Monday, June 5, 2017

Feeding Christ's Lambs, Teaching Theology, and Carrying the Cross

Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Martyrs
Yesterday I returned home from Rhode Island, where at Salve Regina University in Newport I participated in a joint meeting of the College Theology Society (an organization of predominantly Catholic professors of theology) and the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion Region-at Large (program viewable via preceding hyperlink). On Saturday evening of this conference each year those in attendance participate together in the Catholic Mass, at which the Baptist scholars are not able to receive the Eucharist but instead receive a blessing from the priest. On Friday evening each year there is a joint evening prayer service planned by the Baptists but with scholars from both organizations leading various acts of worship. I was asked to share a meditation for this service based on the Scripture readings specified in the daily lectionary in the missal for June 2, which was also the feast commemorating Saints Marcellinus and Peter, early fourth-century martyrs. Below is the prepared text for the meditation I shared:

Feeding Christ's Lambs, Teaching Theology, and Carrying the Cross (John 21:15-19)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Our lesson from John’s gospel is significant—significant in more ways than one. But its significance isn’t necessarily in the exegetical details. Some interpreters find significance in the different Greek verbs for loving in the dialogue between Jesus and Peter, and in the varied language for feeding and tending and lambs and sheep, but that’s not what seems most significant here. I’m convinced by the commentators who contend that these words function synonymously, and their message is this: the one who loves Jesus will take good care of the people who belong to Jesus.

It’s significant in light of the nature of our gathering that Peter in particular is the one who’s told this, that Peter in particular must express his love for Jesus by taking good care of the people who belong to Jesus. We are Catholic theologians and Baptist theologians, and it goes without saying that we have differing perspectives on the question of Petrine primacy (and some of those differences may be with each other within our respective communions!). But it’s not a uniquely Catholic position that here and elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus is commissioning Peter to a distinctive role of leadership in the church. Many Protestants, Baptists among them, have been glad to take up Pope John Paul II’s invitation to engage in a “patient and fraternal dialogue” about how the Petrine office might serve the whole church. But the patristic interpreters of this text didn’t relate Jesus’ charge to Peter to feed and tend sheep and lambs to the question of primacy. For them, this text was about the bishop’s responsibility to serve the church through pastoral care, which included not only the ministerial practices of presence and comfort and counsel, but also catechesis—teaching. Not all of us are clergy, but as Catholic and Baptist theologians we do have a certain function as doctores ecclesiae, teachers of the church, in our varied institutional contexts.

In that connection, in relation to our shared work as teachers of theology, doing our own work of feeding Christ’s sheep, there’s something significant about where Jesus says the task of feeding his sheep will take Peter. And that brings us to the literally significant language in our text. Jesus says to Peter, “‘When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,

and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.” In this Gospel full of signs, surely this is the oldest reference in Christian literature to that which symbolizes the cross—in this case, hands outstretched in cruciform posture signifying a death like Christ’s death. There’s no sign more symbolic of the essence of the Christian life than the sign of the cross. I began this meditation with the ancient practice of the sign of the cross, first attested by Tertullian but no doubt practiced long before. Many of the earliest symbols in Christian art signified the cross—Christ as the Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep, carrying a sheep across the shoulders as if the beam of a cross; the anchor; the chi-rho symbol. Perhaps the earliest was the orant. The orant was originally a figure of a pagan priest with arms outstretched in prayer, but Christians repurposed it as a figure whose very posture in prayer is cruciform, imagining the life of prayer as one of the ways we take up our cross and follow Jesus.

The New Testament offers us two overarching paradigms of the Christian life—the cross and the resurrection. We’re almost through our seventh week of celebrating resurrection. But at the end of the final week of Eastertide it’s appropriate that we be reminded that the dominant paradigm for the Christian life, this side of our own resurrection, is the cross. Today the sanctoral reminds us of that. June 2 is a feast day commemorating two early fourth-century martyrs, Saint Marcellinus, a priest, and Saint Peter the Exorcist. We know little about them, besides their beheading in Rome during the persecution under Diocletian and the traditional location of their tomb in the Roman catacombs that bear their name. But they’re familiar to many because they’re named among the martyrs invoked in Eucharistic Prayer I in the Missal, just before Felicity and Perpetua.

