A brew that is true?

Agbonkhiameghe Emmanuel Orobator, SJ

Agbonkhiameghe Emmanuel Orobator, SJ

When I first drank coffee, let’s be honest: I hated the taste. The only way I could enjoy it was if I doctored  it with copious amounts of sugar and cream. Then, over time, I wanted more coffee and fewer additives. What happened? The taste grew on me.

As with coffee, so with theology. Having read Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator’s Theology Brewed in an African Pot (Orbis: 2008, Kindle edition), I really wanted to like it. After all, he is doing what I want my own Kenyan students to do, not to parrot theology seen through a Western lens but to contextualize theology for their own setting. But at least on a first read-through, I’m reminded of coffee. I may need some time for the taste to grow on me.

Let’s consider a positive aspect of Theology Brewed in an African Pot, namely, the strong chapter on ecclesiology. As a Wesleyan, I am closer in some ways to Orobator’s Roman Catholicism than a Baptist or Presbyterian would be. Both Wesleyans and Catholics emphasize the importance of holiness. Moreover, this holiness is never meant to be a solitary pursuit. John Wesley (1703-91) refused to advocate a kind of faith that was individualistic. Instead, he organized his followers into small groups for encouragement and accountability. In the same way, Orobator develops the nexus between the corporate emphasis of Catholicism as the people of God and the solidarity of African cultures, where “I am because we are.”  Church is not just a loose organization of individuals; rather, Church is family. He clarifies (locations 1465-1470):

In many parts of Africa, family is an important value and dimension of religious, socio-cultural, political, and economic life. Social systems in Africa pivot on the family. When Vatican II declares that the church is the people of God and a communion, we understand this to mean that within the context of the African Christian community, the church is family. Therefore, the corresponding and appropriate model of the local church in Africa is Church as Family of God.

In the Nazarene congregation where I grew up, our pastor had a time in the service where we would sing the Gaither standby, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” While we sang it, we’d shake hands with others around us. Indeed, as I’ve traveled the world, the church as my extended family has been a comfort, an anchor when my life has been mostly sail. So when Orobator speaks of the church in this way, it resonates with my own heart, a reminder that the metaphor of the Church as family is not reserved just for African Christians. It’s an idea that resonates with many cultures on diverse continents.

While I appreciate Orobator’s ecclesiology, I cannot say the same about his view of the ancestors. Chapter 9 – “Our Fathers and Mothers Who Art in Heaven” – presents the conception of African Traditonal Religion (ATR) re. the ancestors as compatible with Christian faith, but is it? Some of what he claims is innocuous enough, such as the value of recounting the stories of those who have gone before us, what he calls the “communion of saints” (location 1865). Where he veers into dubious territory is when speaking of the “living dead” (ancestors) as protecting us (location 1889, emphasis added):

…Through the active presence of the living dead, the community grows qualitatively, because, as ancestors, they have only one duty: to protect the lives of their progeny. In many different ways we celebrate them. We rejoice in their presence.

Likewise, an ancestor is for Orobator an “intercessor,” taking petitions to a “Supreme Being” (location 1899). Roman Catholicism – through its cult of Mary and the other saints – is amenable to those like Orobator who want to maintain a place for the ancestors that goes beyond verbal honor to believing that ancestors are active in our daily lives.

Yet is the idea of ancestors as protectors and intercessors biblical? When Paul was caught in a storm, he did not ask an ancestor to intercede with God for their protection. Rather, God sent an angel to Paul who re-assured him that he and the others in the ship would be spared. “Be encouraged, men! I have faith in God that it will be exactly as he told me” (Acts 27:25 CEB). It is an angel in this instance (not an ancestor) who acts as a messenger of God, as a go-between, assuring him of God’s protection. Yet even here, we must be careful not to be distracted by the angel. Prayer is never directed to angels by Paul in any of his letters; rather, his prayers are addressed directly to God. (Ephesians 3:14-21 is one example). Intercession is the role neither of ancestors nor of angels. Rather, intercession is lodged squarely in the heart of the Trinity. Jesus is our High Priest and intercedes for us (Hebrews 7:25). Likewise, the Holy Spirit interecedes with the Father, even groaning on our behalf (Romans 8:26), a sure sign of his loving concern.

