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The fifth and final book in Eugene Peterson's best-selling series of "conversations" in spiritual theology, Practice Resurrection gets at the heart of strong, healthy Christian formation.
Though bringing people to new birth in Christ through evangelism is essential, says Peterson, isn't it obvious that growth in Christ is equally essential? Yet the American church does not treat Christian growth and character formation with equivalent urgency. We are generally uneasy with the quiet, obscure conditions in which growth takes place, and building maturity in Christ too often gets relegated to footnote status in the text of our lives.
In Practice Resurrection Peterson brings the voice of Scripture—especially Paul's letter to the Ephesians—and the voice of the contemporary Christian congregation together to unpack what it means to fully grow up "to the stature of Christ." Peterson's robust discussion will move readers to restore transformed Christian character to the center of their lives.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
[T]he church is not an ideal to be striven for; she exists and they're within her.
GEORGES BERNANOS, Diary of a Country Priest
Church is the textured context in which we grow up in Christ to maturity. But church is difficult. Sooner or later, though, if we are serious about growing up in Christ, we have to deal with church. I say sooner. I want to begin with church. Many Christians find church to be the most difficult aspect of being a Christian. And many drop out-there may be more Christians who don't go to church or go only occasionally than who embrace it, warts and all. And there are certainly plenty of warts. It is no easier for pastors. The attrition rate among pastors leaving their congregations is alarming.
So, why church? The short answer is because the Holy Spirit formed it to be a colony of heaven in the country of death, the country William Blake named, in his comprehensive reimagining of the spiritual life, "land of Ulro." Church is the core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not that kingdom complete, but it is a witness to that kingdom.
But it takes both sustained effort and a determined imagination to understand and embrace church in its entirety. Casual and superficial experience with church often leaves us with an impression of bloody fights, acrimonious arguments, and warring factions. These are more than regrettable; they are scandalous. But they don't define church. There are deep continuities that sustain church at all times and everywhere (ubique et ab omnibus, as the Latin tag has it) as primarily and fundamentally God's work, however Christians and others may desecrate and abuse it. C. S. Lewis introduced the term "deep church" to convey the ocean fathoms of tradition that are continuously re-experienced "at all times and everywhere." I like that: deep church.
Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident, death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection, and hanging. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life. This practice is not a vague wish upwards but comprises a number of discrete but interlocking acts that maintain a credible and faithful way of life, Real Life, in a world preoccupied with death and the devil.
These practices include the worship of God in all the operations of the Trinity; the acceptance of a resurrection, born-from-above identity (in baptism); the embrace of resurrection formation by eating and drinking Christ's resurrection body and blood (at the Lord's Table); attentive reading of and obedience to the revelation of God in the Scriptures; prayer that cultivates an intimacy with realities that are inaccessible to our senses; confession and forgiveness of sins; welcoming the stranger and outcast; working and speaking for peace and justice, healing and truth, sanctity and beauty; care for all the stuff of creation. The practice of resurrection encourages improvisation on the basic resurrection story as given in our Scriptures and revealed in Jesus. Thousands of derivative unanticipated resurrection details proliferate across the landscape. The company of people who practice resurrection replicates the way of Jesus on the highways and byways named and numbered on all the maps of the world.
This is the church.
The practice of resurrection is not an attack on the world of death; it is a nonviolent embrace of life in the country of death. It is an open invitation to live eternity in time.
But the practice of resurrection, by its very nature, is not something any of us are very good at. Outsiders (and plenty of insiders too!) look at us and see how badly we do it. They observe how hit-and-miss so much of our practice is.
It is easy to dismiss the church as ineffective and irrelevant. And many do dismiss it. It is easy to be condescending to the church because so many of its members are unimpressive nonentities. Condescension is widespread. It is common to become disillusioned with the church because expectations formed in the country of death and by the lies of the devil are disappointments. Disillusionment is, as a matter of course, common.
In the face of all the easy dismissals, the widespread condescension, and the epidemic disillusionment, how are we going to maintain the practice of resurrection in the company of the men and women in the church?
This requires serious conversation, for if the church is intended as God's advertisement to the world, a utopian community put on display so that people will flock to it clamoring to get in, it has obviously become a piece of failed strategy. And if the church is intended to be a disciplined company of men and women charged to get rid of corruption in government, to clean up the world's morals, to convince people to live chastely and honestly, to teach them to treat the forests, rivers, and air with reverence, and children, the elderly, the poor, and the hungry with dignity and compassion, it hasn't happened. We've been at this for two thousand years now, and people are not clamoring to join us. We've been at this for two thousand years, and we have just been through the bloodiest and most violent century in recent history, and the present century hard at its heels seems to be hell-bent on surpassing it. Obviously, the church is not an ideal community that everyone takes one look at and asks, "How do I get in?" Clearly, the church is not making much headway in eliminating what is wrong in the world and making everything right. So what's left?
