Trust and obey

Reflections on living in the Spirit

by Ken Sehested
(unpublished lecture delivered at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, March 1993)

Two ancient texts to begin:

The Problem: Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. (Genesis 6:11)

The Solution: Heal the sick, and say to them, 'the reign of God has come near you.' (Luke 10:9)

A modern text: The churches are challenged to their best life when we hear the cry of the oppressed as a siren deep within our bones, when we risk our lives to respond, when we discover that there is no fundamental contradiction between waking up with our minds stayed on Jesus and stayed on freedom. Both songs belong to us. Both open us to the morning light. —Vincent Harding, Hope and History

      In a popular book entitled Jesus Means Freedom Ernst Käsemann relays this story from a pastor-friend in Amsterdam of the aftermath of the severe rains and flooding in Holland in 1952:

      "The scene was one of those parishes where people felt themselves strictly bound to obey God's commandments, and therefore to keep the Sabbath holy. The place was so threatened by wind and waves that the dike had to be strengthened one Sunday if the inhabitants were to survive. The police notified the pastor, who now found himself in a religious difficulty. Should he call out the people of the parish that had been entrusted to him, and set them to do the necessary work, if it meant profaning the Sabbath? Should he, on the contrary, abandon them to destruction in order to honor the Sabbath? He found the burden of making a personal decision too much for him, and he summoned the church council to consult and decide. The discussion went as one might suppose: We live to carry out God's will. God, being omnipotent, can always perform a miracle with the wind and waves. Our duty is obedience, whether in life or in death. The pastor tried one last argument, perhaps against his own convictions: Did not Jesus himself, on occasion, break the fourth commandment and declare that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath? Thereupon a venerable old man stood up: 'I have always been troubled, Pastor, by something that I have never yet ventured to say publicly. Now I must say it. I have always had the feeling that our Lord Jesus was just a bit of a liberal.'"

      There is probably no clearer dividing line within the Christian community than the one between pietists and activists. The line is also framed as "conservatives" and "liberals." There is something on the order of a massive fault-line running down through most Christian bodies. On the one side are those who urge the church to faithful habits of prayer, worship, Bible study, evangelism, orthodoxy; on the other are those urging ministry, compassionate care for the world, the pursuit of justice, the search for peace, orthopraxis.

      On the one side are those who focus on inwardness, on words like holiness, conversion, getting right with God, getting saved; on the other the focus is on outwardness, on words like social action, peace and justice, structural change.

      On the one side the predominant language stems from pietist, contemplative, or revivalist traditions; on the other, such "religious" language—if not entirely discarded—is carefully pruned, reserved for the sanctuary and filtered through the vocabulary of social science.

      On the one side you're more likely to hear fervent sermons about the need to "trust Jesus"; on the other, statistically-peppered admonitions to "obey Jesus." On the one side Jesus is pictured as Savior; on the other, Jesus as servant and exemplary model. On the one side, private morality is stressed; on the other, public justice.

      On the one side, attention is focused on heaven; on the other, to the earth. Are we to tend to "spiritual" realities or to "material" ones?

      It would be relatively easy to classify most local congregations as either a "trusting" church or an "obeying" one. Most of the time, though—as in the story Käsemann tells—the preferred language pits "conservative" against "liberal."

      There was a time when I assumed this division was somewhat peculiar to my own Baptist heritage. But I have since become aware that no Christian tradition has escaped the effects of this fissure. And although this division within the Christian church may be more pronounced in the West, and particularly within the United States. I now know it afflicts the worldwide Christian communion.

      The debate signals a profound confusion as to our identity and role as the Body of Christ. On the one side, among conservatives, there is a forceful, even frantic attempt to shore up the crumbling authority of the church and the verity of its faith by resort to nostalgia, a fanciful reconstruction of an imagined past. The uncertainty of its position is marked by the increased volume of its voice, the deepened furrow of its brow. It heralds with pride its separation from modernity—clearly a characteristic of biblical people of all ages—oblivious to the pact it has in fact made with modern culture. It no longer hesitates to enforce constituent loyalty, whether by means of "disfellowshipping" (among Baptists) or excommunicating (among Catholics).

      On the other side, among liberals, the confusion is expressed as a distaste for much and maybe all that looks and sounds "religious." It exhibits an embarrassment over traditional religious language and categories and thinks of itself as "come-of-age," mature enough to translate archaic theological notions into the modern, more intelligible categories of psychology and sociology or into the framework of the exotic.