By attempting to reconcile Christian faith and the cult of the ancestors, Orobator has arguably opened a door to syncretism, an amalgam of religious worldviews that cannot mix and remain consistent with biblical faith. His may be a theology brewed in an African pot, but can the brew be healthy when it has been compromised in this way?

Orobator should be commended for wrestling with his own religious heritage passed down to him from his ancestors and the variety of Christian faith that as a young man he chose to follow. Indeed, we all must hammer out our own faith and do our best to see where our own culture of origin has made us blind to important aspects of the Bible. Theology, after all, is not only brewed in African pots. It has also historically been brewed in German, British, and American pots, among others. The challenge for any of us is to accept the critique of those who stand outside our culture. They can sometimes help us discern in the theological brew that we serve up distasteful elements to which we are oblivious.

By reading Orobator’s Theology Brewed in an African Pot, the reader discovers how theological contextualization can be an effective, positive impetus for evangelization. On the other hand, the book is simultaneously a cautionary tale of the doctrinal compromise that can be the unwitting result of the desire to make the Gospel more appealing in any given setting. May God continue to give us wisdom as we walk together as brothers and sisters in Christ, engaging this essential but delicate task.

Back to Genesis…and the First Testament

Behind our quizzing boxes. I’m the “I refuse to smile at this picture” boy on the right.

It’s hard for me to read Genesis without being transported back in time to the corner room under Lancaster Hall at Trinity church. There as a boy of 8, I came every Wednesday night and joined a dozen other children as my mother (Marilyn) and her friend, Judy, put us to the test. Perched behind our cardboard boxes, we’d listen to the multiple choice questions on Genesis then answer by pulling out one of the cards numbered 1 to 4. As a junior quizzer, I soaked up God’s Word; it still fascinates me.

We Christians underestimate the impact on our faith of Genesis and the Old Testament generally. Dr. Alvin Lawhead for many years taught Old Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary. My wife and I attended the same congregation as he did in the Kansas City area. Sometimes he would preach and invariably his text came from the Old Testament. As he took his place behind the pulpit, some took out their New Testament and waited for him to announce his text. He’d ask us to turn to a portion in Jeremiah or Isaiah, then good naturedly would lower his glasses on his nose, smile, and query:

You haven’t left 2/3 of your Bible at home, have you?

Dr. Lawhead’s point was well-taken. Truth be told, we don’t practice a Christian ethic as much as we practice a Judeo-Christian ethic. The church decided early on – thanks to the controversy with Marcion – that we accept the 39 ancient books we inherited from the Jewish people as part of our Christian Scriptures. While it is true that we must always determine what a specific Old Testament teaching has to say to us in the light of Christ and the New Testament, it’s surprising how many Old Testament teachings are taken up without change by Christians.

Dr Lawhead (left) poses with an unknown Seminary student

Dr. Lawhead (left) poses with an unknown Seminary student

When I’ve taught biblical interpretion to pastors in Africa, to explain the relationship between the Testaments, I’ve used the illustation of two e-mails announcing a meeting. Imagine that you check your e-mail and find the following message from me:

Please join me next Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. in Helstrom 6 for a short prayer meeting.

On Monday, you receive a second e-mail from me:

Our short prayer meeting together next Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. will be held in Helstrom 9.

I then ask my students: Where will you me meeting me for prayer next Tuesday at 7:30 a.m.? Invariably, they will answer: We’ll be meeting you in Helstrom 9.

Now, a student might go to Helstrom 6 and end up praying alone. What went wrong? She hadn’t read my most recent communication which I’d sent. It would be no defense for her to say that my first e-mail cleary stated that Helstrom 6 was the venue. The later communication augments the former.