What's left is this: we look at what has been given to us in our Scriptures and in Jesus and try to understand why we have a church in the first place, what the church, as it is given to us, is. We are not a utopian community. We are not God's avenging angels. I want to look at what we have, what the church is right now, and ask, Do you think that maybe this is exactly what God intended when he created the church? Maybe the church as we have it provides the very conditions and proper company congenial for growing up in Christ, for becoming mature, for arriving at the measure of the stature of Christ. Maybe God knows what he is doing, giving us church, this church.
The Church We Never See
Ephesians is a revelation of the church we never see. It shows us the healthy soil and root system of all the operations of the Trinity out of which the church that we do see grows. It does not describe the various expressions of what grows from that soil into cathedrals and catacombs, storefront missions and revival tents, tabernacles and chapels. Nor does it deal with the various ways in which church takes form in liturgy and mission and polity. Rather, it is an inside look at what is beneath and behind and within the church that we do see wherever and whenever it becomes visible.
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The Ephesus church was a missionary church established by the eloquent and learned Jewish preacher Apollos (Acts 18:24). Paul stopped by to visit this fledgling Christian community in the course of his second missionary journey, met with the tiny congregation (there were only twelve of them), and guided them into receiving the Holy Spirit. The year was probably A.D. 52. He stayed on for three months, using the local synagogue as his center for preaching and teaching "the kingdom of God" (Acts 19:8). That three-month visit, following the dramatic encounters with the seven sons of Sceva and the mob scene incited by Demetrius over the matter of the goddess Artemis (Diana), extended to three years. Paul was in Ephesus three years, pastor to this Christian congregation in formation (Acts 20:31).
Later, the name Ephesus was attached to a letter that provides our best access to what is involved in the formation of church, not so much the way the church appears in our towns and cities, but the essence that is behind the appearances: God's will, Christ's presence, the Holy Spirit's work. This, not what we do or do not do in belief and doubt, in faithfulness or betrayal, in obedience or disobedience, is what we simply must get through our heads if we are going to understand and participate rightly in any church that we are part of. This is the only writing in the New Testament that provides us with such a detailed and lively account of the inside and underground workings of the complex and various profusion of "churches" that we encounter and try to make sense of.
There are fifteen named churches in the New Testament. All but two (Antioch and Jerusalem) had letters addressed to them. The Ephesian letter is unique in that it is the only one that is not provoked by some problem, whether of behavior or belief. Ephesians may have been a general church letter that circulated among the first-century congregations. The contrast of Ephesians with all the other New Testament letters is stark. All the others were written ad hoc. If something had not gone wrong or been misunderstood in these other churches, there would have been no letters written to them. Ephesians works from the other direction. It immerses us in the holy and healthy conditions out of which a mature life can develop.
In Thessalonica, some members of the church were so sure that the Lord was returning any day that they quit working. They sat around speculating about what kind of cloud would provide the chariot for Jesus' arrival and letting their less spiritual brothers and sisters provide them with meals. The Corinthians were a fractious crew, arguing and squabbling over various items of behavior having to do with diet and sex and worship. The Christians in Colossae were muddled in their esoteric thinking about Christ and needed straightening out. The Galatian Christians were regressing into some tired old legalisms and needed a thorough shaking up. The Romans, a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, were having a hard time finding a common base in Christ. Philemon, one of the leaders in the Colossian church, had a runaway slave returned to him and required some firm counsel from Paul in how to treat him. Timothy and Titus were responsible for leading less than ideal churches and needed Paul's specific instruction and encouragement.
Sometimes we hear our friends talk in moony, romantic terms of the early church. "We need to get back to being just like the early church." Heaven help us. These churches were a mess, and Paul wrote his letters to them to try to clean up the mess.
