by Daniel Harrell
It was a glorious day in the park last Sunday, all gathered in God’s cathedral of creation to worship. Birds, water, blue sky, clouds, warmth, good friends, great music, communion and an egg race—not at the same time of course—a sermon from the second century about apostasy—betraying your faith in Jesus. I know, I know—not the topic for the Fourth of July, and certainly not for those of you who gave your holiday Sunday to worshipping Jesus outside in public. No risk of apostasy in that crowd. Maybe for those of you weren’t there…
Actually the occasion of my sermon was this year’s installment of Church Fathers—a summer sermon series now in its twentieth season featuring heroes of our faith whose passion for Jesus amidst trial and tribulation fashioned the truths we profess this morning. As there have been so many, I determined to tackle them each summer a letter at a time, bringing me this year to letter S. Last Sunday’s look at apostasy came from the Shepherd of Hermas—an popular second century spiritual treatise that pressed early Christians to hold fast to their newfound hope amidst the turmoil that constantly threatened. The Shepherd of Hermas reflects the rigorous views prevailing in the early Christianity: firm boundaries and disciplined obedience were needed to survive cultural and government persecution. Here in the book of Hebrews we read of abuse and imprisonment, plundered possessions and extreme loss, all a result of following Jesus.
For most of us, in modern America at least, the challenges to our faith are mostly existential—the brevity of life, the problem of evil, the impartiality of disease, hypocrisy and self-righteousness, secular dismissiveness, political distortion, whether liberal condescension or conservative scapegoating. American Christians inhabit a culture where what we believe makes increasingly little sense. And yet we believe. As one writer, Debie Thomas, poetically puts it, “I stay because Jesus is my rootedness, my air, my water; the dark and frozen ground in which I wait to crack open, die and sprout, and then flourish. I stay because childhood ends but childhood hungers do not. Because you were my first house, my first father, first mother, first love, first hate, first safety, first terror. Because the Psalmist got it right: I was cast on you from birth. Because Peter got it even righter: Lord, if I left, to whom would I go?”
If rigor and discipline of will held Christians to Jesus with the Shepherd of Hermas, this morning’s church father appealed to the heart. The steadfast passion of the early church in time rose victorious over the the empire powers that failed to squelch it. Christianity became Christendom, its own empire, powerful and pervasive, but eventually complacent and corrupt; displaying an arrogant privilege and attachment to wealth condemned by the gospel it preached. The height of its arrogance was the sale of tickets to heaven—so-called indulgences—to fund the lavish lifestyles of clergy and support basilica building projects. For Martin Luther and the Reformers, a righteous overhaul was the only option. The Protestant Reformation brought change, but also deadly division. Once the dust settled in Europe after a many decades of war, Christians in power turned privileged again, whether Catholic or Protestant. Reformation is a never-ending project. Our new birth in Christ can be lost if left unattended. So taught this morning’s S-Father, Philip Jakob Spener. He believed authentic faith in Jesus must be born again and again and again.
Spener is known best by the movement he spawned called pietism. Our Monday Morning Bible Study teacher, Professor and Pietist Christian Winn, admits pietism can off as holier-than-thou or a do-goodiness on display for applause; pietism singed with pride. But true pietism is heartfelt gospel: devotion to Jesus that flowers into a fervent love of neighbor and a longing for renewal in the church and potentially society too. Spener appeared on the German scene soon after Luther during a season of roiling theological division. Reformation fueled a separatist impulse, sparking quarrels over whose Protestantism was right, resulting in Presbyterians versus Baptists versus Methodists and Lutherans of every stripe, each defending their particular corner, striving to overshadow each other across intersections in so many cities to this day. Spener despaired over such division given the gospel’s intent to unite the church as one body in Christ. Spener wrote,
Truth is lost not by [poor] teaching but by disputing, for disputations bring with them this evil, that men’s souls are, as it were, profaned, and when they are occupied with quarrels, they neglect what is most important. How often the disputants themselves are persons without the Spirit and faith, filled with carnal wisdom drawn from the Scriptures, but not instructed by God!
Spener wrote these words in a classic 1675 treatise entitled Pious Desires for a God-Pleasing Improvement of the True Protestant Church (Pia Desideria for short). It was a combination devotional and church renewal textbook I first read as assigned reading in a college religion class. Spener critiqued church behavior from every angle, from wayward approaches to the Eucharist and confession to disregard among Christians for the rising problems of drinking and adultery. Christians so easily and readily sabotaged their salvation by their disobedience and laxity, and in so doing discredited the gospel they claimed to believe. Spener was not so righteous to exclude himself from his censure: “I can hardly see how in the face of such frightful corruption that such a one as I am can possibly recover a good conscience.” But because grace is grace, sinners can be born again again. Spener held fast to the Holy Spirit’s capacity for rebirth and reform, its capacity to draw Christians down to the dark and frozen ground where they crack open and die so bloom and flourish.
Spener put forth a redevelopment plan, six specific measures for church renewal: small groups to promote love and community and mission, each person practicing their spiritual gifts, cultivating a personal devotional life with God, no more arguing, hire ministers who really believe what they preach, and preach sermons that build up believers to bear spiritual fruit in their lives. For Spener, the church alone previewed heaven, the body of Christ was the means whereby the Lord would renew the earth. Church reform was world reform, a daunting and seemingly ridiculous calling. Yet Spener wrote,
Let us not abandon all hope before we have set our hands to the task. Let us not lay down our rod and staff if we do not have the desired success at once. What is impossible for men remains possible for God. Eventually God’s hour must come, if only we wait for it.