God has given us a more recent message called the New Testament. In this revelation – especially as seen in the birth, life, death, and resurrecton of Christ  as well as his teachings – something important has been added. Michael Lodahl in The Story of God calls it a “new twist in the story.” And there is no denying that this is an important twist!

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When only heat will do

furnaceWhen it comes to working with glass, only heat will do.

The craftsmen at Anselm Kitengala glass outside Nairobi, Kenya know this. That’s why they have an oil fed furnace that glows at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The extreme heat makes the glass pliable, allowing them to mold it into useful shapes, whether vases, pitchers, plates, goblets, or a dozen other items.

What’s true about glass works is true about life. I think back on furnace times, when circumstances were hot and difficult to endure. Sometimes it was interpersonal conflict, other times sickness or financial difficulties. Yet God, the master Craftsman, used these times to mold my character, to teach me to rely on Him, to shape me just how He wanted. Though not easy at the time, I’m better today because of it.

I’m glad life isn’t always in the furnace. When the craftsman is done, he places the glass vessel into the annealer where it can gradually cool to room temperature, usually over a 24 hour period. These are the peaceful periods of life when God allows a calm stability to take hold, a time of reflection and thanksgiving to the Lord for taking us through the fiery trial.

Peter was a fisherman, not a glass worker. However, he seems to have understood the role that fire plays in developing our character. In 1 Peter 4:12-13 (NIV) he observes:

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.


Whether we’re in the furnace or the annealer, let us thank God for caring enough to shape our character, to make us like Christ. The end result – a beautiful and useful vessel – is worth it.

Apple pies, clay jars, and fresh starts

Pottery wheel in Rhodes, Greece 2010

By Wknight94 talk (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

My wife says I make the best apple pies. I don’t know if that’s true. Our now grown sons didn’t seem to mind helping devour them (with some melting vanilla ice cream on top) on those rare occasions when I ventured into the kitchen and the aroma of a fresh baked pie soon filled the house. When it comes to baking apple pie, it’s really not preparing the apples that discourages me; that’s the simple part. And it’s a cinch to mix in the sugar and cinnamon. The part that’s tough, the part that keeps me from making apple pie more often, is the crust.

Crust either makes your pie, or breaks it. Where I usually get into trouble is not when adding the butter, or the small amounts of water. That’s easy; what’s tough is using the rolling pin. You have to roll it out to just the right thickness, just the right size to fit in the bottom of the pie plate. And the real trick is making sure you put enough flour on the rolling pin. Otherwise, the dough will stick to it. A time or two, when I was trying to roll out the dough to just the right thickness, it became so hopelessly stuck to the pin, that I had no choice. I gathered up the dough, shaped it back into a round dough ball, and started all over again. The second time around, I had enough flour. The dough cooperated this time, and I ended up with a nice, thin, tasty crust. What was the secret? I had to be willing to start over.

Lessons from Jeremiah 18:1-4

They didn’t have pie crust back in the prophet Jeremiah’s time, but God was about to teach Jeremiah a similar lesson. Sometimes, you just have to start over. In chapter 18, the Lord tells the prophet to go down to the potter’s house. In some ways, I think Jeremiah must have been relieved. At least God wasn’t asking him to do what he asked the prophet Isaiah to do once as a sign to Israel, to parade around stripped and naked! This assignment seems pretty simple. Jeremiah is to watch the potter as he works the clay on the wheel, making a pot.

I wish I could show you what the wheel looks like. I found a drawing in one of my books. Imagine a large stone wheel on bottom, then connected by an axle to a smaller stone wheel on top. The potter sits at the wheel, with the clay resting on the top, smaller wheel. Then, with his feet, he turns the bottom wheel, which makes the top wheel spin. And of course, that makes the clay spin, allowing the potter to form it with his hands.