What might it mean for our vocations as theologians to be cruciform? How might the martyrdoms of St. Peter the Apostle and Saints Marcellinus and Peter the Exorcist serve as examples for the way we take good care of the people who belong to Jesus? How might we deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus in our teaching, in our research and writing, in our various forms of service to both academy and church? Are we willing for our theological vocation to lead us where we do not want to go, stretching out our arms in following our crucified Lord for the sake of the other, in a world that seems more and more averse to welcoming the other?

With very specific application: what might it mean for us to take up our cross and follow Jesus, to be led where we may not want to go, in taking on the brokenness that Jesus continues to suffer over the brokenness of his body—the brokenness that we have inflicted on Jesus through the divisions that we’ve inflicted on one another, the body of Christ? Tomorrow we’ll experience that brokenness at the Eucharistic table that we will not share. And so will Jesus. As my Baptist theologian friend Curtis Freeman who’s here with us said to me earlier this week, if anything’s going to change about that, it will have to be the church’s theologians who insist on raising the question and challenging our failures in working toward one Eucharistic fellowship. Might that be one way we can take up our cross and follow Jesus in our teaching vocations, so that Jesus’ lambs might be fed?

If we are reconciled to God in one body through the cross, as the writer of Ephesians suggests, taking up the cross ourselves is how we participate in the reconciling, one-body-making work of God. The cruciformity of the Christian life is an ecumenically shared conviction, and it’s an ecumenically shared set of practices. If we love Jesus, we will take good care of the people who belong to Jesus by teaching these things and practicing these things, that together we might join God in God’s reconciling, one-body-making work in the world. May it be so, O God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future's release anniversary

My book Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community was officially released by Baylor University Press a year ago today. Since then I've enjoyed opportunities to speak about the book and participate in conversations engendered by it (and continue to be available for such opportunities). I've also appreciated the reviews that have begun to appear. Some are available online: An issue of the Pacific Journal of Baptist Research published extended responses to the book by David Wilhite, Amy L. Chilton Thompson, Courtney Pace, and Andrew Christopher Smith, and the American Academy of Religion's review site Reading Religion recently published a review by Spencer Boersma. Other reviews are in press in print journals. Excerpts from some reviews are gathered on the book's page on the Baylor University Press site, from which the book may be ordered; it's also available via Amazon.

Monday, February 27, 2017

AAR's Reading Religion reviews Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future

The American Academy of Religion's online review site Reading Religion has published a review of my book Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community (Baylor University Press) by Spencer Boersma. Excerpts from the review appear below:

Steven R. Harmon’s Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recovery of Community is perhaps the most constructive proposal of ecumenical reflection for Baptists to date.

Anyone acquainted with Harmon’s work will know that this is not a recent interest. In particular, his work, Towards Baptist Catholicity (Pasternoster, 2006), can be regarded as this book’s prequel. In Toward Baptist Catholicity, Harmon proposed a recovery of the authority of tradition and its content (i.e., the use of creeds, church fathers, sacramental theology, liturgy, etc.) in wider theological discussion and shows how Baptists are already indebted to this. Thus, a more conscious retrieval of tradition in Baptist theology will be beneficial. Now ten years later, Harmon presents a more refined proposal....

....Harmon’s book offers the research and wisdom of a Baptist thinker at the forefront of ecumenical work. His methodical analysis of Baptist history and ecumenical documents, coupled with practical constructive proposals for congregations to change, has made this book original, essential, and necessary to the future of Baptist life. (read the full review at Reading Religion)

Friday, February 3, 2017

Baptist World Alliance news: statement on refugees; dialogue with World Methodist Council

The Baptist World Alliance, the Christian world communion to which I belong, has issued two press releases this week of interest to readers of Ecclesial Theology.