      Both, however, share a number of things in common, among them: the inability to imagine that the ancient confession that "Jesus is Lord" can impact the future of nations; the inability to imagine a suffering Savior as sufficient for the problems at hand; the lack of confidence in God's promised redemption of creation.

      Trust . . . or obey. Piety or politics. Evangelism or social engagement. Prayer or praxis.

      We feel caught, as William Willimon notes, between the devotional love of God, on the one hand, and the activist love of neighbor on the other. Is it possible for us to move beyond the horns of this dilemma? Is it conceivable that we might come to comprehend what Karl Barth meant when he said: "To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world"? Attempts to separate "spiritual" concerns and "social" concerns have a long history. According to Robert McAfee Brown such attempts "have been front and center ever since Pharaoh unsuccessfully tried to persuade Moses that religion had nothing to do with Egypt's domestic policy on the status of nonindentured servants."

      The dilemma we face is rooted in the very language we use. We seem to be caught in a linguistic trap. What we need, as Gustavo Gutierrez has written, is a language that is both contemplative and prophetic; contemplative because it ponders a God who is love; prophetic because it talks about a liberator God who rejects the situation of injustice in which the poor live. (quoted in Robert McAfee Brown, Spirituality and Liberation, p. 134)

      The title for this work comes from the old hymn by John Sammis, "When We Walk With the Lord." The refrain contains the key words: "Trust and obey / for there's no other way / to be happy in Jesus / but to trust and obey."

      My thesis is that that old hymn may contain the clue we need to a complete reformulation of the way we understand Christian identity, one that leads beyond the familiar polarization between concern for heaven and concern for the earth, between personal religion and public faith, between the quest for spirituality and the longing for justice. At present we're at an impasse.

      If we are to continue, with any semblance of fidelity to biblical faith, we simply must find a way beyond these dualisms. We must discover the organic connection between trust and obedience; we must learn to understand that biblical talk about heaven is a particular way of talking about the earth; that personal religion without public witness is as insipid as public witness without personal faith is impotent; that spiritual and material reality intersect; that Scripture's promise of salvation intersects with its promise of liberation; that Micah's famous trilogy—"do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God"—is not a three-part statement but a means of saying the same thing in three different ways.

      The basic affirmation made here is that the presence of glaring injustice, the wretched destruction of war and violence that ravages the human community, even the desecration and pollution of the earth itself, are indicative of a profound spiritual malaise. The longing for peace to flow like a river, justice like a mighty stream, is first and foremost an issue of spirituality. The love of God, in biblical terms, transpires in the love of God's creation. In biblical terms, an active life of prayer and devotion is intrinsically connected with a life of resistance to present power arrangements governing the world. In biblical terms, our most transparent encounter with God occurs in the compassionate encounter with those who are crushed and marginalized in the world's ordering of values, in the world's assignment of honor and status.

      To explore this thesis more fully we need to explore three areas: First, an analysis of the ways we have attempted to domesticate Scripture, effectively rendering it innocuous, by driving a wedge between spiritual realities and material or physical realities. Second, by indicating why it is that the word following is a much better term for discipleship than is the word believing. Third, by pressing the point that, in the end, Christian obedience ("ethics") is deeply rooted in trust ("worship").

      We in the industrialized, wealthy part of the world have effectively rendered the Bible innocuous through a process of "sentimentalizing" what we read. Sentimentalizing—having to do with sentiments, with the psycho-emotional. We moderns would say: "It's the thought that counts."

      Soren Kierkegaard tells the story about a flock of geese, sequestered in a barn yard. Every seventh day these geese paraded over to a specially-designated corner of the yard, standing in neat and solemn rows as their most eloquent orator got up on the fence and spoke of the wonders of geese.

      He told of the exploits, the courage and the marvelous adventures of their ancestors who had dared to mount up on wings and fly all over the sky, throughout most of the globe. He spoke of the mercy of the creator, who had given geese strong and able wings, as well as the instincts to plummet through the air high above all the other animals. This narrative never failed to impress the assembled flock of geese, inspiring them and filling them with awe and wonder. And they would nod their heads in conviction.

      All this the geese did, every seventh day. One thing they did not do. They did not fly, for the corn was good and the barnyard was secure.

      Like the geese in Kierkegaard's story, our response to the ancient stories of our ancestors is more along the lines of nodding our heads. We might say amen; or feel a strange but wonderful warming of the heart. But we do not fly.