So there sits Jeremiah, watching this craftsman working. And the more he watches, the more enthralled he becomes. Jeremiah was probably never a priest himself, but he came from a long line of priests. So while he might have seen a lot of sacrificing of animals by members of his family, it’s doubtful he knew much about pottery. And as he sits and watches the pot take shape, suddenly, something goes wrong. Look at verses 3 and 4 of Jeremiah 18: “But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him” (NIV). Here’s how the New Living Translation reads: “But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so the potter squashed the jar into a lump of clay and started again.”

There are lots of lessons that Jeremiah 18 has for us. Let’s take a few minutes and look at three of those lessons:

  1. God believes in second chances.
  2. New beginnings are usually painful.
  3. God wants to mold us into the image of Christ.

God believes in second chances.

Let’s take a look at that first lesson. God believes in second chances. There’s a word for that; it’s called grace. Theologians define grace as “the unmerited favor of God.” That means we don’t deserve it. In fact, because of our sin, our disobedience to God’s good law, the only thing we deserve is punishment.

Punishment is certainly what Israel, God’s chosen people, more than deserved. God had warned them long ago, when they were just starting out as a nation, that obedience would bring God’s blessing, but disobedience would result in divine curses. Deuteronomy 27-28 talks about those blessings and curses. Listen to the words of Deut. 28:1-6 (NIV):

If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all hiscommands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all nations on earth. All these blessings will accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock – the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flock. Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in, and blessed when you go out.

But something had gone terribly wrong. Jeremiah 18:3 says that the clay pot was marred in the hands of the potter. God’s people, using their own God-given free will, had chosen poorly. They forgot that the same God who has promised blessings for obedience in Deut. 28 had warned of curses for disobedience just one chapter earlier. Deut. 27:15 says: “Cursed is the man who carves or casts an idol – a thing detestable to the LORD, the work of the craftsman’s hands – and sets it up in secret.” Yet we now that, with the exception of King Josiah, who had tried to turn the people to the worship of the one true God, most of the recent kings of Judah had set-up public worship to other gods. The true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had become just one more god worshipped alongside others.

But there’s the potter, working away on his wheel. The jar he was making didn’t turn out as he had hoped. Jeremiah doesn’t go into too much detail, he just says it was “marred.” In any case, there was no way in its present condition that it would be a useful jar. No one would pay good money for it at the marketplace. The potter could have said: “Forget it. This clay is no good.” He could have thrown it aside, sent out his apprentice for some fresh clay. But he does something else. The potter squashes the clay, and starts all over again. The potter doesn’t give up. Brothers and sisters, hear the Word of the Lord this morning: God is a God of grace. God believes in second chances.

I don’t know what you’ve done; I don’t know what your sin is. I’m pretty sure, though, that Satan has told you time and again: “Forget it. God can’t forgive that. You’re over the line. You’re beyond help.” But Jesus tells it like it is. Satan is the Father of lies; don’t listen to him. Jesus stands with his arms outstretched, ready to forgive you, ready to say to you, like he said to the woman caught in adultery: “Woman, where are your accusers? Has none condemned you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go now, and leave your life of sin” (John 8:10-11, NIV). Jesus believed in second chances. And even if you need a third chance or a fourth or maybe even more, there is a place of beginning again. Just like the potter squashed the clay, and started over again, you can have a fresh start. You can’t change yourself, but God can change you. Are you willing to be changed?

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Running toward evil

Firefighers ascend the World Trade Center on 9-11-01

Firefighers ascend the World Trade Center on 9-11-01

We’re far enough away from the celebration of the 15th annivesary of the destruction of the Twin Towers to reflect on some of its lessons. There is one image that inspires me most: First responders ran toward the evil, not away from it. As people descended the stairs of the World Trade Center, firefighters ascended, not unlike police who run toward the sound of gunfire, not away from it.

This is a useful metaphor of how the church at her best should operate. When we see systemic evil, should we not run toward it, by our presence carrying the light of the Gospel into the darkest of places? Yesterday I listened to a paper presented by a pastor. His topic was corruption in society and how the church can respond in ways to weaken corruption’s grip. In the African nation where this pastor lives, raising his voice too loudly can have consequences, but he has decided it is better to run toward evil with Gospel light than run away and let the darkness deepen.