Today (February 3) the BWA issued a statement on refugees that "decries recent actions by the United States Government to issue a blanket travel ban on seven countries that specifically targets refugees and that seems to especially affect Muslims" (click on hyperlink for full statement).

Earlier this week delegations from the BWA and the World Methodist Council convened in Jamaica for the fourth annual session of a five-year bilateral ecumenical dialogue between the two communions, February 1-8 (click on hyperlink for press release).

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why I marched in the Women's March

I've never before participated in a public demonstration, but today I marched with my wife and son in the Women's March on Charlotte, North Carolina. I did so because I'm trying to follow Jesus in a culture in which patriarchy is still a thing--a thing that has manifested itself in truly nasty ways recently. I marched to show solidarity with my wife and all women who have been demeaned by this nastiness. I marched because I want my son to grow up to regard women as equals and treat them with respect. It was a small symbolic act, but signs can be effective. (Here I'm echoing language some theologians have employed with reference to the sacraments as "effective signs"--symbols that have an effect upon the lives of those who participate in these symbolic acts of worship.) I hope and pray that these symbolic acts of solidarity that took place in over 60 countries around the world today (even on Antarctica!) will have a transformative effect on our world.

Friday, January 20, 2017

A vision incompatible with Christian faith and faithfulness

Earlier this afternoon America and the world heard and read President Trump announce in his inaugural address that "from this day forward a new vision will govern our land." If the new vision is that "from this day forward it's going to be only 'America first! America first!'," American Christians must reject and resist it from the outset. For followers of Christ, our vision in relation to the polis is summarized in the Epistle to Diognetus in the 2nd century AD: "[Christians] live in their respective countries, but only as resident aliens; they participate in all things as citizens, and they endure all things as foreigners. Every foreign territory is a homeland for them, every homeland foreign territory."

Therefore we must reject and resist also this expression of the new vision: "At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, 'How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity.'" NO! Our total allegiance is to Christ alone, and then comes our obligation to the global community--God's world in which God's reconciling work is to make the community for which God created the world--of which our national community is a part, and only then our national community in relation to those larger loyalties. There must be no giving it a chance and seeing how it goes--the vision has been clearly articulated, and it is one incompatible with Christian faith and faithfulness.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

"Souls on the tree of pain": an Ellacuría echo in U2's "Bullet the Blue Sky"?

Now and then my theological vocation and U2-fandom avocation intersect. Some of those intersections have fueled my writing, from one-off theological reflections on album releases (most recently on Songs of Innocence) to a book offering a popular introduction to the ecumenical movement and ecumenical theology, drawing on U2's music for illustrative material (Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity).

This week I experienced another of those theology-and-U2 intersections in connection with the band's announcement of The Joshua Tree Tour 2017, revisiting their classic fifth studio album 30 years later. The news had me listening to the album again this week, and this time I heard something I'd not noticed before.

While preparing to preach on the Lukan account of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan during the last lectionary year, I read Salvadoran theologian Jon Sobrino's essay on "The Samaritan Church and the Principle of Mercy." After the sermon I continued reading Sobrino's book in which it served as the lead chapter, The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (Orbis Books, 1994). Soon I read the chapter "The Crucified Peoples: Yahweh's Suffering Servant Today," which drew heavily on the thought of his fellow Salvadoran theologian Ignacio Ellacuría (1930-1989), to whom that chapter was dedicated in memoriam. I discovered that Ellacuría had been writing about the historical incarnation of Christ in the "crucified peoples" of the world since 1978, in particular the Salvadoran people oppressed by successive military regimes, in whom the body of Christ was being crucified afresh. Ellacuría himself joined this crucified people as one of the six Jesuit Martyrs of the University of Central America on November 16, 1989. I revisited these ideas during the past academic semester when one of my students wrote a paper on the relation between personal sin and historic sin in Sobrino's thought.

