As I woke up on Tuesday morning and began my coffee ritual (a ritual wherein I sit down and drink coffee), I logged-in to Facebook and was delighted by stories and images from GAFCON 2018. GAFCON stands for Global Anglican Future Conference and is a global family of Anglican provinces (about 70% of the world’s Anglicans) committed to historic Christian orthodoxy and evangelical faith. My own church, St. John’s, is a parish of the Anglican Church in North America, which is a member province of GAFCON, and through GAFCON, the wider Anglican communion – the third largest Christian body in the world. The Anglican Church in North America, for those who do not know, came into existence largely through the efforts of Anglican bishops living in the global south, and especially in Africa. GAFCON is diverse in almost every way except in its committment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Around the faith once delivered, we are united, and this gives me hope for the future of Anglican diversity.
One particular Facebook post caught my attention. It was written by Esau McCaulley, an Anglican priest and professor of New Testament at Northeastern Seminary. Essau is somewhat unusual in the ACNA in that he is African American in a denomination that, in the United States, is overwhelmingly white. Essau heads up the Anglican Multiethnic Network which works to promote a more diverse ACNA. Since he is at Gafcon this week, he wrote a blog piece that ended with these paragraphs on his experience worshipping amidst the tremendous diversity of the conference:
I am grateful for the Nigerians, Kenyans, Ugandans, Australians, and Malawians gathered in Jerusalem for helping me remember that our struggle isn’t just against something. It is for something beautiful. When I became an Anglican, I was told that there was this global fellowship of believers from every tribe, tongue, and nation, but it was a concept, an idea. Now I have witnessed the nations gathered.
I know this week in Jerusalem is but a respite, that I’ll return to my country and province. I know that the same struggles will be awaiting me there. But true worship is an encounter with the living God. This encounter changes us and infuses us with sufficient hope to help us carry on a little further. So, [I] will return and I will continue to struggle, but I will do so with joy because I have seen it. A diverse orthodox Anglicanism, isn’t just coming; it’s here.
Essau’s statements (you can find the whole post here) reminded me of a period when Suzanne and I experienced something like this diversity; though admittedly, his experience as a black man finding solace at GAFCON was surely deeper and more personally fulfilling than the episode that I will describe.
Pentecost in Pasadena
In 1998, Suzanne and I moved our young family from south Texas to Pasadena, California to begin studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. Fuller was (and perhaps still is) the largest seminary in the world in terms of total enrollment. It’s size has been due, in large part, to its international diversity and to the diversity of its programs. Fuller has schools of theology, psychology, and intercultural studies/world missions.
The focus on global missions means that Fuller students have traditionally come from all over the world, and this fact was obvious to Suzanne and me from our first day on campus. We moved into a seminary-owned apartment and quickly discovered that living at Fuller would be something of an international experience. We already knew that 30% of the student body (at that time) was Korean, but we were surprised and delighted when we discovered that our immediate neighbors were Korean, Japanese, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Indian, and American. This was just in our little apartment complex, and the best thing about this diversity was the fact that we had regular communal potlucks in our shared courtyard!
I distinctly remember that, at my first student orientation where hundreds of new students were gathered, President Richard Mouw instructed us all to look around carefully and to appreciate the fact that this gathering of students was likely to be as close to Pentecost as we would ever experience on this side of heaven. At Pentecost, if you do not know, Jews from many different nations were gathered together in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descended upon them and bound them to one another and into the fellowship of the Holy Trinity. Despite their diversity, the people of Pentecost became one and were able to communicate with each other even with their different languages. This wonderful story from Acts chapter 2 is well-known, but the larger biblical context framing the church’s first pentecost story is truly profound. It has all kinds of implications for the ways that Christians today should think about and strive for a more diverse church.
Let me offer a very brief outline for a biblical theology of diversity, at least as it pertains to nations and Peoples/races.
A Biblical Theology of Nations and Races
First, scripture insists that all humans have a common origin. No matter what genre we think characterizes Genesis 1-2 (historical narrative, poetry, true myth, etc.), the theological meaning is clear. All humans were made in the image of God to enjoy fellowship with their creator and with each other. Henri de Lubac once wrote that the church, whose mission is to unify humankind in Christ, “supposes a previous natural unity, the unity of the human race.”
Second, division and conflict among individuals and among tribes, nations, & races, is the consequence of sin and rebellion against God as well as against our own nature. In the book of Genesis, conflict enters the world as soon as Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. They first are in conflict with each other (Gen. 3: 12-13, 16), but quickly the dissension spreads to Cain and Abel (Gen. 4), to Lamech and his family (Gen. 4), and to people all over the earth in the story of Noah (Gen. 5- 10). Then, when the people of the earth (all speaking one language as of Gen. 11:1) decide to erect a tower with its top in the heavens (a sign of arrogance) God responded by confusing their languages and dispersing them all over the earth. The point, of course, is that human arrogance brings God’s condemnation and the punishment of division and confusion. Pride destroys peace and community. Again, it doesn’t take a biblical scholar to understand the meaning here. Dissension and conflict among nations is not part of God’s original design; it is a consequence of human pride and rebellion.