But it’s not just Africa that needs light. As Americans, have we romaticized rural areas as “God’s country” while avoiding large cities as if they are under the curse? Now as the drug epidemic impacts small villages and towns, it’s only reluctantly that we’ve admitted the problem is not geography but the human heart. If we invite believers to run toward cities it’s not that rural areas don’t count. It’s only that cities have more people whose hearts need the transforming work of God’s grace. Cities set the moral pace for a nation at-large, so it makes sense that we as Christ followers would want to live there, showing another way to live, a better way, a loving way, a Kingdom of God way.

Too often when I’ve known I should run towards evil, like Jonah, I’ve run in the opposite direction. Yet God’s question to the prophet still rings in my ears: “Should I not be concerned”? Let me be like those 9-11 first responders, going in when all the world is going out.



A well-intentioned but misguided proposal


Dr Philip Kennedy

Dr Philip Kennedy is a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Mansfield College, University of Oxford. In A Modern Introduction to Theology: New Questions for Old Beliefs (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006, Amazon Kindle edition), he traces the rise of modernity from its beginnings and growth in the 17th/18th century  and continuing through Higher Criticism in biblical studies and the scientific revolution of the 20th century. By the end of the book, one may agree that Christian theology is in a 21st century wilderness of increasing societal irrelevance – at least in the West – but if you’re looking for Kennedy to lead the way out, you’ll be disappointed.

Let us first thank Dr Kennedy for what he gets right. As a Brit, he clearly sees the diminished influence of the church in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, what he calls as the title of chapter 2 “Christianity’s current predicament.” Kennedy laments: “Untold numbers of contemporary human beings in the industrialized, commercialized and digitalized Occident now prefer to spend Sunday mornings in gymnasiums rather than churches. Why?” (chapter 2, Kindle location 655). There is no question that this is a problem of immense proportion in parts of the world. This is the context in which Kennedy asks the guiding question for his book:

Should conventional Christianity radically modify its doctrine and practices in the light of advanced knowledge generated in modern times? Or ought it to perpetuate itself in contemporary settings by recapitulating ancient wisdoms? (chapter 2, location 619).

By the end of the book, having rehearsed several centuries of challenges to Christian faith originating from diverse academic quarters – from Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Freud, Hick, Darwin, and a dozen others – it comes as no surprise at the book’s end when Kennedy concludes: “My answer to the book’s impelling question – as might have been guessed! – is that Christianity and its traditional theology need far-reaching revision” (From the Conclusion, Kindle location 5541).

So far, so good – there’s a problem that has developed over centuries, and a huge one at that. Yet there seems to be at the same time a certain prejudice just under the surface that shows up in subtle ways. Also in the Conclusion (location 5526), Kennedy observes regarding dismal church attendance in the U.K. –

The principle reason they stay at home is that they are educated enough to realize that the world and its inhabitants can no longer be described in terms unaware of the findings of modern science.

This seems like a backhanded way to affirm that the more you are aware of science, the less you will be a person of faith. Strangely, Kennedy offers no evidence to substantiate his implication. In fact, groups such as BioLogos are creating spaces where those who love God and biology can pursue both, confident that faith and scientific research are complementary, not contradictory. John Polkinghorne, formerly an astrophysicist, is now an Anglican Priest, another example of a person who has not felt compelled to choose between Christian faith or scientific pursuit. Kennedy would have done well to give some treatment to these promising conversations that are happening.

A second assumption that Kennedy makes is that “pre-modern” theology – by which he means that in the tradition of Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas – cannot flourish in the modernism of the 21st century. (One can question his reliance on the term “modern” as a way to describe the contemporary Western scene vs. the majority term “postmodern”). While he does doff his hat at several points to the growth of the church in the Global South – where contrary to his thesis, traditional theological constructs still rule the day – he seems to be unaware that the fastest growing Christian confessions in the United States are those promoting more ancient expressions of Christian faith, such as the Orthodox Church in America. (Note: Part of this growth can be attributed to immigration). American Millenials are increasingly leaving Evangelical churches, gravitating to communities of faith with a much deeper and historic form of worship, often more liturgical or “High Church.” This counter-evidence of attendance trends seemingly validating ancient faith is debatable, for sure, but it’s a debate Kennedy does not engage.

