trenchant rebuke:

“A traditional Quaker! Thou comest to Meeting as thou went from it the last time, and goes from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do in the end?”

Young Samuel Bownas indeed was challenged that morning, and having been cut to the quick, he later became a significant leader and traveling preacher among Friends in the early 18th Century. He traveled to America, and upon returning a couple of decades later, he found himself preaching against the growing complacency that had become a part of an emerging Quaker culture. Critical of spiritual lethargy at home and abroad, Friends have sought to call persons to the vital and transforming reality of the gospel. We preach best when we preach to ourselves.

While Friends opposed dead formalism, however, this does not mean that “lively formalism” is just fine. Indeed, dead formalism was an affront to the Everlasting Gospel in the middle 17th Century, but it also is so today, and in every generation. However, even more problematic is the insistence that one cannot encounter the Living God unless one does it the right way, religiously. The “right words,” religiously-correct postures, orchestrated motions, cultic patterns, manipulated liturgical responses—these are not what God requires, or even desires. While some emphasize the value of their functions, religious prescriptions also can be spiritually unhelpful. Most problematic is that an emphasis upon forms detracts from a focus upon the present spiritual reality, which ironically, they seek to represent. In doing so, symbols often eclipse the very relationship they seek to bolster because they are placed between the believer and the object of faith—God.

Forms also can give a false sense of confidence is used, and a false sense of inadequacy if absent. Sometimes out of human insecurity, leaders in worship attempt to elicit a prescribed response from participants, as though such were a measure of spiritual vitality. Or, a group may feel that a particular worship expression is meaningful and may even commend its use if the group would be spiritually alive. Far better it is to invite the authentic confession of sin rather than orchestrate “canned” confessions; likewise, more desirable is the spontaneous adoration of God rather than manipulated words of praise. I imagine God would feel that way, too. These measures fall short of authentic and life-producing worship, and they represent a lack of faith, either in God’s ability to touch people directly, or in our willingness to respond to God faithfully—or both.

Consider the value of a photograph. When a loved one is absent, a photograph can remind us helpfully of those we love and our relationship with them. I prize photos of my family and loved ones, especially when they are not immediately present. If, however, I am enjoying an intimate dinner out with my wife, and while looking into her eyes I place a photo of her between us, gazing at the photo instead of her, my actions might be a hindrance to the relationship rather than a help. Further, they might betray a lack of comprehension regarding the authentic character of intimacy. Desiring a symbol when the reality is present shows that one has not begun to appreciate the reality itself!

This is how Friends feel when we have cleared aside all else in order to wait in intimate communion with the Present Christ, and someone suggests the experience would be enhanced by adding a symbolization of the reality—or worse, “entertaining helps” for the distracted worshiper. Those accustomed to attending the sweet communion availed directly, where even two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, feel the essence of sacramentality has been missed by those uncomfortable with waiting on the Lord. This is why open worship is often called “communion after the manner of Friends.” Attentive waiting on the Lord reflects a sacramental prizing of directly mediated spiritual encounter with the Real Presence of Christ in the gathered meeting for worship. As Christ is truly and fully present, he needs not be represented but to be embraced, adored, and obeyed.

Friends have opposed both dead and lively formalism in the name of vital and transforming encounter with the Present Christ as the new and living way of the gospel. Jesus Christ came not to bring a transaction between God and humanity whereby humans who “do it right” in ways cultic or religious receive God’s gift of life. No. The new and living way is the response of faith to God’s saving-revealing initiative, and the gospel poses a scandal to all that is of human origin. The good news is that Christ is alive and present, and that those who respond fully in faith to what God has done and is doing receive fully the life-producing gift of God. To this conviction and reality Friends have sought to testify with their words and their lives.