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Pentecost - The Emerging Church

Pentecost is often celebrated as the birth day of the church and it is as good a feast as any to do so. Pentecost is also a time to reflect on where we are and what is emerging or unfolding. This seems particularly urgent this year as the church divides around issues of inclusion, risks fading into irrelevant dust in some places, and in yet others parts of the world the church has become a bastion of conserved advantage rather than reform and transformation. Where and what is the Spirit up to? Do we dare to pray that Spirit move among us and awaken us to what is happening?

You may wish to read my reflections based more clearly on the same readings from 2021.


Or you may wish to read my lament from last year.


This year I am requiring of myself a pondering and searching for where the Spirit may already be at work in the unfolding of the next good thing that the church is being led, provoked, gifted with. (While these are my ponderings they are informed by many authors and leaders greater than I who I list at the end of my reflection.) I need to do this not simply to try and remain up to date and informed but mostly because my faint spirit within me needs the encouragement that good things are happening even in the midst of division, hurt and confusion.

 

If you believe, as I do, that the church is the expression of Christ’s body in the world, is the outworking of the activity of the Spirit of God, is the community of those who know they are beloved of Christ and called to share this good news with all, then we cannot give in to despair or confusion or acrimonious name calling of those who see it differently.

 

It may help to begin by looking back and seeing that this is not the first time that the church has been through a time of upheaval and reformation. Phylis Tickle, and others, have observed that every five hundred years or so the church seems to go through a time of upheaval and change out of which new ways of being church emerge. Indeed, she suggests, that this pattern existed even before Jesus.


Approximately one thousand years before Jesus (1001 – 969BCE) was the end of the judges and the reign of King David: the shift from being ruled by judges to being ruled by kings. And then about six hundred years before Jesus (597BCE) the Babalonian exile began which meant a huge shift in what it meant to be the chosen people and how worship and community life was experienced.

 

And then of course the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the “birth” of the Christian church as described in the Acts reading this week. Our source, reference point, and teacher.

 

But the church has not remained static. For the first few centuries the church was in many ways a loose affiliation of communities who shared the stories of Jesus (according to different gospel accounts depending on what they had access to) and pastoral letters. The early church struggled to come to a shared understanding about many matters and did so in part through a series of Councils which produced statements of belief such as the Nicene Creed and documents of theological agreement after passionate debate! Eventually there was the Council of Chalcedon in 451 at which it was declared that Jesus was both human and divine (there had been much debate before that he was only divine appearing to be human). In terms of our overview of an unfolding church with waves of reform and new expressions this is as good a council as any at which to draw a line. These counsels were not polite academic debates but passionately held views that were thrashed out with much fear and fever.

 

And neither did the changes stop there. In 1054   the great schism between the Latin Western (Catholic) church and the Greek Eastern (Orthodox) church split the known church in two. There were many issues but in particular issues around papal authority and growing socio-political differences.

 

And of course in 1517  Martin Luther is credited with the beginning of the  reformations. Maybe it should come as no surprise that five hundred, approximately, years later that the church again is dividing and reforming.

 

While looking back does not solve any of our current struggles it should comfort and encourage us to think of current struggles and debates as not necessarily heralding the end. Our disturbance and confusion may yet prove to be the birth pains of a new and emerging expression of church. This is my prayer and hope.

 

Because we are still in the middle of whatever is happening now there is no authorative church history statements about the major features of this process of change and emergence – yet! But I would like to reflect with you on the observations of Father Richard Rohr. In 2019 Richard wrote: “I do believe that what some refer to as the “emerging church” is a movement of the Holy Spirit. Movements are the energy building stages of things, before they become monuments, museums, or machines.” Further Richard suggests a number of trends that are contributing to this movement. 1. People’s awareness is broadening and more and more people are acknowledging Jesus’ radical social critique of the systems of domination, money and power and his teaching of non-violence, simplicity of lifestyle, peacemaking, love of creation, and letting go of ego, for individuals and groups. 2. There is a growing recognition that Jesus was clearly concerned about real people’s specific healing and transformation – on earth as it is in heaven. 3. There is a recovering of older and essential contemplative traditions within Christianity. And 4. Critical biblical scholarship is occurring on a broad and ecumenical level especially about historically honest scholarship of Jesus as a Jew. Richard also notes that because of spiritual globalisation (partly because of technology and travel) individuals and churches are benefiting from these insights at approximately the same time so no one group is in charge of these changes making it quite different to previous reformations.

 

With all this reflecting on past divisions and current issues it is important to remember that all players are precious to God and that change and growth does not necessarily mean destruction of what was before. Indeed past divisions did not mean the end of the various strands of the church. For example the emergence of the Catholic Church did not mean the end of the Orthodox church – which continues to be significant in many parts of the world and has indeed continued in it’s own unfolding and developing theology. Anymore than did the reformations which led to the protestant churches lead to the demise of the Catholic church. So I imagine and hope that whatever is emerging now will not lead to the end of the churches of today. While I suspect that some particular churches should be pruned I do not presume or want the end of any denomination that has brought comfort and wisdom to its people. But I do, most strongly, beleive and desire, that the church grow and respond to the issues of our day, that we repent and reform some of our most toxic and harmful assumptions and practices, and that we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us further into truth and love in action.

Some have visualised the process as being like an ancient tree still growing that adds a growth ring year after year. The past is not obliterated or disowned but surrounded by the new growth that reflects the season in which it has grown. (As a dweller in ancient forests in the southern corner of Western Australia this is an image I love.) May my life and ministry honour the foundation on which I have grown and may my response to the world in which I have found myself add to the breadth and depth of the tree of life upon which I depend. I may not live long enough to see what shape of emerging church shall solidify and become normative but I pray and trust that it shall be good not only for those who chose to be within it but for all.

 

Even so, come Spirit of Jesus the Christ, and disturb and comfort us with your renewing purpose.

The views expressed here are my own but of course deeply influenced by those wiser and more prophetic than myself. While I cannot remember all who have influenced me I note those I have consciously referenced for this blog.

 

Marcus J. Borg, "The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a life of Faith", Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 2004


“Emerging Church: Christians Creating a New World Together” DVD produced by John Cline for Center for Action and Contemplation in 2009 featuring Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, Alexie Torres-Fleming, Shane Claiborne.

 

Richard Rohr: “Church: Old and New - The Emerging Church” Daily reflection Monday, October 28th, 2019, cac.org

 

Amy Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors: “The Jewish Annotated New Testament – New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation.”Oxford University Press, New York, 2011

 

Amy Jill Levine, “The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus”, Harper Collins, New York, 2006

 

The many writings of Matthew Fox that began my journey deeper into my own tradition and more broadly into the traditions of others. And the countless other authors and companions who have shared their reflections and insights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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