Naming the Tension – and Living In It

Recently, I’ve been reading the book, “A Hole in our Gospel”, written by Richard Stearns, the President of World Vision.  While there are aspects of the book that don’t sit well with me theologically (Mr. Stearns has an evangelical perspective that I do not share), the book does an excellent job of pointing to an important tension in the Christian tradition:  the tension between faith in Christ as a path to personal salvation and faith in Christ as transformative engagement with the world.  Until he joined World Vision, Mr. Stearns had lived his Christian life primarily out of that first perspective, believing that his faith was primarily about his personal salvation and the personal salvation of others.  That perspective came with a mission imperative:  to help others believe in Christ so that they would have that personal salvation.  Over time, he came to see that this was a kind of “bingo card” Christianity:  once you check off certain items of belief, then your personal salvation is assured, and one can live one’s life in peace – without giving it much more thought.

Over time, Stearns came to see that there was a hole in his Gospel – and in the Gospel followed by most of the Christians he was aware of.   That hole became obvious once he realized that in the Gospels, Jesus actually says very little about belief.  He has a whole lot to say, however, about what people who would follow him should be doing.  And that doing is mainly focused on relieving the suffering of others, especially the poorest and most vulnerable among us.  Stearns comes to the conclusion that Jesus is far less concerned with the verbal proclamation of the Good News.  Rather, he is primarily concerned about us being that proclamation through our loving service to the poor.  In other words, Jesus seems to say that being his disciple is far more about practice than anything else.  It brings to mind the parable found in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 25), in which Jesus makes it clear that those who are his most faithful disciples are those who served the poor, the sick and the imprisoned – for in serving them, Jesus says, they were in fact serving Christ himself.   It also reminds me of those passages in Matthew (chapter 7) and Luke (chapter 6) in which Jesus says it is not enough to call him “Lord” – one must actually do something.  In other words, following Jesus is not so much an exercise of the mind and lips.  Rather, it involves becoming an instrument through whom the kingdom of God can be brought into being in this world.

In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians (in chapter 8), we read:

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.  At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.  Then there will be equality, as it is written:  “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.”

In this passage, Paul is talking about one way of understanding this demand of the Gospel for action:  in terms of equality.  It is a revolutionary idea in contemporary America:  that those of us who have plenty should share with those who do not, so that there will be “equality”.   Words like that, in today’s America, would undoubtedly get Paul labeled a socialist – and that label would certainly be given by some people who are committed followers of Jesus.  Yet, if one reads what Jesus has to say about the kingdom of God carefully, equality is one of the characteristic markers of the kingdom’s presence.  Within the kingdom of God, there is not need or want, nor is there more than is needed.  There is, quite simply, just enough.   Everyone has what they need.

Our sharing of the Eucharist is meant to be a foretaste, a glimpse, of this kingdom of equality.  In another passage, Paul takes the Corinthians to task for distorting their celebration of Communion, because the wealthy members of the community are bringing a picnic lunch and feasting extravagantly while the poorer members are going hungry.  Paul points out that they have missed the point of the Eucharist, and he points out sternly that when they come together for this sacred meal, everyone should be receiving the same, because within the Eucharistic assembly, everyone is equal.  Everyone receives exactly what they need.  And at the center of this Eucharist, we believe Christ is made present – within an assembly of equals, where everyone receives just what they need.

This should teach us that Christ and his kingdom are also made present in those places where this ideal of equality is manifested.  But it is also clear in the  Gospels that Jesus does not wait for this to be achieved before he shows up.  He goes ahead of it, sometimes to the wealthy to make them more aware, but mainly to the poor who are so longing for that equality — that kingdom — to arrive.

None of this is to say that the personal dimensions of faith are not important.  We have personal needs, including the need for a personal encounter with God, that we might be strengthened for the work we are given by God to do in the world.  This is what attracts me to the concept of “contemplative engagement.”   We are meant to have contemplative hearts, rooted in the experience of God that is offered to us in the life of prayer and within the context of the church’s sacramental and communal life.  Yet, that contemplation is not meant to be an end in itself.  Rather, it is meant to propel us into the world in a desire to bring the kingdom that we taste in our personal prayer and spirituality into the larger world.  And part of the experience of prayer is to develop a sense of our own personal poverty which points to the places where we need to be transformed.   That should give us a special concern for the material poverty of the poorest among us, for that shows us where transformation needs to happen in the world.

The Christian life is, I believe, meant to be lived in that tension between contemplation and engagement, or put another way, between our personal salvation and the salvation of the world.  It is a misreading of our scriptures and our tradition to think that the conditions of life in this world don’t matter, that we are all simply aiming for eternity.  Any honest reading of the Gospels will show us that Jesus doesn’t let us off that easily.

St. Teresa of Avila perhaps summed this all up best in a prayer which she authored, and which Richard Stearns includes in his book:

Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion for the world is to look out; yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good; and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.

St. Paul’s own personal transformation as a follower of Jesus led him to conclude that it was no longer he that lived, but rather, Christ was living in and through him (in Galatians, chapter 2).  In other words, his consciousness had been transformed into a Christ-centered consciousness.  And when Christ begins to live within us, we find we have no other choice than to become his body on earth: his eyes, his feet, his hands, to bring compassion and blessing to a wounded world.  We acquire that consciousness through contemplative prayer supported by sacramental life in community.  We live that consciousness by engagement with the world on behalf of the poor, marginalized and vulnerable among us.


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