Leadership is a Call to be Prophetic and Reframe

“No future can be stuffed into this presence except by being dead.”1 Resurrection is impossible without prior death. Scriptural imagination is often difficult to perceive until one has the eyes to see and ears to hear and is simultaneously shaped by the cosmic scope of authority, power, and kingdom that Jesus claims is to be made on real on earth as in heaven (Matt 6:10). Leadership, inspired by scriptural imagination is helping to provide an alternative view on reality, that is, creating the particular space for change and the in-breaking of God. Leadership is submitting to the radically subversive lordship of Jesus that challenges every presupposition, the tendency to see through the lens of binary options of how to participate in the world (choices between naive hope and despair), and ultimately to take on the task of becoming a reframer. This kind of leadership, that both attests to the in-breaking of the future into the present and is capable of providing an alternative view of reality, is only made possible through the path of suffering and cross; because, without the cross there is no resurrection.

Situating Matthew’s Gospel as a prophetic text, and Jesus as a prophet in Matthew’s narrative, reframed the scope and function of the text for me and helped me to have new eyes to see. It also helps to explore Walter Brueggemann’s description of prophetic imagination as:

The task of prophetic ministry is to bring the claims of the tradition and situation of enculturation into an effective interface. That is, the prophet is called to be a child of the tradition, one who has taken it seriously in the shaping of his or her own field of perception and system of language, who is so at home in that memory that the points of contact and incongruity with the situation of the church in culture can be discerned and articulated with proper urgency.2

The prophets are not loose canons looking to dismantle the tradition and break down boundary markers of identity unless those boundary markers and traditions have become inconsistent and divergent from the memory that birthed the contemporary incarnation of the community and shared story. In this sense, Jesus is not only a prophet, but also a reframer, whose memory of the tradition and story of God is reoriented to new possibilities, and is a fulfillment of the spirit of the memories of the past. Jesus did not come to abolish the law or prophets; no, Jesus came to fulfill them (Matt 5:17). Fulfillment is only possible with knowledge of what came before so that it may be actualized in the present. Peter Rollins describes this process of reframing in order to fulfill as learning how to ask “circumcision questions”, i.e. questions which ask us to “remove something previously thought of as vital in order to help unveil, in an apocalyptic way, the central scandal of Christianity.”3 Reframers must be willing to help find out what must die so that new life might be able to emerge.

However, reframing is not simply an ideological endeavor that is meant only to shape imagination. The telos of reframing through the development of scriptural imagination is for transformation of the community where “the glory of God in Jesus Christ that makes itself visible in fleshly communities conformed to Christ’s image.”4 Leadership then is the ability to attest to the in-breaking of God who writes on our hearts and bears witness to the covenanted community “whose lives, transformed by the Holy Spirit, bear undeniable witness to the truth of God’s work in their midst.”5 Reframing is all-encompassing and cosmic in scope as all of creation is groaning towards the making right of all things. Leaders reframe perspectives by attesting to an alternative reality and way of participating in the world that is a signpost of the manifestation of God in our midst.

Leadership and the art of reframing is truly a gift, but a gift that is not to be enjoyed by oneself, but is instead a gift leading us back out into the larger context, a gift given to us so that we might be a blessing to the entire world. We are invited to reframe the larger cultural story, with a new story rooted in the faithfulness of God. Dr. Hays writes in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, “What we have to offer instead is the story of Jesus. To believe that story is to find one’s whole life reframed, one’s questions radically reformulated. Therefore, much of the work of Christian apologetics will be to say to people, ‘No, you are asking the wrong questions, looking for the wrong thing.’”6 Leaders help us work together to ask the right questions and be open to how God might reframe us and reorient us to become the transformational communities God has called us to be. And let us pray for the courage to ask the right questions to help each one of us to reframe the story in the luminous darkness of the mystery of God, who is the author of the words on our heart, lest we mistake ourselves to be the Word ourselves.

Strangely enough, leadership and the invitation to become a reframer is a calling that I sought to avoid, because while the truth may set me free, it does so by turning my life completely upside down.7 It seems to me that one of the most pressing tasks for Christian leaders today is to “sketch a portrait of an alternative Christianity, one that is as ancient as it is new…a work of memory and imagination, of dangerous memories as well as daring ways to imagine the future.”8 But this task will inevitably lead to suffering, or if Wendell Berry is right as quoted above, the future cannot become the present without death. And while the good news of Jesus is that through the resurrection the kingdom has come, as leaders we must learn how to help cultivate and proclaim scriptural imagination so that our churches can bear witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit that is seeking to “create communities that prefigure and embody the reconciliation and healing of the world.”9 And it seems to me that the battle over our imaginations whether through national identity, consumerism, war, corporations, rampant individualism, and ceaseless connection via technology is a perpetual struggle for leaders today in the church. For me, to accept the call to lead in the church today is in essence an acceptance of the call to weakness and seeming foolishness: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:25)”