All this came back to mind when I listened to the song "Bullet the Blue Sky" on The Joshua Tree during the past week. It begins with these lines:

In the howling wind
Comes a stinging rain
See them driving nails
Into the souls on the tree of pain

The inspiration of the song was a trip U2's lead singer Bono took to El Salvador in 1986 at the invitation of the Sanctuary movement. The working title for the album that became The Joshua Tree was "The Two Americas," and Bono wanted to experience one of those Americas, the one represented in this case by American military assistance to the oppressive regime in El Salvador. (The final album title is a double entendre, referring both to the desert tree in the southwest American landscapes that supplied aesthetic inspiration for the album and to the tree on which Jesus--Joshua in Hebrew--was crucified.) While in El Salvador Bono learned about and became attracted to the liberation theology that emphasized God's solidarity with the oppressed Salvadoran people and the responsibility of the church to join God in this solidarity with the oppressed, working for the liberation God desires for them. He also witnessed an air strike against a village of campesinos.

When Bono returned home to Dublin, Ireland, he shared those experiences with guitarist The Edge and asked him, "Could you put that through your amplifier?" The result was the closest a U2 song has come to heavy metal blues generically. The live performance of "Bullet the Blue Sky" at a December 1987 concert in Tempe, Arizona preserved in the film Rattle and Hum made connections between El Salvador, Ronald Reagan, and the kind of Christianity represented by Jerry Falwell that made some expressions of the American church complicit in the American proxy war in El Salvador (see video at the end of this post, or click here). The final song of the album, "Mothers of the Disappeared," is also about the conflict in El Salvador.

I'd never made the connection before in three decades of listening to the song while also being well acquainted with liberation theology, but I'm now convinced that the line "see them driving nails into the souls on the tree of pain" is a reference to the theological concept of the "crucified people" advocated by Ignacio Ellacuría. Since Ellacuría began writing about it in 1978, the concept had gained currency in discussions of liberation theology in El Salvador, so that by the time of Bono's visit in 1986 it surely must have been featured in his conversations with Christian contacts of the Sanctuary movement there. Even if Ellacuría was not mentioned by name in these discussions, he is the source of this way of framing things theologically, so that when Bono sings "see them driving nails into the souls on the tree of pain," he's conceptually echoing Ellacuría in theologizing lyrically about the air strike. Bono may not be aware of the connection with Ellacuría--but then again, we're talking about the same man who read Walter Bruggemann on the Psalter in preparation for a recent documentary of a conversation between Bono and Eugene Peterson on the Psalms, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What's that on the cover of Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future?

What's the image on the cover of my new book Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future: Story, Tradition, and the Recover of Community (Baylor University Press), and what in the world does it mean? I answer those questions in my response to four reviewers of the book in the linked issue of the Pacific Journal of Baptist Research (vol. 11, no 2; November 2016) [click on hyperlink].

Interested in Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future? Order the book from Baylor University Press or via Amazon.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

New publication--Preaching Conversations with Scholars

I contributed the lead "scholar's response" to the initial sermon by Rodney Wallace Kennedy, recently retired as pastor of First Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio, in Kennedy's new edited book Preaching Conversations with Scholars: The Preacher as Scholar (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2016). My full response, along with the sermon to which it responds, is currently available online via the "Look Inside" feature on the book's page on the publisher's web site. Here's a teaser excerpt from my response:

As I read this sermon, preached originally in May 2015, I kept thinking about all the ways our contemporary culture, in the United States and more broadly in the Western world, has quickly become even more concerned with boundary-keeping than it was in May 2015—and it was certainly marking our culture then. It made me think of our treatment of immigrants, of refugees, of the racial 'other,' of those whose sexual identities are 'other.' It made me connect all this with the boundary-transcending God whose story is told by the story of Jesus, and it reminded me that the boundary-transcending story of Jesus should become more and more my own story. I pray that it does, and I’m grateful to Rodney for writing and preaching a sermon that made this my prayer. The Gospel is relevant, indeed. (read the full response and other sample portions of Preaching Conversations with Scholars)