Finally, the tenor of Kennedy’s book is unduly anti-supernaturalistic. The assumption seems to be that since a scientific worldview now dominates, to survive, the church must abandon a conception of a God who performs miracles like those described in Scripture. But is this assumption based on a faulty binary thinking, i.e. that we either believe in naturalism or supernaturalism? Is it not possible to affirm both? For example, we go to the doctor for what ails us and are addicted to our cell phones, yet many in Western cultures are pushing out the edges of their technological worldview to encompass belief in the supernatural. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is exhibit A of the hunger of Brits and other Westerners for what is beyond the natural realm. When I was in France for language study in 1994, an edition of the Nouvel Observateur (a popular French magazine) noted that there were more practicing wizards in France than Protestant pastors. While the church was anemic, belief in the supernatural was robust. My children were enrolled in the French schools and it was surprising to see how much of French children’s literature spoke of witches and warlocks. This seemed to go beyond the realm of imagination to the realm of explanation, an attempt to add another interpretive framework to that of science alone, and this in the country that was at the forefront of the Enlightenment detailed at length by Kennedy — see chapter 4.

When we look at what variety of Christianity is growing best in the world – including in Kennedy’s United Kingdom – it is the Pentecostal strand of Christian faith, one that takes most seriously the reality of unseen forces. This growth arguably is happening because it takes into account the conceptual framework of Hollywood films that promote vampires, zombies, and other para-normal phenomena. Whereas a purely rationalistic type of Christianity denies miracles, Pentecostalism acknowledges evil forces and the many ways in which they can be manifested — see Ephesians 6:10-18. At the same time, it assures followers of Christ that Jesus is the Christus Victor, the one who has through his death and resurrection triumphed over it all! Ours is not to cower in fear but to push back the darkness, bringing in the Kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit. In short, such a worldview need not deny the truths of science. However, it adds to its explanatory repertoire realities no less true for being invisible and transcending the natural realm, phenomena that the Bible describes as angels and demons and which may include the idea of systemic evil.

Philip Kennedy has written an introduction to theology that rehearses historic challenges to a Christian worldview. For that, he is to be commended; as theologians, ours is to engage challenges, not stick our head in the sand. I don’t doubt that his recommendation of radically revising Christian orthodoxy is well-intentioned. Notwithstanding, his proposal is misguided to the degree that it does not sufficiently factor in contrary evidence. Chief among this evidence is the striking advance of a type of Christianity particularly in the Global South (Latin America, Africa, and Asia) that is much closer to the plain reading of Scripture that he finds problematic. Indeed, the correct response to the decline of Christian influence is not to water down our wine, but to remember the One who turned water into wine.

Today, youth are more open than ever before to the supernatural as a reality and not just fantasy. At such a moment, it would be tragic if we heed the call of Dr Kennedy and jettison the very elements of Christian faith contained in Scripture that are most likely to connect with the youth of our post-modern world.

Between the already and the not yet

dawnThe phone rang with the tragic news. My thirty-something pastor friend, Tim (name changed), was dead. He had tried to swerve, but the small sedan took the brunt of the oncoming eighteen-wheeler. The car overturned, coming to rest upside down. The emergency crew unbuckled Tim from the driver’s seat and raced him to the hospital. It was too late. His wife survived the crash, but Tim passed away.

