A couple of weeks ago I was honored to speak at the FPU Biblical Seminary’s chapel, on the topic of the title of this post. Here a slightly briefer version of the meditation. I hope it will afford you a glimpse into what we are doing here and thinking about.
I offer a homily from history, some hints of what God is doing, and what he has done. Let’s begin with Acts 6: 1-6, the story of the formation of the first “deacons,” those who served the needs of the community. There was a particular need at a particular time, arising out of a complaint. Some of the widows in the church body were not receiving an equitable portion of the distribution of food. This was an important complaint for the church. True religion was seen in the protection of widows, orphans and foreigners, as the prophets remind us. It was a matter of the character of the body, and of simple righteousness or justice.
But there was more. The widows not receiving the food were Greek speaking Jews or Hellenists, not Aramaic speaking Jews, or Hebraists, and were probably a minority. Though they were all Jews by heritage, they had lived in different communities, with different languages and cultural patterns. One group was not being seen, and their needs were not recognized; the Hebraists were probably distributing the food. This is not unusual, we naturally tend to love and take care of our own.
The Apostles recognized the importance of the complaint. They asked the congregation to choose some who were wise and full of the spirit to attend to the distribution of foods and to care for those in need. The church offered a unique response. They chose seven, all Hellenists, one an ethnic Greek. In this monumental act the church chose what appeared to be the ethnic minority to lead them; it recognized their spiritual virtues. And they shared responsibility, power, and status. They seemed to have done this thoroughly—not one Hebraist was chosen among the seven.
This seems to have been recognition that we see those closest to us, recognize their abilities, do not always understand or recognize the excellences of others. It is difficult to share power and responsibility. To be truly one body meant recognizing giftedness in others, and sharing in authority, responsibility, and power. This was an act beyond hospitality and caring for others. It was an act of becoming a new body, with new leaders and new group identity. The New Thing begins among the new people in very mundane matter—complaints about food, and providing for its distribution. It results in the formation of a new identity.
Where might we look for other examples of this New Thing? The church has confronted this continually in its history. Let me offer one example, an imaginative one, but one based in a historical conflict.
In Heaven, the third book of the Divine Comedy, Dante illustrates a restored and reconciled Christian community or city that has arisen through the power of grace, out of the conflicts that it struggled with on earth. Like the church in the book of Acts, the church of the Middle Ages and our churches today struggle to be the body of Christ. Dante’s illustration builds on the insights of Acts and offers a way of applying the teaching of that story for his age and ours.
Dante narrates his visit to the fourth level of heaven, that of the sun, in cantos ten through twelve. He meets there a circle of theologians, led by Thomas Aquinas. The light of their wisdom is a reflection of the sun’s light, a symbol of divine wisdom in the philosophical tradition. This is reflected in the prologue to the Gospel of John, and Dante uses it freely.
Thomas introduces Dante to those who are with him in the circle: theologians, historians (of course), and philosophers from the history of the church. Those who write commentaries on the Divine Comedy emphasize that the theologians of the circle are those who reconciled—philosophy and theology, reason and faith, political and churchly law. The lights circle around Dante and Beatrice in harmony.
Then Thomas tells a story. Thomas was a Dominican. The Dominicans, founded by St. Dominic, were a new, cutting-edge ministry of the 13th century. They were dedicated to teaching and missionary activity; they were dedicated to living like Christ in poverty. Instead of telling of the life of Dominic, however, Thomas tells of the life of St. Francis, the other new cutting edge order of the 13th century.
The Franciscans were also dedicated to poverty, and were a begging order, but they were dedicated to service to the poor, to the sick, in Francis’s case to Lepers, and to the restoration of the Church. They delighted in God’s creation. Francis was referred to as the Second Christ, and received the Stigmata, the unsealing wounds as Christ receive from the cross. Thomas tells Francis’ story.
Then Thomas proclaimed that the Dominicans should reflect this Christ-likeness, this charity, this service to the poor and the sick. We might think that Thomas has reconsidered his life on earth and perhaps thought he had chosen the wrong way. Dante does not let us wonder for long.