Third, the entire biblical story, from Genesis 12 through Revelation 22, is about God’s work of restoring the unity of the human race – of healing the divisions of persons, tribes, races, and nations. This is why Jesus Christ died and why the church exists. In Genesis chapter 12, immediately following the confusion of tongues and dispersing of nations at Babel, God calls Abram and makes this promise, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). Incidentally, there was a series of blessings in Genesis 1-2 and a series of curses in Genesis 3-11. In Genesis 12, we learn that through Abram, God will restore the blessings of Eden to his people. He will undo the curses of sin. J. Daniel Hays puts it like this:
Genesis 10-11, the Table of Nations and the Tower of Babel, stand as the Prologue to Genesis 12:1-13. Recall that Genesis 10 describes the division of the world according to family/tribe/clan, language, land/country/territory, and nation (Gen. 10:5, 20, 31). The call of Abraham picks up on three of these terms: “Go from your country” (12:1); “I will make you a great nation” (12:2); and “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (12:3) (NRSV)…The promise to Abraham is the answer to the sin and the scattering of Genesis 3-11. (See J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, IVP, 2003).
Fourth, the purpose of Israel in the Old Testament is to prepare the world for the redemption promised to Abram/Abraham. In Isaiah 49:6, the Lord promises his people, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Israel is not called and blessed for its own sake, but as a means through which God’s blessing will reach the ends of the earth. This is what it means when Israel is called a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6). A priest is one who mediates God’s salvation to others – this is Israel’s role in the grand sweep of salvation history as portrayed in the bible.
Fifth, the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus accomplishes this redemption once and for all. Jesus reunites us with God the Father, and he reunites the Peoples of the earth with each other. This is why Paul writes, in his letter to the Galatians, that, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise,” (Gal. 3:27-29). The quotation below from Gregory of Nazianzen is among my favorite on Christ’s atoning work. Nazianzen emphasizes the unifying nature of Jesus’ sacrifice:
There were at the time all kinds of miracles: God on the Cross, the sun darkened….the veil of the temple rent…water and blood flowing from his side, the earth quaking, stones breaking, the dead rising…Who can worthily extol such wonders? But none is to be compared with the miracle of my salvation: minute drops of blood making the whole world new, working the salvation of all men, as the drops of fig-juice one by one curdle the milk, reuniting mankind, knitting them together as one. (Cited in de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, pgs. 36-37).
Jesus Christ is the truly human one, the perfect icon of God the Father (Col. 1:15), God in the flesh.
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col. 1:16-20).
The church originated at Pentecost as a manifestation of Jesus’ unifying work on the cross, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And this brings us to the sixth point and back to the comments of Richard Mow that I mentioned above.
Sixth, Pentecost was/is the annual Jewish celebration of the identity of Israel as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Pentecost began as an agricultural festival – it was a celebration of the first fruits of the annual wheat harvest. At some point, Israel began to understand itself as the first fruit of God’s promised blessing to all the nations, made to Abraham. Remember, the promise to Abraham follows immediately after the tower of Babel and the confusing of languages. God promised Abraham that, through his descendants, the scattering of nations and the confusion of languages would be undone.
So…when the Spirit descends in Acts 2, and people from various nations were able to understand the disciples in their own languages, it was a clear fulfillment of the promise to Abraham – the reversal of the curses at the Tower of Babel. The Holy Spirit brings the nations and races back together, and the church has always been a manifestation of this deep and compelling truth.
But there is a negative side to this truth. When the Peoples and nations seek unity apart from God, confusion and division results. Bishop Robert Barron has a wonderful message on this subject, and we should remember that this was precisely what happened at the Tower of Babel in the first place.
Seventh, the Book of Revelation continues this theme of the nations united through the work of Christ. In 7:9-10, John writes,
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and Peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”
And again, in Rev. 21: 22-27 we find a vision of the nations gathered together in the New Jerusalem, which is the restoration of Eden on earth – the place where heaven and earth are joined.
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day—and there shall be no night there; they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Why this Matters
Finally, a biblical theology of nations, tribes, Peoples and tongues matters a great deal right now because it shows us that the clear trajectory of biblical revelation is toward the healing and unity of the world’s people. If God is working towards this end, then we should beware lest we put ourselves in opposition to God’s work in the world. This is very simple stuff, but it needs to be repeated. It has always been God’s will that humankind be united and at peace, and the victory won on the cross of Christ is for the healing of the nations, among other things. We worship the Prince of Peace – let’s not forget all that this means. God clearly opposes the pride of nations and races that leads to violence, exclusion, and all forms injustice.
In this time of racial tension, immigration battles, and conversely, aggressive promotion of diversity for its own sake apart from Christ, biblical revelation does not solve our complex policy questions. Nor does it free us from the hard work of filtering the bias of left and right leaning media voices in order to interpret current events and controversies with true wisdom. However, the trajectory of biblical revelation on matters of nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues will absolutely shape the hearts of God’s people. And the way that we (Christians) respond to headlines, conflicts, and crises will always reveal a great deal about the shape of our hearts (have they been shaped by the promises of God?), our orientation toward others, and our allegiance to Jesus Christ, who is the Prince of Peace.
This biblical trajectory shapes the church’s mission in the world and gives substance to our prayers. And if we are the people of God, then it is our duty and great privilege to pray that God’s promises will come to pass. In fact, all truly Christian prayer will be in accord with the mission of God in the world. It is no accident that the central petition in the Lord’s Prayer is this: “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done.” To pray in the name of Jesus is to pray under the authority and according to the revelation of God’s will in Jesus Christ.
So what does God promise? God promises that the scattering of nations and tongues will be overcome by and in the people of God – the body of Christ. The church is to be a first-fruit – a present though imperfect manifestation/sign of a coming future reality.
This is why Richard Mouw suggested to my highly diverse entering class at Fuller Theological Seminary that we should look around and experience pentecost as we might never experience it again, this side of heaven. And this is why Essau McCaulley found good cause for rejoicing at GAFCON 2018.
June 22, 2018. Feast of St. Alban, First Martyr of Britain