May 21, 2015
By: Daniel Castelo, SPS Associate Professor of Dogmatic and Constructive Theology
It is a great pleasure being with you this morning. I wish to thank Dean Doug Strong for the opportunity to speak to you today and to thank you for the work you do, largely behind the scenes, for our Seminary. Obviously, the kind of commitment you have made to be here with us and to support us is tremendous. In this sense, the “you” and “us” language is inaccurate; we are in this together, and the “this” in question is an effort to extend God’s gospel to our immediate environs here in the Pacific Northwest but also beyond this region, as B.T. Roberts envisioned for this place so long ago.
As you may know, this quarter my lectio writings on Romans have been highlighted through the Center for Biblical and Theological Education (CBTE). I wrote these a few years ago and going through this cycle once more has been rewarding. I have had some words of affirmation by colleagues, which is always encouraging and I have had some questions come up that have made me go deeper into the text. And so through this process, I have continued to grow in my understanding and appreciation of this important book of Sacred Scripture. I hope the lectio resource has been helpful in your contexts of service and ministry.
A theme that I have been coming back to time and time again recently has been the way that Paul speaks of the Christian gospel. As you may be aware, Paul has two major elaborations of the gospel in Chapter 1 of Romans. The first is in verses 2-6. I joke with students that verses 1-7 is one long sentence and that I have been accused from time to time as sounding Pauline given what both my students and editors tell me. I respond that I am just trying to be biblical.
Verses 2-6 represent simply a massive account of the gospel in a nutshell: within it one can tease out a number of themes, such as Christ’s continuity with the Old Testament witness, an implicit Trinitarianism, a paradoxical structure that hints at what would become the form of Chalcedonian Christology, Christ’s Lordship, Christian calling and mission, and oh, by the way, ministry to the Gentiles. Wow. I simply marvel at how much is there and how much of that has been generative for the church’s doctrinal imagination over the centuries.
But I wish to focus on the second of Paul’s takes on the gospel in this opening chapter, what some people call the crux or gist of the Book of Romans as a whole. And that would be verses 16-17: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” Now, as in the previous case with verses 2-6, so here: There is simply quite a bit that can be unpacked. I wish to only do a bit of this but do so in our present context: the context of theological education and Seminary training. In particular, I wish to stress the “shame” and “power” dynamic associated with the gospel in a place like this and in terms of the work we do here.
I have to admit that I have been thinking a lot about seminary education lately, especially the future of seminary education, in that it has been the case now for several years, that many have said that the Christian church is waning in our context and that seminary education is impacted as a result. I am sure you have heard the details and will continue to hear them for some time. The church is changing, our context is changing, and theological education is changing – and in all three cases oftentimes the change in question is not understood as “positive” change or “hopeful” change but quite the opposite. I am not going to say that I have grown ashamed of the gospel or ashamed of what we do – “heaven forbid!” to use Paul’s language (as rendered in some translations) – but there is a certain weight and trepidation that comes along with this kind of messaging. The weight and trepidation involve the following things: Am I/are we up to the challenge of facing all these changes? Am I/are we going to have to fundamentally rethink Christian ministry because of these various pressures? What is the future of Christianity in this country? Is what I do/we do now able to help those who are entering ministry in this context? These questions, these challenges, these messages can all be overwhelming. Again, I am not saying that I have grown ashamed of the Christian message or of what we do here, but all of these pressures have a way of eating away at one’s sense of well-being, of personal and vocational satisfaction – in short, they obstruct shalom and kingdom hope.
In light of this, I find myself coming back to Paul’s statement: the gospel is “the power of God for salvation.” Why would Paul use this language of “power”? Isn’t it fascinating that this is how he speaks of the gospel? The gospel is the “power of God.” What can this mean? Why the language of “power” here? How to communicate this, and how to live into this, especially when so many contemporary pressures and forces make us feel disempowered in terms of our identities and callings as Christians?
In light of the strangeness of this expression, it is worth asking: When we think of the “power of God,” what do we think of? What comes to our minds? And how does this vision change, if at all, the way we hear and respond to these pressures and questions I have just outlined?
Upon reflecting on the gospel as the “power of God for salvation” during this lectio cycle, I’ll share with you the first image that came to my mind: it was of my paternal grandmother, Ernestina, praying in a revivalist setting and being dragged out of church by the hair by her drunk husband, my step-grandfather whom we called Polencho. I did not witness this personally, but I have heard it repeatedly told to me by my family: Polencho was a drunk and he did not care for his wife, my grandmother, to be away so much at revivalist services. So in a drunken stupor he would come on occasion and drag her out of church by the hair. This is an awful situation, obviously, that my grandmother was persecuted and physically mistreated by an abusive husband. This is bad news, awful news. But God’s power is good news, a kind of good news that can reshape bad news. It is a powerful gospel.