We hear echoes of our Hebrews passage this morning. “In a very little while the one who is coming will come,” Hebrews promises, itself an echo from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk. “The righteous will live by faith,” said the prophet, faith famously defined by Hebrews’ author as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Such assurance and conviction can be hard to come by. There are days when the unseen is no different from the nonexistent, that dark and frozen ground in which we can only watch and wait on God. “How long?” asked Habakkuk. Not long, answered Hebrews. But not yet either. The righteous live by faith in the meantime, hoping for what is certain, which provides the conviction to press on and do right if only for the sake of righteousness. Spener wrote,
While hoping for the fruit [of righteousness] it is not enough idly to wait for it and be killed by the desire… Even if it may be evident that we cannot achieve the whole and complete purpose of God, we can at least do as much as possible.
Spener lived during a tumultuous time in German history. The Thirty Years War pitting the more than 300 German states and territories against one another was as much a religious conflict as it was political. Eight and a half million citizens died. Disillusion set in among Christians for whom faith no longer made any sense or offered much hope. Rather than giving up, Spener went deep, devouring devotional books which stressed a more serious and intentional spiritual life. The books he read promoted honest self-examination, an earnest pursuit of holiness and a observable morality that would visibly and unashamedly set true Christians apart from their secular neighbors. Spener’s own writing drew on examples of early Christians whose “ardent love of God” caused them to love and live virtuously even to the loss of their lives.
It is the same Holy Spirit who is bestowed on us by God who once effected all things in the early Church, and the Spirit is neither less able nor less active today to accomplish the work of sanctification in us. If this does not happen, the sole reason must be that we do not allow, but rather hinder, the Holy Spirit’s work.
Our new birth in Christ can be lost if left unattended. It can be lost if we refuse the Spirit, lost if we do not tolerate being loved. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. In turn we love the world because God first loved us. Love is not something we feel as much as something we do. As a verb, love is always transitive, it takes on a direct object outside of itself. “Love is the whole life of the man who has faith,” Spener wrote, “and who through his faith is saved, and his fulfillment of the laws of God consists of love. If we can awaken a fervent love… toward one another and then toward all [people]… and put this love into practice, practically all that we desire will be accomplished.” And not merely for our own well-being, but for our churches and for our part as churches in the renewing of creation in God’s time.
As you know, I got to travel with our Confirmation students, parents and others to Colombia last month, a glorious country with its own tumultuous history of drug cartels and violence as portrayed on Netflix, and more than five decades of civil war rivaling Afghanistan and Syria. After Syria, Colombia has the highest population of displaced people in the world. The church in Colombia not only endured the turmoil but has helped usher in new creation. We attended a lot of Colombian churches—some admittedly worn down and worn out by a Christianity that felt rehearsed and resigned to going through the motions rather than living out its calling. But many others who worshipped God with a fervency that shook us to our core, whether dancing and jumping in one church basement congregation of former drug addicts, to a rock concert light and sound spectacle, complete with smoke machines and video, that had the kids up and jumping and jamming to the Jesus tunes, despite not understanding the language. In between was a small congregation that took two hours and two buses and a number of questions (and man on his horse) to locate and arrive right on time. Their pastor led his small flock in sincere if unspectacular worship, feeding them the words of Jesus and then sandwiches afterward since for many it was a long way back home.
What made all the worship so genuine, however, was all the love their worship fueled. The basement church doubled as a homeless shelter. Each week this church fed scores of drug addicts on the streets—wooing some to step into programs of tough love and hard discipline where lives destroyed by narcotics and alcohol found new life surrounded by people who loved and supported and stayed close and provided work and purpose. The rock and roll church ran a school and mission in a rough neighborhood, helping and teaching children of families wracked by drugs and war. Faithful church members taught and loved and fed and nurtured kids whose only hope for growing up well occurred within the walls of this school. Yet another church funded and staffed a home for troubled girls, which instead of being located in their difficult neighborhoods, was perched on a mountainside far from their troubles. The idea was to provide a safe haven as home where worries of mere existence would allow space to grow and breathe and be loved for as long as they lived there, which for some of the girls was well into their twenties. What I admired about this home was the church’s insistence that the girls be treated as their own daughters—hand-me-down donations were not allowed, only new clothes and delicious food and beautiful surroundings, no second best. We strive to do similarly in our church as we settle a refugee family and assist homeless families in transition.
On our last day in Colombia some of us hiked to a remote Benedictine monastery where we were unexpectedly greeted by a monk (the man on the left) who spoke some English and described how he’d given up a lucrative travel business for a life singularly devoted to prayer and service. His lived with 24 other men, ranging in age from 22 to 85, with whom he’ll spend the rest of his life. I asked him what was the hardest thing about being a monk, thinking he’d say the detachment from society or the ritual of prayer every three hours a day, or the obedience to the rules and rhythms of monastic life. No, he loved all of that. He said the hardest part about being a monk was the other monks. Loving your enemies can be easy compared to loving your friends.
And thus Spener wrote,
[Christians must not] lose sight of any opportunity in which they can render a service of love, and yet while performing it, they must diligently search their hearts to discover whether they are acting in true love or out of other motives. … They should diligently seek opportunities to do good to others [expecting nothing in return] so to hurt the old Adam and implant love deep in their hearts.
This is the heart of pietism: the more love you give the more love you have to give, because what God commands God provides. Wired to seek Jesus, we find Jesus and can’t let go. Being held, we hold on and count on resurrection with faith and pious desire, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, the very heart of our aliveness.
“It is not enough that we hear the word of God with our outward ear,” Spener wrote. “We must let it penetrate our heart so that we may hear the Holy Spirit speak there with vibrant emotion and comfort and power. … having put on Christ through the spirit, we must also keep on Christ and bear witness in our outward life…” with love and with grace, working and walking toward that day when all will be as it ought, broken and blessed, risen and righteous, to the glory and goodness of God.