Soon we meet a second thinker and a second circle of lights, circling around the first circle. Its leader is St. Bonaventure, the other great theologian of the 13th century. Bonaventure was a Franciscan, a leader of the Franciscan order, and a prolific theologian and spiritual writer.
Bonaventure tells of the life of another saint, the founder of the other new monastic order of the 13th century, St. Dominic, and like Thomas he judges his own Franciscans against the standard of the life of St. Dominic, asking them to reflect the holiness of the Dominicans. He then introduces himself and the other eleven in his circle, once again reconcilers. Like Bonaventure a number were spiritual teachers.
Dante is almost certainly reflecting his own reconciliation of the tensions of his own age. And these tensions and reconciliation reflect the all too human problems we saw in Acts 6. In the 13th and early 14th century when Dante was writing the Franciscans and Dominicans argued with each other over which order was more Christ-like, over which was the highest in the order of charity. This question goes back to the disciples and Jesus; it is nothing new. It continues today. Dante, like the Apostles in Acts, has resolution for the debate, portrayed in his description of the fourth level of Heaven.
Both orders are gifts of God to serve the needs of and enlighten others. The Dominicans need the example and life of the Franciscans; it is for this that they teach. The Franciscans need the teaching of the Dominicans; their life of witness will need words and sound teaching, or it will run off into error (as it did in the late 13th and 14th centuries). They are 2 wheels on a cart. When one falls off, Dante says, or doesn’t work in the same direction as the other, the cart goes nowhere. Each body, each group, is given gifts of insight and action for our lives as followers of Christ, but these are gifts not for ourselves, but for others and for us together. The opposite is also the case. The gifts others have been given, we need. They see what we don’t; they fill up what we lack.
The gifts that characterize us are particular and not complete gifts. Christ taught and evangelized, and he served by feeding and healing the poor and sick. We more often than not can only gain a grasp on one of these. We dedicate ourselves to study, to teaching, to preaching, or evangelizing. We usually cannot, except for short periods, serve the poor and sick. Or we dedicate our to service, to healing, to social justice, but we cannot, most of us, except for short periods, fill the role of the teacher, or we find ourselves out of our depth. But the teacher prepares the servants for the work of serving others. And the servants encourage and take care of those in need. The teacher will one day be needy.
We see the world through our occupation, or the character of our particular church body. And no single body can be and do everything needed for the Church to be whole and complete. What we are and have is for others; we need what the other brings and offers.
Let me conclude, with something about this New Thing. Dante offered an application of the book of Act to his own age. Perhaps we can do so for ours—an application of this teaching.
We have plenty to work with here among ourselves at the university, seminary, and in our churches and city: we are of different ethnic groups like in Acts; we bring the character of different denominations and theological traditions like in the 13th century; we pray and praise differently than each other; we sometimes think differently and weigh ideas and evidence differently, and we have different goals, and different missional needs in mind. This is not new.
If we would be part of the New Thing God is doing, then we might act like the church of Acts, or those of Dante’s imagined Heaven. We will need to recognize the identities gifts of others as given to them in and for Christ’s kingdom and the world. We will need to recognize the limitations of our gifts and identities, and that we need the gifts and insight of others. We will offer our gifts to others so that they can more fully exercise their particular calling within the church and to the world. They will not become us. We will become one body together.
There is more. Both the early church of Acts and the church of the 13th century learned through conflict, had to see their inabilities, the injustices they had perpetrated or at least abetted. They had to see and accept this, and offer authority, responsibility, status and power to other who became part of our new community. When this new thing happens, we will not remain the same. New people from God’s larger kingdom will join us; we will join with them. We will learn to see differently, to appreciate with greater joy, and to understand the expansiveness of the New Thing God is Doing. We will be a new people.
You do not have to remember my words; you just need to remember the stories of Acts 6 and Dante’s Heaven. Let us be grateful that we have the experience of the early church and of visionaries like Dante to guide us in our lives together as Christ’s new people.