      In my travels I often use a sermon based on the familiar story of Zacchaeus in Luke's Gospel. It's a well-worn story, in part because of the simple song many of us grew up singing about Zacchaeus. You know how it goes: Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the Savior passed that way, he looked up in the tree. And he said, Zacchaeus, you come down, for I'm going to your house today."

      Have you ever thought about the way that song doesn't finish the story? Why doesn't it tell about what happened at Zacchaeus' house? Although the text is silent about their conversation, it does record the conclusion, where Zacchaeus makes his profession of faith in Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior. Only he says it in a way that would confuse the counselors at a Billy Graham evangelistic campaign. Zacchaeus simply says: Lord, if I have defrauded anyone, I restore it fourfold; and I give half of my goods to the poor. And Jesus' response? "Today salvation has come to this house."

      Our notions of what it means to be spiritual are so weak, so insipid, so trivial, so disembodied and ethereal. They have about as much credibility as a singing TV commercial. The church's proclamation of the Good News of the Coming Reign of God has become background noise in our time, kind of like cultural muzak. The second letter to Timothy is familiar with this reality even back then when it notes that some "hold the form of religion but deny the power of it" (2 Timothy 3:5).

      Clarence Jordan once said: "Faith is not belief in spite of the evidence; that's not faith, but foolishness. Faith is life lived in scorn of the consequences."

      The problem is that the word faith has undergone a radical transmutation in modern times. The question of faith is now a question of cognitive assent. Faith is believing in the existence of God. And the polls show that most everybody believes in God. At least as many people believe the earth is round, too; so where's the rub?

      There's a story from Clarence Jordan's life that illustrates why "believing" is no longer an adequate word for Christian faith and why "following" is better suited.

      As you probably know, Clarence and Florence Jordan, along with Martin and Mabel England—two good Baptist families—founded Koinonia Farm in South Georgia in 1942. They wanted to do some experimental farming, trying to demonstrate new agricultural methods which would allow poor farmers a chance to make a living, allow them to keep from going broke and migrating to the big cities where, as Clarence had seen, would only make things worse. Their dream was a civic-minded one. They probably could have gotten a foundation grant for something like that. The hitch, however, was that these dreamers were intent on having blacks and white work together. And to make matters worse, they insisted on paying black folk the same as white. Being socially polite to black folk was risky enough. But the issue of equal pay represented a frontal assault on the economic system of the region.

      As you might imagine, Koinonia Farm quickly went from being an oddity to a scandal. At first they were tolerated; then there were repeated attempts to terminate them. Several times the farm buildings were fired upon from the highway that ran by their house. The farm's roadside fruit stand was bombed. An economic boycott was mounted against the farm.

      Things were tough. Money was almost gone. The end was in sight. In desperation, Clarence turned to his brother, a successful lawyer in a nearby town who would later become a state senator in Georgia.

      After a long and fruitless conversation, Clarence finally challenged him: "Brother, you and I walked down the aisle as kids—at the same time, in the same Baptist church—and said 'yes' when the preacher asked if we wanted to give our hearts to Jesus and follow him in baptism."

      His brother replied: "I know, Clarence; I want to follow Jesus too, but only up to a point."

      "Might that point be the foot of the cross?" Clarence asked. "Brother," he continued, "I think you need to go back to that little church where we walked the aisle and clarify exactly what it was you said yes to. You tell the church that what you meant to say was that you admire Jesus, not that you want to follow him."

      Harold Bender, the Anabaptist scholar, writes that the notion of following was the key distinctive of the Anabaptist movement's birth in the 16th century. By and large the radical reformers were in agreement with the magisterial reformers, but felt they hadn't pushed the Reformation far enough. The notion of "salvation by grace alone" was good but not fully sufficient. The radical reformers insisted on a more tangible and less rhetorical shape of Christian identity, on lives of obedience to the Kingdom of God as a clear and decisive alternative to the kingdoms of this world. That's why their communities were characterized by economic sharing, by concrete actions of mercy and compassion, and—most significantly—by refusing to wield the sword in defense of ruling lords and princes.

      Salvation, they insisted, must be evidenced by fruit, by a new life lived from new values, values not honored by the world, values judged foolish by worldly standards.

      Nachfolge Christi—following Christ—was the insistent refrain from the Anabaptists. They insisted that any idea, any cognitive affirmation, about God is tested by the way it transforms the shape of our lives, by the way it operates in all our personal and collective decisions about security.