But the dominant concern in this Ephesian letter is not to deal with the human problems that inevitably develop in church - no church is exempt-but to explore God's glory that gives the church its unique identity. The letter also gives us an adequate vocabulary and large enough imagination for living in the fullness of God's glory, living to "the praise of his glory" (Eph. 1:14). "Glory" is a large word in our Scriptures, radiating the many dimensions of God's grandeur, brightness, effulgence, and illuminating everything around it. The letter also makes it clear that none of us can comprehend this individually, each Christian picking out items that appeal to him or her, cafeteria style. We do this as a church, a congregation of Christians who sit down at table together and receive in gratitude what is prepared and served to us by our Lord, the Spirit. It is as if Paul takes time out from his responsibilities for straightening out the problems of belief and behavior that have cropped up in the various churches and writes out, as clearly and completely as he can, what makes church church. And what comes clear is that church is not what we do; it is what God does, although we participate in it.
When we who follow Jesus enter a church and participate in its life, our understanding of the place and company we are in is strongly conditioned by what we observe and experience in this congregation and its local history, these people with their personal and collective virtues and faults. That means that none of us ever sees the church whole and complete. We have access only to something partial, sometimes distorted, always incomplete.
Ephesians provides us with an understanding of church from the inside, the hidden foundations and structural elements that provide grounding and form to the people, whoever they are, and the place, wherever it is. Ephesians documents the Trinitarian realities from which congregations are formed, however incomplete or fragmented the formation. We have the Ephesian letter before us so that even though we are surrounded with immature and deficient and incomplete churches, we can acquire a feel for what maturity is, what growing up in Christ consists of. By means of Ephesians we get an accurate account of what God is doing and the way the Spirit is working at the heart of every congregation. As such, it is a great gift of revelation. Without Ephesians we would be left to guesswork, making up "church" as we went along, and we'd be easy prey to every church fad that comes along. Without the clear vision of Ephesians we are left looking at the church through a cracked windshield marred by smudges and spattered bugs.
So we don't read Ephesians as a picture of a "perfect church" to which we compare our congregations and try to copy what we see. Rather, we read Ephesians as the revelation of all the operations of the Triune God that are foundational beneath what is visible among us and at work throughout each congregation. This is what makes us what we are, however imperfectly or neurotically we happen to be living it out.
* * *
There are some who idealize the Ephesian church as the one New Testament church that had it all together. But there are two, maybe three, references that definitively prevent that. Some years after the time that Paul spent with the Ephesian congregation (Acts 19:20), he wrote a letter to Timothy, who had been sent to the Ephesian congregation to be their pastor. The first letter of Paul to Timothy is his counsel in how to deal with the Ephesian church. The picture we get from the letter is nothing remotely like an ideal congregation. The Ephesians come off the pages of Paul's letter as a talkative, argumentative gathering, engaged in silly speculations and "meaningless talk ... without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions" (1 Tim. 1:6-7). Paul goes over some very elementary things about appointing leaders. As he comments on the congregation that Timothy is now in charge of, Paul mentions the danger of "profane myths and old wives' tales" (4:7). He notes that "some have already turned away to follow Satan" (5:15). He warns of those who have a "morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words" (6:4). In short, a squabbling congregation. This does not sound like a mature or healthy church.
Paul also makes a reference to Ephesus in his first letter to the Corinthians when he tells them, "I fought with wild animals at Ephesus" (1 Cor. 15:32). He doesn't specify whether these "wild animals" were inside or outside the church itself. Many readers understandably suspect that they may have been inside.
The other New Testament reference to the church at Ephesus comes from a time twenty or thirty years later, after Paul's time with them. It was during a time of persecution of the Christian churches by Rome. At the time the apostle John was pastor to a circuit of seven congregations that included Ephesus. In the persecution he found himself exiled to the prison island of Patmos. One Lord's Day he had a magnificent vision of what was going on at the time and what was going to come from it. As his seven churches worshiped week by week in these desperate circumstances, he was given a vision of a great war between good and evil that the churches were caught in, a cosmic conflict between the angels of heaven and apocalyptic beasts and a great dragon. Christians were being killed as Rome targeted the weak and impoverished churches with the raw power of swords and horses. Christians within the congregations were wavering, trying to survive by adapting to the conditions.
But there is something far greater than the raw power of Rome here. There is worship: God is on his throne, Christ is revealing his comprehensive salvation, the elders and all creation are in jubilant song and adoration, and Babylon/Rome, even while the Christians in their churches are at worship with their Scriptures and prayers, is doomed. John writes out the vision for his seven congregations. He stretches their imagination to take in everything that is going on that very day in their Lord's Day worship.
Excerpted from Practice Resurrection by Eugene H. Peterson Copyright © 2010 by Eugene H. Peterson. Excerpted by permission.
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