The Next Step in the Churches

First Sunday After Christmas
Galatians 4:4-7
In these days following the joyous birth of Christ, we consider the world’s response and, in some cases, its terrible pushback. In many traditions, this week’s daily Bible readings focus on Stephen (Deacon and Martyr), John (Apostle and Exile), and The Holy Innocents (Martyrs).
Jesus’ entrance into the world provokes intense reactions.

One of the truly moving stories told this time of year is about Christmas Eve in 1914 when soldiers emerged from their frozen trenches in Belgium. A No-Man’s Land became a place of profound meeting and celebration. The telling of that story leaves us with wonder and a longing for ‘what if.’ What if that Christmas celebration across enemy lines had been more than a temporary truce from the carnage? What if the soldiers who sang carols, exchanged gifts, and buried their dead together had refused to resume the killing? Often left untold, and worth researching and pondering, were the severe responses of ‘High Command’ to ensure that what happened that miraculous night would not happen again.

The inbreaking of Christ provokes a crisis not only for government authorities but for religious authorities as well. The words sound gentle and soothing when we read them in church: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” But earlier in his letter, the Apostle Paul told the Galatian Christians, “God revealed [apocalypsed] His son in me” (Gal. 1:16). This really is as shattering as it sounds. (I am indebted here to Michael Hardin’s The Jesus Driven Life, esp. ch. 7).

Paul did not encounter Christ while sleazing around in the seedy part of town. He was an intense Bible reader with unparalleled zeal for being faithful to God in the ways he had learned, even to the point of force. His apocalypse came with viewing his life in the light of the crucifixion of Jesus, only to discover that his Bible-inspired zeal had become an instrument of death. The dreadful irony, of course, is that the more faithful he thought he was, the blinder he had become to the true character and mission of God.
Negatively, Paul had to confess that if he thought he had been doing everything right, but now knew he was doing something terribly wrong, including the way he read his Bible, then everything he thought about God had to be changed in light of God’s crucified and exalted Messiah Jesus (Hardin, 212). Positively, he saw that the crucifixion was the event through which God revealed and triumphed over the powers of death.

In the fullness of time, on the battlefield of his white-hot zeal, Paul confronted “the Spirit of [God’s] Son,” the miracle of new creation, which became the new foundation of his life and faith. He would never again go back into the trenches to resume the work of death, no matter the decrees of all the world’s High Commands, all of them in slavery to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits.

His letter to the Galatians, and to us, is so fierce because without this revelation, without this apocalypse, even our most earnest observance of rituals and practices can be a domesticated faith at best, or unintended covers for self-deception at worst.
So, what is our response in these days following the birth of Christ? What do we do now with the gift of the Spirit of God’s Son as the very foundation of our lives?

A few weeks ago, a friend introduced me to an amazing fellow Baptist who had never made it onto my radar. Walter Nathan Johnson was a high level denominational official who left the Southern Baptist mainstream to focus on revitalization of congregations, and on how “church involvement” could involve one’s entire lifestyle (The Genealogy of Dissent, David Strickland). In the mid-1920’s he began to publish a newsletter on a shoestring budget from a little office in Mars Hill, NC. For the next 25 years (!!), he wrote and published “The Next Step in the Churches.” In his writing, and through 1940’s interracial conferences and retreats held at Mars Hill (then) College, he defined “the next step” as “SPIRITUAL LABORATORIES In Which The New Testament is Re-read, Re-tested and Released Into Demonstrations of The Spirit That Jesus Still Comes Alive among Us in Quickened Persons, in Disciplined Groups, in Worshipping Churches Will Put Us On THE NEXT STEP IN THE CHURCHES.”

In a 1941 issue, Johnson published a response from an American Baptist missionary named Martin England, in which England said, “If the barriers that divide [humans], and cause wars, race conflict, economic competition, class struggles, labor disputes, are ever to be broken down, they must be broken down in small groups of people living side by side, who plan consciously and deliberately to find a way wherein they can all contribute to the Kingdom according to their respective abilities.”

One reader who was riveted by England’s response was a man named Clarence Jordan. Jordan sought out England, and their friendship and common commitment as followers of Jesus birthed Koinonia Community, celebrating its 75th anniversary this spring.

How can we recognize, and join, the Walter Johnsons at work in our time? Shortly before his death in 1952, Johnson made this confession:

Frankly, all these spiritual adventures seem now to have been failures…and yet, strangely, I am not discouraged. My faithful wife, a few loyal friends, and the unfailing Jesus have been with me all the way. Indeed, instead of being depressed, I am assured! I see it now; no soul is fit for spiritual victory who is not willing to fail. In the way of the cross, the victim is the victor. I had rather have part in failure for the sake of What Is To Be than to have enjoyed success merely in What Has Been.

On this year’s journey, may God give us faithfulness to take the next step and live into What Is To Be!

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