If you are looking for a way to dream of an alternative reality that seeks to imagine how the power of Jesus can change systemic injustice you won’t want to miss the event hosted by The Leland Center this weekend:

Journey to Justice is a daylong spiritual formation event focusing on the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other great people of faith during the civil rights movement. This inaugural seminar will be held on Saturday, April 27 from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, VA. Dr. Jim Melson, Leland’s Director of Spiritual Formation, will moderate Journey to Justice in 3 formative sessions. For more information about event registration click here.

 

Josh is the Pastor to Students and Director of Creative Technologies at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Warrenton, VA. He’s also the author of Sacred Hope a book designed to foster conversation around the role of hope in our lives. Josh is currently pursuing his Doctor of Ministry degree at Duke Divinity School while raising two boys and loving his entrpreneurial wife, Shey. Josh blogs at joshuarhayden.com.

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1 Wendell Berry, Given: New Poems (Emeryville: Shoemaker Hoard, 2005), 27. 

2 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 2.

3 Peter Rollins, Insurrection (New York: Howard Books, 2011), xii.

4 Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in The Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 146. 

5 Ibid., 150.

6 Richard Hays, First Corinthians; Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2011), 38. 

7 John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 30.

8 Ibid., 35. 

9 Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation; A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1996), 32.

Pray for Ears to Hear

A couple nights ago the first presidential debate aired on television, and as responsible theologians, leaders, pastors, and followers of Jesus living in one of the strongest powers in the world, we watch, listen and prayerfully consider the words of these two men who have reached the pinnacle of the electoral process. Tomorrow morning blogs, news websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc. will all be filled with commentary from authoritative voices, friends, enemies, and people across the spectrum from our own personal and communal political postures.

As we consider the words of these two leaders, as Christians we must wonder where our responsibility lies in the political process. To what degree are we to find hope in the correlation of the government and the kingdom of God, or is there any correlation at all? Baptists throughout our history have struggled with how we should relate to the government and political powers at large, and today is no different.

It seems like we might be able to learn from the models of leadership in the Old Testament royal tradition to give some insight into contemporary leadership today. I’d like to specifically explore the relationship of the prophet and kings, all in a conversation with Jacques Ellul, the French theologian and philosopher, his book The Politics of God & The Politics of Man (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972) and in the context of the stories of the monarchy discussed in 2 Kings.

If we can learn anything from the failure of nerve and incompatibility of the kings highlighted by Ellul that is particularly relevant for contemporary leadership it seems to be: pray for the ears to hear and eyes to see. Time and time again the “anointed” and called out kings who were meant to be messiahs and living signposts of the covenant between God and his people simply confused the politics of man so as to miss the power and politics of God. The prophetic word came to them through Elisha, and they could not or chose not to hear, which led eventually to inaction or sinful action.

In this high pressured election season, it seems appropriate to ask where the (dis)continuity of the kingdom of God and government begin and end; or perhaps, does the (dis)continuity actually point out the tremendous complexity and difficulty in whether there is the potential for confusion in the eyes of the world in understanding where Christianity begins and ends in relation to national identity?

Leland is a model of what seminary education can look like when cultural, ethnic, racial, theological, and contextual diversity is embraced for the mutual benefit of the community at large and the kingdom of God. And this diversity presses us to stretch beyond the media sound bites and exaggerated rhetoric to become signposts of the politics of God, rooted in love and groaning toward the restoration of the world and signaled by the visions of John in Revelation:  “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands (The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Re 7:9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.)”

Yet, in spite of the often poor models of leadership we find in the royal tradition as explored by Ellul in 2 Kings, God’s salvation is greater and may be a point of emphasis for Christian leadership during this election season. As Christian leaders we can emphasize God’s intervention in that “God takes upon himself the misery of this people, its shame and the evil it commits (Ellul, The Politics of God & The Politics of Man, 68).” As leaders in the Christian situation today, we can find hope that God’s freedom is bound to take on the suffering and misery of humankind so that it will lead to our eventual and mutual salvation. And we can pray together that we will have the ears to hear God’s call during a political season marked by alienation and fragmentation, so that we might be able and willing to choose a politics of love rooted in the salvation of God for all people—no matter their party affiliation or national identity—because we are all made in the image of God.