Tim had pastored a radically charismatic storefront church. He had preached that God does miracles in our day, that He can even raise the dead. When some members of his church arrived at the hospital, they asked where their pastor’s body was being stored. Steven (name changed) – my friend and Tim’s and a fellow pastor from another charismatic church – was there to comfort the family. “We believe God is going to raise our pastor from the dead,” one of Tim’s church members announced to Steven. “Will you come and pray over Tim with us?” Steven refused; he even dissuaded them from doing what they planned. For days, one member told others that her pastor wasn’t dead, he was only “on vacation” and that he would soon return. A few days later, many attended his funeral and shed tears of sorrow. Tim had been well-loved. As best we could, we comforted his traumatized wife. Tim was buried; there was no miraculous resurrection.

This is an important dividing line between various church traditions. It is the eschatological question of the “already” vs. the “not yet.” All Christians believe that when Christ came to earth, he inaugurated the Kingdom of God. This is what Jesus meant when he said that the Kingdom of God was “in your midst” (Luke 17:21). Throughout Matthew’s Gospel – often dubbed the “Gospel of the Kingdom” – Jesus told parables of the Kingdom, but he did much more. He made the Kingdom concrete by healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, mulitplying loaves and fish to feed the hungry, and even making the winds and the waves obey his bidding. He brought the dead back to life. Already – it’s a word that unscores that Jesus got the ball rolling, that through his ministry – like rays of light penetrating the darkness at sunrise – the Kingdom had begun to dawn.

More than any group of believers, charismatics are the people of the already. Did not Jesus say that we would do even “greater things” than he did (John 14:12)? The spiritual gifts spoken of by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14 were not for the first centuries alone, as some claim. Charismatics more than any other Christian tradition emphasize that gifts are for the here-and-now, powerful endowments given by the Holy Spirit to the Church that allow her to carry out her ministry in a triumphant manner, opposing the forces of evil and advancing the Kingdom of God on earth.

Seen in this light, it’s less surprising that Tim’s church member would expect God to raise their pastor. Yet most Christian traditions have been reluctant to see everything through the single lens of the already. Long experience has taught us that we live in a world of suffering, that bad things happen to good people. Though we see the rays of a dawning Kingdom, the full light of day has not yet come. As long as we are caught in the parentheses between the already and the not yet – as long as Jesus has not yet returned to consummate the Kingdom – tractor trailers will slam into cars and good people will die, even good pastors. A thousand other heartaches will strike – the cruelty of cancer, the horrors of war, the madness of terrorism. Jesus tells us to pray “your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10) precisely because we’re not yet there. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.

I believe God can still work miracles, but I’m not counting on it. Even when we look at the Gospels, we don’t see everyone getting a miracle. Yes, a handful received their sight, but what of those who couldn’t make it to Jesus? Lepers were cleansed, no doubt about it, but surely many still went to their grave still suffering from the skin disease. As for resurrection? Jesus raised three from the dead, namely, the widow’s son at Nain, Jairus’s daughter, and Lazarus (Luke 7:11-17, Matthew 9:18-26, John 11:1-44). That is an infinitessimally small amount compared to the many who remained dead. Even the Acts of the Apostles record only one instance of Paul raising the dead (Acts 20:7-12). This is not to denigrate the signs and wonders that our Lord performed nor those performed by Peter, Paul, and others. Rather, it’s a caution to those who lean too heavily toward the already. Martha confessed her faith that Lazarus would be raised on the last day (John 11:24). Jesus had other plans for her brother, but Martha’s confession of faith is still the default one for believers today. The Apostles’ Creed places faith in the resurrection of the dead at the very end of the Creed, after our confession that Jesus will return to judge the “living and the dead.” Life everlasting follows the resurrection but after the return of Christ, not now. We’ll get there, but we have not yet arrived.

Where does that leave us? I believe our charismatic friends serve an important role. They are a corrective to churches that are lifeless, where the winds of the Holy Spirit have not blown in decades. By reminding us that Jesus has already inaugurated the Kingdom, they encourage us to push back the darkness, to live into the Kingdom. Yet we must be careful not to set up our people for a fall, to promise in the now what Jesus has only reserved for later. There is an already, but there is also a not yet. May God give us the courage to trust Him for what He longs to give us in the present and the patience to wait for what God has kept back for a future time.