Eventually, Polencho converted to Christ. Eventually, Polencho gave up alcohol. Eventually, Polencho joined Ernestina in Christian ministry and together they planted several churches along the Northwest parts of Mexico. In other words, when I began to think of the “power of God” recently, my first reaction was to think of that power in action – the power of the gospel to transform and heal. This was powerful good news in Paul’s age; this was powerful good news in Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico in the 1950s; this is powerful good news today.
How does that power relate to us in the context of theological education? Perhaps we can give testimonies of God’s power and we can rejoice and marvel at God’s goodness as a result. But how does that all relate to the work we do here in the context of a seminary education? I wish to stress one aspect of such work, and perhaps to the chagrin of the founders of this wonderful place, it is not so much in terms of a typical revivalist setting, although there is great merit to that model.
The model I propose is different. The model I wish to stress is this: Part of the challenge of what we do here at SPS is to embody and fortify, by the prompting and empowerment of none other than the Spirit of holiness, a manner in which to live in this power of the gospel. To live in this power is to show it, to be compelled by it, to be spurred on by it, to proclaim it, to stand in it with conviction and patience. I believe that standing in the power of the gospel involves the intellectual acumen and moral rectitude to be mediators – to stand in gaps. And I wish to press two gaps that are especially relevant today as they have always been: the gap between good news and bad news, and the gap between good news and better news.
Standing in the gap between good news and bad news is an incredibly difficult thing to do. The power of the gospel is needed to stand in such a gap. Standing in this gap might mean praying for your drunken husband and living with him and yet going to church services at your own peril. Standing in this gap might mean going to the so-called “bad” part of town and being ridiculed or held in suspicion or being misunderstood as a result of not being among one’s tribe. Standing in this gap might mean not being able to see reconciliation while nevertheless working toward it. I think one of the most important outcomes from seminary education is fostering an awareness and sustainment of an ethos that can help graduates stand in this gap – be it in their personal lives or in the contexts of their vocations. Christian ministry is an act of engagement, of involving oneself in solidarity, yes to be sure. But we should not romanticize this. As we focus in our courses on exposing injustice along the lines of gender and race, as we focus on the high and low points of the church’s historical witness, as we struggle through difficult biblical passages that are all-too-easily avoided or misinterpreted – we are collectively fostering a sensibility of standing in this kind of gap – of not being of this world and yet still very much in it. I hope you recognize this work that happens here; I hope we can all work to sustaining it because it is both so difficult and yet so needed. If people come out of this place being able to stand in this gap, that in itself would be a true miracle – a learning outcome par excellence. People who stand in the gap between good and evil can be instruments of righteousness – they can be tangible expressions and conduits of the power of the gospel that can heal and transform broken lives.
I also want to stress another gap: the gap between good news and better news. This gap is a bit harder to identify and perhaps a bit harder to sustain conceptually because it involves a different kind of discernment. The first gap requires the discernment between good and evil. This second gap requires the discernment of grades of goodness. Just that remark in itself is difficult to sustain in our context. After all, we can all agree human trafficking is wrong. But can we all agree on what greed is and when it sets in? Poverty and hunger are awful, we can all agree, but when, in the words of Steve Fowl’s Palmer lecture this year, do we have some sense of what “getting our fill” looks like? Standing in the gap between good and better news is difficult, but it is very much a Wesleyan theme. One thinks for instance of Wesley’s use of the Pauline phrase, “I will show you a more excellent way.” Or Wesley’s typology of the “almost” and “altogether” Christian. These examples and others show that part of Wesleyan phronesis or practical reasoning involves scales of goodness and the need to push further and deeper in the ways of holiness.
Why is this important? Because I imagine that one of the most difficult aspects of ministry in our context is the attitude that things are good enough as is – that the Christian life means something particular and nothing more. Perhaps this is an expression of apathy and tepidness; perhaps it is an expression of privilege. Maybe it is an expression of something else. But that this attitude is prominent suggests something to me: that perhaps the church over time can and does lose sight of the power of the gospel. This power is of a kind that rights blatant wrongs, yes it is. It is also a power that continually enchants and beckons. It is a challenging gospel to behold because it pushes up against our intuited sense of normalcy and possibility. This power of the gospel is elaborated in the Sermon on the Mount. It is also pithily expressed by Jesus in Luke 17:33, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.”
But standing in this gap between what is good and what is better is the only way this gospel can call into question privilege, the only way that it can press against the idea that life is good enough as it is. If our graduates can stand in this gap between the good and the better, they will have this holy restlessness for renewal, for depth, for maturity. They will be bold enough to say that the good news of this world pales in comparison with the good news of God’s kingdom. This will require holy boldness to do so, to be sure, because many are just fine with the good news of this world. But what people often don’t realize is that the good news of this world cannot offer genuine hope.
The work of theological education is aimed at equipping people to stand in those gaps in which the power of God’s gospel so desperately needs to be seen and beheld. This work is of utmost importance – it is daunting work especially in the midst of the many pressures we face in pursuing it. But it is precious work – priceless work. I assume we are all here because we sense it is so. May we continue to not lose sight of this power and work in such a way as to do our part to render a witness to it, to be channels of it, and to be enlivened and enchanted by it.
God bless you.