By: Rev. Josh Hayden

The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached

The Sermon on the Mount (aka the Great Sermon) is undoubtedly Matthew’s greatest composition. The Sermon is a harmonious masterpiece of ethical and religious admonitions, containing such well-known items as the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12), the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13), and the Golden Rule (7:12). The Sermon has had an enormous impact on Western civilization. Politicians often quote the beatitudes as a kind of platform. Many expressions from the sermon have entered our language at a popular level, such that even non-Christians are aware of “the salt of the earth,” “turning the other cheek,” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, a self-styled deist, nonetheless identified the Sermon, along with the Ten Commandments, as expressive of the moral principles on which the United States should be founded.

My primary focus is on the nine beatitudes as found in Matthew 5:3-12 (Luke’s Sermon on the Plain has four beatitudes [6:20-23], John’s Gospel has one [20:29], while the book of Revelation has seven in the form of isolated sayings [1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14]). The term “beatitude” is derived from the Latin beati (meaning “blessed” or “happy”). Technically known as macarisms, the term comes from the Greek makarios (also “blessed” or “happy”).

More than any other instructor on morality, Jesus teaches with divine power and authority (exousia), and by this empowerment makes possible a new existence. The beatitudes are not mere words. Rather, they express succinctly the values on which Jesus placed priority: (1) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (2) Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (3) Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (4) Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (5) Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. (6) Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (7) Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (8) Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (9) Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5: 3-12 NRSV).

The first beatitude exhibits a number of parallels with Isaiah 61:1-2 where the prophet spoke of future blessings that the Lord’s anointed would bestow on those on the margins of society. Jesus quoted Isaiah’s prophecyin order to bless the poor and promise them participation in God’s kingdom. God has never been impressed with human strength or self-sufficiency. Rather, He is drawn to people who are weak and admit it. According to Jesus, this is the number one attitude that God blesses. Being poor in spirit is a tacit recognition of our need to depend on God; it humbles us and prevents arrogance.

The second beatitude is a variation on the first. “Those who mourn” recognize their need of God’s help (see Isa 61:3). God alone is able to bring lasting comfort to those who mourn when death is finally destroyed (Rev 21:4). However, Jesus has already brought good tidings to the poor and consolation to the sorrowful in His ministry.

The third beatitude, influenced by Psalm 37:11 and Isaiah 60:21; 61:7, extols the virtue of humility. Jesus Himself was gentle, humble, and meek, and He called on His followers to imitate Him as they prepare to inherit the kingdom (Matt 11:28-30; 25:34).

Behind the fourth beatitude stands the idea of God’s faithfulness to the covenant with His people. A person is said to be righteous if that individual is “right with God”; that is, if that person lives out the covenant relationship with God and neighbor. God blesses those who receive His gift of a right relationship with Him and do His will.

The fifth beatitude describes a quality of God. The biblical concept of mercy has two components: pardon granted to the guilty (e.g. Exod 34:6, 7) and help for those in need (Exod 22:27). In this beatitude, however, Matthew emphasizes forgiveness as the primary ingredient (see Matt 6:14-15; 18:21-35). The more we extend mercy to others, the more we become complete in God as we receive His mercy (5:48; Luke 6:36).

The sixth beatitude recalls Psalm 24:3-6. The beatitude links purity of heart with the prospect of access to God. The contrast between ritual purity and purity of heart that brings forth just and merciful behavior is of special interest for Matthew (5:21-48; 9:13; 12:7). Jesus summons us to actions rooted in pure motives, such as reconciliation, gentleness, and mercy.

The seventh beatitude refers to the establishment of peace and concord in human society (cf. Isa 2:1-4). Peace comes from God, the prime peacemaker. Jesus, the incarnate God, is our peace, uniting Jews and Gentiles by His death (Eph 2:14). This beatitude promises that peacemakers somehow participate in Jesus’ obedient sonship and become part of the new community (Matt 3:17; 4:3, 6).

The eighth beatitude reminds us that the essence of Christianity is countercultural. The followers of Christ will endure physical, emotional, and spiritual distress in their quest to honor God and His kingdom.

The final beatitude, the only one expressed in the second-person plural (“blessed are you”), makes explicit the theme of discipleship, which lies at the heart of the entire Sermon. The beatitude juxtaposes a warning about the imminent rejection of Jesus’ followers and the promise of a rich reward in the coming kingdom.

In this election season of charged political rhetoric, the beatitudes beckon us to an alternative manifesto. The beatitudes distill the message of the kingdom of God, which Jesus, the “new Moses,” presents to the people of God. While the ethical and moral thrust of the beatitudes cannot be denied, they also function as consolation and promise for those who remain true to their discipleship and the cause of the kingdom of God. Theologically speaking, in the beatitudes we are confronted with the demand of God in its starkest form and bidden to obey.

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