      Interestingly enough, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, picked up this theme in a book he titled with a single German word: Nachfolge, a title that was translated in the English version as The Cost of Discipleship.

      My assertion that following is a better descriptive watchword for Christian faith than believing is massively demonstrated not only in the substance of Scripture but also in its very form and shape, its literary genre.

      The heart of both Hebrew Scripture (the Old Testament) and the New Testament is a collection of stories and narratives rather than philosophical arguments. Ancient Israel's fundamental confession was the story of her liberation from Egyptian slavery. God is not pictured in abstract metaphysical terms; rather, Yahweh God is the instigator of a massive freedom march. The ongoing interaction between God and Israel revolves around concrete events of liberation, disobedience, confession and restoration within the vicissitudes of human history, within the order of flesh-and-blood creation.

      Not that Israel never reflected upon these experiences and memories, articulating principles about the nature of God's expectations. But the infrastructure of their theology was always a story, a lived experience, of God's initiative. The attempt to capture God within the logic of a theological proposition always gave rise to some prophet who came along and turned things upside down.

      The story of faith is the story encompassing faithful and faithless people. The only reliable theological method is that of attending to God's movement in time and space, to God's building up and tearing down.

      As Gustavo Gutierrez has noted in his marvelous book, We Drink From Our Own Wells, "At the root of every spirituality there is a particular experience that is had by concrete persons living at a particular time. . . . The great spiritualities in the life of the church continue to exist because they keep sending their followers back to the sources."

      This impulse is still present in my Baptist heritage. When I was growing up, personal testimonies still played an important part in our corporate piety. Untrained lay folk were encouraged to speak of their faith by way of telling stories of personal redemption, with reference to concrete experiences and events.

      We evangelical-type Christians put a lot of stock in the importance of having a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Unfortunately, our more "progressive" churches don't ask such questions any more. You can understand why, since more often than not the question masks an arrogant demand that we use only certain language to confess faith, that we pray only in routine ways, that we limit church music to certain hymns and certain standards of piety.

      But there is a very good reason why the question of one's personal relationship with Jesus Christ is significant and worth asking, even though it's been forgotten by most of the folk currently insisting on its importance. To have a personal relationship with Jesus is our tradition's way of asking, "Have you put your faith on the line? Does it make a tangible difference in the way you live? Has your allegiance to mammon—to wealth, power, status and security—been compromised because of what you believe God is doing in the world? Does your confession of Jesus as Lord have implications regarding Caesar's claim to lordship? Are your career ambitions called into question because of your ambitions to be faithful to Christ?

      Faith is life lived in scorn of the consequences. The Southern novelist, Flannery O'Connor, paraphrased a verse from John's gospel in this way: You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd! Following, not believing, is the prior point of departure for Christian identity.

      If you've stayed with me thus far, you can probably anticipate the conceptual problem which comes next. If what I've said is true, are we not then left with the old problem of works-righteousness? Doesn't this direction lead down a dead end street? Aren't we getting into a theologically boxed canyon? Aren't we collapsing theology into ethics? What keeps Christian discipleship distinctive from the human potential movement?

      Despite this somewhat campy resuscitation of old-fashioned revivalist and pietistic notions, isn't this argument in reality a dressing up of liberal naivete in evangelical drag? Do we throw out the Bible as a Sunday school text and substitute books analyzing foreign policy—or worse still, books on "how to get all the love you deserve"? Do we stop calling for conversion and settle for a little Jungian individuation?

      To make the transition to the final part of this lecture, let me tell you about a letter I got recently. It's from a friend who pastors in Texas.

      "Just got back from speaking to the Baptist Student Union," he wrote. "They wanted me to talk about 'seeking God.' As one student told me, 'We just want to seek God's face and worship him.'

      "So I spoke from Hebrews 12, where it recounts that Moses sought God on the mountain and the mountain shook. There was darkness and gloom, fire and smoke, and Moses said, 'I tremble with fear.' The text ends with, 'for our God is a consuming fire.' I told the students if they seek God, great; but they had better be careful. I've seen this God make sophomores sick, cause otherwise subdued English majors to lose control. I've seen senior marketing majors all set to graduate and pull down some big bucks meet this God and end up going to work the homeless and hungry. I've seen ROTC members meet this God and begin to question whether you can follow Jesus and be prepared to use violence at the same time. I've seen it!"

      Changing the metaphor for Christian identity from "believing" to "following" does not leave us ethics stripped of theology. There is another option besides the seemingly endless dualisms of faith versus works, evangelism versus social action, prayer versus politics.

      Let me offer my systematic theology. Fortunately, it's much more concise than that of Barth or Tillich. I can do it in five sentences.

      First, the principle duty of the Christian community is to adore God. Second, according to the New Testament, to adore, honor and worship God means we should attend to Jesus, God's Only Begotten. Third, according to Jesus' own repeated command, those who adore him will follow him—"if you love me, do as I have commanded." Fourth, if we follow Jesus—animated by the power of the Holy Spirit—we are likely to end up with a fate somewhat like his own. Which is to say, we're likely to get into trouble. To quote Jordan again: "I don't think a Christian is worth his salt who has not been called a Communist today. Trying to refute that epithet is about like running for your birth certificate when someone calls you an s.o.b." Fifth, and finally, it is in trouble—when human resources and calculations prove insufficient—that we learn what it means to adore God, to "lean on the everlasting arms."

      Walter Brueggemann notes that it is right and proper to focus on God's shalom as task. But shalom begins at the table, in the Lord's Supper, as assurance.

      It is trust which provides the fertile ground for obedience. "Our problem," says William Willimon, "is not that we do not act upon our beliefs. Our problem is that we are enslaved. We can never do more than act in accordance with our situation. Obligation is the correlate of sovereignty. We serve whom we worship." Or, as St. Augustine said it, "We imitate whom we adore."

      It is this posture of adoration which now defines our life direction. Ethics is the by-product of adoration. It is in worship, in prayer, that we are alerted to the great secret of the universe: the secret that God is not yet done. It is a secret the world hates. And so it should, for the message of this secret is that the lowly will be lifted, the exalted thrown down; the marginal brought to the head table, and the royalty ushered to the margins.

      To worship is to devote ourselves to the cleansing fire of the Spirit, to have our fears relieved, to experience God's emancipation proclamation. We are afraid, afraid that in truth only the strong survive, and we are not strong. It is this fear, this polio of the soul, which is healed in worship. As Charles Elliott notes, "the demand for radical love of God is indistinguishable from the radical love of those who have no claim on us. So prayer comes to focus on that vortex: where freedom to give and receive the abundance of God's love spills over into, comprehends, includes, becomes the essence of the splendor of love of the vulnerable and the dispossessed."

      In the eucharistic meal, God's love feast, we are called to remember: Do this in memory of me, Jesus said. But this meal of remembrance does not imply a simple historical recollection—oh, yeah, at a certain time and such-and-such a place Jesus had this dinner party and said "Ya'll don't forget what I told you." No, the Greek word is anamneisis, which means to re-member, to put back together. It means to wake up, open your eyes—remember who you are! For we are God's; we are safe; we can risk everything, and we want to because the vision of a healed creation is so compelling!!

      A famous rock-and-roll tune from my adolescent years says it about as good as it can be said: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

      It is in worship, in adoration, in contemplating the fact that Almighty God takes great delight in loving us that we are freed to live—to live with abandon, especially in the direction of, for the sake of, those for whom the world has no use. We are free to honor the dishonored, for the world's honor is recognized for what it is, vainglory. We are free to associate with the lowly, for the opinions of the high and mighty no longer impress us. We are free—even, if need be, to risk our very lives—for we now know that our security rests elsewhere, that there's nothing the world can do to us which ultimately matters. Because of our confidence in the resurrection, not even death can harm us.

      In worship, according to Dom Helder Camara, we discover the power to "be free to the point of being able to deliver ourselves from ourselves and be able to give ourselves to others."

      When our lives are rooted in prayer, in adoration, in solitude, we stay in touch with God's grace. Not the sugar-filled emotions of feel-good religion. It is only a focus on adoration as the basis for action, prayer as the ground of politics, the ecstasy of worship as the seedbed for ethics, which will heal the severance of redemptive action from redemptive vision.

      Trust and obey. Trust: that there is in the universe a power which you do not manage, which you do not fund, which you do not sustain. As Matthew Fox reminds us: "The paranoid and the mystic share much in common: paranoid persons believe there is a conspiracy in the universe against them; mystics believe there is a conspiracy in the universe on their behalf."

      "True evangelical faith," wrote Menno Simons, "cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry; it comforts the sorrowful; it shelters the destitute; it serves those that harm it; it binds up that which is wounded; it has become all things to all."

      "Trust and obey, for there's no other way
       to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey."