Tillard’s Flesh of the Church, Flesh of Christ: A Book Summary

March 30, 2023

J. M. R. Tillard, Flesh of the Church, Flesh of Christ: At the Source the Ecclesiology of Communion, trans. Madeleine Beaumount (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001).

I have now read the fourth of twelve books suggested by FB friends. This one was recommended by Reece LaBlanc. This is my summary; and this one is very difficult to briefly summarize for my FB friends. This book is no gentle flow down the stream; it is a torrent rapid of theological engagement through Scripture, historical theology, and theological reflection.

This book is not for the theologically faint-of-heart. It is a thoroughgoing theological reflection on the centrality of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) as the sacramental event that constitutes, at its most basic level, the church as church. It is a theological case for the conviction that the Eucharist is no mere addendum to the Christian life and community but is very spiritual reality into which we are grafted. The flesh of Christ and the flesh of the Church are united, and the Eucharist is not only an expression of that union but the source of the reality of the communion.

As I said, this is not exercise in the beginning or even intermediate theology. Rather, through reading Augustine carefully as a foundational thinker for the West and reading Cyril of Alexandria and John Chrysostom as theologians for the East, Tillard finds a common theme, though sometimes abandoned in the West and in danger of being jettisoned in the West (even in the Roman Catholic Church). When the Eucharist is displaced as an enriching but dispensable practice (as has happened among many Protestant traditions in the West), Tillard argues we substitute the ecclesiology of communion for individualistic experiences of relationship with Jesus. Ultimately, the church—lacking its primary expression of communion itself—becomes as irrelevant and dispensable as the Eucharist. “Where is the communion?,” Tillard asks.

For Tillard, and the patristic writers he unpacks, communion is not a byproduct of individual relationships with God as God has collected all the individuals into a general fold bound together by cords of good feelings toward each other and a common subjective faith in God.  Rather, communion is the reality of the union of the flesh of Christ with the flesh of the Church—it is the mystical union of Christ and the Church in the Spirit. The Eucharist—where we receive the body and blood of the Lord—connects us to our own embodied lives in the midst of the gathered church (flesh and blood, concrete people). Shared Eucharist is shared communion, but not in a mere cognitive sense but in a deeply mystical and relational sense such that we commune with God and with each other.

The church is not, Tillard argues, the “sum or the juxtaposition of ‘justified’ individuals.” Nor can we reduce the church “a vast system of human solidarity.” On the contrary, the union is not mere solidarity, or justification (our sins are forgiven as individuals), or assembly in the same building. It is, in fact, the reality effected by the Spirit that unites the flesh of Christ and the flesh of the Church. Ecclesiology (the very nature of the church) is a Spiritual reality expressed and resourced by the concrete eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ. It is communion; it is concretely experienced at the Eucharist table. This communion is “the knot” that ties everything together by the Spirit who unites God and humanity in Christ.

So, the enfleshed community (the concrete, visible church), through the Spirit and in Christ, communes with the transcendent, holy God and Father who has embraced humanity in its poverty. The flesh of Christ did not live for itself but for the sake of others, and the Eucharist in which we participate calls us (indeed, forms us and constitutes us) as people who will also sacrifice ourselves in agape love. The Eucharist is both a constitutive moment whereby we experience this profound union and, at the same time, a moment where we are formed by the work of the Spirit to become bread for the world, sacrificially giving ourselves for each other and the world just as Christ gave himself for us.

The church is supposed to be community of unceasing mutual love. As we dwell in the love of God through the Eucharist, so the Eucharist fills us with love so that we might become the reality in which we participate. The mutual indwelling experience in the Eucharist renews the mission of the church as “the healing of the body of wounded humanity.” The Eucharist not only testifies to this and renews it, but it is most fundamentally union with God in the flesh of Christ by the Spirit of God. The Eucharist, then, is a concrete source of life for the community that constitutes the community in the Spirit through the flesh of Christ.

Tillard is pushing against the dangers of Western emphases on individualism as well as reducing the meaning of assembly to listening to the word preached.  The West tends “to see the church as a society of baptized persons held together by obedience to the word, rather than as the communion united by the eucharistic body.” While the East has always been faithful to this vision of the Eucharist, the West has struggled to maintain it. According to Tillard and the East, there is “an unbreakable bond between church, Holy Spirit, and Eucharist.”

The nature of the communion that “defines the church” is this union between enfleshed members of the body of Christ communion (participating, sharing in) the flesh of Christ by the Spirit of God. In this we, we are one in the Spirit as a church, and the church experiences, renews, and instantiates this union most profoundly and concretely when at the Eucharist together. This, indeed, is a liberating moment as the grace of Christ’s own sacrifice frees us from our own selfishness so that we might become Christ to the world itself. And we do this not as individuals but as the body of Christ—a community in communion with God through Christ in the Spirit.

Perhaps, at bottom, the point is that ecclesiology is not fundamentally about voluntary congregationalism or loose bonds of shared commitments (even creeds). Rather, it is a profound union of the flesh of the church with the flesh of Christ in the Spirit through God’s gift of the Eucharist. It is a relational ontology—a participation, a mutual indwelling, a shared life—made possible by the flesh of Christ. It is not so much about how we, who are members of the body, make unity a reality but rather how the Spirit has united the flesh of the church with the flesh of Christ as a gift of God. And the Eucharist embodies that union—with God in Christ by the Spirit and with each other. That constitutes the communion of the church.

Lamenting While Waiting in Hope

March 29, 2023

Texts: Romans 5:1-5; 8:18-27; Hebrews 5:8-10

Days 71-74 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

Divine grace empowers hopeful waiting even as we groan for wholeness, for shalom.

We live in-between-the-times. The creation is a very good place to inhabit. Yet, it is presently filled with chaos, both natural and moral. In many ways, God’s good creation is also a broken place, especially where human sin contributes its nauseating and tragic influences. Some call this “fallenness.” Whatever we may name it, we live in a reality filled with both good and evil, both order and chaos.

Evil and chaos create suffering in human lives. And sufferers groan under the burden, yearning for deliverance. We groan for a world without suffering. We yearn for shalom in every aspect of life, both body and soul. We groan for release from the brokenness of the world. We yearn for the death of death itself. We seek something or someone who will free us from this bondage, especially death.

The gospel offers hope. The grace of God appeared in Jesus of Nazareth. Through the resurrection of Jesus, God defeated death. The gospel means, through the pouring out of the Spirit, that victory has already arrived and is experienced even now. But the fullness of that hope has not yet appeared.

We live with hope by the power of God’s grace, and yet we continue to groan under the bondage of decay. We groan and wait in hope. We lament and hope.

Divine grace empowers hopeful waiting even as we groan for wholeness, for shalom.

Pentecost: Renewal (Restoration) of Israel

March 22, 2023

Texts: Acts 1:6-8; 2:16-21, 37-41

Days 56-58 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

The prophet Joel promised Israel, who at the time was suffering a great national tragedy, a time when God would restore its fortunes. They would never again be same and all who called on the name of the Lord would be saved (Joel 2:25-3:1).

Peter announced in Acts 2, “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16). Whatever was happening on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 was a moment to which Joel pointed. It was the beginning of the restoration of Israel.

The question the disciples asked in Acts 1:6-8 about the time when God would restore Israel was not a bad question. They were, however, too anxious about the timing. Jesus told them to wait, and the Spirit would come. When the Spirit came, the restoration of Israel began.

Just as Joel foretold, God poured out the Spirit upon Israel through the newly enthroned Messiah. This pouring, however, was not limited to an individual or even to a specific group. Rather, it was poured out on “all flesh,” including Jew and Gentile, women and men, and enslaved and free. On that day, the Spirit testified to the reality of the kingdom secured at the right hand of God by the resurrected Jesus.

Just as God had gathered Israel at Mount Sinai, so now God gathered renewed Israel at Mount Zion. Through repentance and baptism, they became a newly gathered people who would continue the mission of Israel as a light to the nations. And they would inherit the promise God made to Abraham–experienced through the gift of the Spirit—to continue and purse that mission by scattering missional communities devoted to Jesus across the world.

Resurrected and Enthroned Lord: Filling the Earth with New Creatures

March 15, 2023

Texts: Luke 24:30-35; Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 1:20-23; Galatians 6:14-16

Days 52-55 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

We can only imagine the despair of the disciples in the crushing darkness of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. The Christian calendar calls it “Holy Saturday.”

We can only imagine the joy of the disciples on the morning of the third day. The Christian calendar calls it “Easter.”

The movement from despair to joy is typified in the table at Emmaus. There Jesus revealed himself to two disciples; they experienced an epiphany that transformed mourning into dancing. They ran to join other disciples in Jerusalem, and together they celebrated at table with the risen Lord.

In Luke, it was at that table that Jesus commissioned them while in Matthew it was in Galilee. The commissioning brings the whole story of Israel to a climactic moment as the disciples are scattered throughout the world to fill it with the glory of God through making disciples among all the nations.

This old agenda (filling the earth with the glory of God) is renewed because the Messiah has ascended to the throne of David as the Lord of creation. This is new creation, and Jesus reigns as both Lord and Messiah.

New creation is inaugurated by the enthronement of the slaughtered but risen Lord. New creation has begun. As disciples scatter across the world, through the gospel God shines the light of new creation out of the darkness into the hearts of people who become new creatures.

A new age has dawned in the resurrection and enthronement of Jesus, who is both Lord and Christ.

Christus Victor: Abandoned to Death but not in Death

March 8, 2023

If you only listen to one in this series, listen to this one!

Texts: Mark 15:33-37; Matthew 28:5-10

Days 50-51 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

Death and Resurrection. This is the pinnacle of the gospel story. The Messiah is victorious in both death and resurrection.

In death, the Messiah is obedient to death, even death on the cross. That is victory over the powers of darkness arrayed against him, seeking to subvert his faithful obedience.

In resurrection, the Messiah is vindicated; he is justified as God’s anointed. That is victory over death itself, swallowing up death in victory.

In death, the Messiah is abandoned but not alienated. The Messiah abandoned to death, just as all humans since Adam have been. But the Messiah is not separated from God as if the Trinity has itself been torn asunder. On the contrary, the Father loves the Son, the Spirit of God rests upon the Son, and the Son knows the ending of Psalm 22 even as he shrieks its first words.

In resurrection, the Messiah is not abandoned in Hades, the realm of the dead. The Father, by the Spirit, raises the Son from the dead, liberating him from the grave. The Messiah, like the Psalmist, experiences deliverance and enters the sacred assembly to praise his Savior. The Messiah was given over to death but redeemed from it.

The Messiah was abandoned to the grave but not in the grave.

We, too, will be abandoned to death but not in the grave.

Thomas Fleming’s “Disease in the Public Mind”

March 2, 2023

I opened myself to the challenge of reading 12 books in 2023 chosen by my Facebook friends. One friend suggested Thomas Fleming’s “A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War”. This is the third of twelve—I’m shooting for one a month.

The title comes from James Buchanan, the fifteenth President of the United States (1857-1861). As Civil War “loomed on the horizon,” he called it—on several occasions—the result of “an incurable disease in the public mind.” The public, influenced by media, extreme politicians, and leading influencers, had been infected to such an extent that polarized and antagonist views had been absorbed by the general public. This disease was the result of hostile, polarizing, and bigoted public discourse.

Fleming argues that radical abolitionists on the one hand and radical enslavers on the other used the long history of antagonism and suspicion between New England the deep South to acerbate and poison political discourse within the nation. The radical abolitionists used those prejudices to demonize enslavers in the worst possible light, and the most extreme abolitionists employed violence (for example, John Brown). Radical enslavers defended enslavement of Africans on the ground of their inferiority, white supremacy (this country was made for white people), and their own sense of benevolence (something like, we are helping black people by civilizing and christianizing them).

These two poles, riding on the waves of North-South economic, social, and political sectionalism, drove the nation into a Civil War that cost it close to one million deaths (that is, one out of every 31 people died in the 1860s from this War or its effects).

This disease in the public mind, which hindered or prevented civil discourse and potential political solutions that might have led to freedom for enslaved people, carries significant weight. A disease infected the public mind because of polarizing rants and discourse designed to engender hate and ultimately violence.

Southerners feared a race war, and thus it was best to keep Africans enslaved. The South had witnessed the liberation of slaves in the West Indies by Britain and heard the horror stories of massacres in the islands. This fear drove southern polarization.

Northerners feared the extension of slavery into the territories, and literature (like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) stoked hatred for slavery by casting it in the worst possible light. Northern hatred of southern slavery led to violence as seemingly the only solution to the problem.

Fleming suggests that this polarization and its fears left no space for a gradual elimination of slavery in the South as had happened in New England and the Middle States (Pennsylvania, New York, etc.) as well as in other countries around the world. The United States was one of the few nations that fought a civil war to end slavery. Ultimately, there were only two choices: the continuance of slavery or war.

Fleming seems to lay most of the blame on radical abolitionists, and he describes southern enslavers in a more understanding light than typical. It comes across as if the abolitionists were irrational, filled with hate, and would not listen to reason while southerners were not given a fair chance to seek other solutions. The North, Fleming suggests, pushed the nation into war when southerners were not receptive to abolitionists demands to abolish slavery immediately.

This is not a “new understanding,” despite the title of the book. While it has merit in many respects, I don’t find it fully convincing. The hero of his book is Abraham Lincoln who, Fleming argues, hoped for a gradualism that would eliminate slavery through compensated emancipation even though he believed the institution was evil. Lincoln sought compromise but fought a war to save the union by which enslaved peoples were liberated.

I think Fleming underplays the evil and reality of enslaved peoples. He treats it with almost a soft hand though he calls it deplorable. I also am not so sure gradualism was really an option for the future of the country—perhaps 100 years later maybe. The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s as well as the history of Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the South suggest the bigotries and animus toward black people was not going to disappear through gradualism. When the war ended slavery, other forms of slavery arose, including Jim Crow laws, sharecropping, redlining, and even now mass incarceration. Was there any real hope that gradualism would work? It was voted down, for example, during constitutional conventions in antebellum Tennessee and Virginia (border states that resisted secession until Lincoln called up 75,000 volunteer troops in response to the formation and actions of the Confederacy).

Nevertheless, I think the notion that a “disease in the public mind” is an excellent point. It is a complicated situation with lots of intersecting hostility, suspicion, and hatred between sections of the United States. Fleming’s book is worth reading, and while he offers lots of helpful perspectives to moderate some perspectives, I don’t think he offers a comprehensive understanding but illuminates one of the complicating factors that led to Civil War.

Though published ten years ago, it speaks to our contemporary situation. Hostile, polarizing, and bigoted discourse—a few calling for national divorce, succession, or even violence—characterize our present political and cultural situation.  The public mind is poisoned by social media influencers, radical politicians, and extreme media.

As a disciple of Jesus, I invite us to practice love, prayer, and acts of kindness for our enemies as we also bear witness to the truths embedded in the Christian narrative.

You are free to comment (though I will delete offensive or extraneous comments), but I have no interest in arguing for or against Fleming’s thesis in the comments. Be kind and share your ideas (if you wish) with love and in a mutual search for understanding.

Jesus Suffers: Garden, Via Dolorosa, and Cross

March 2, 2023

Texts: Matthew 26:36-46; Luke 22:52-53; Luke 23:32-47

Days 47-49 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

Video available here

If we had not been sufficiently convinced of the humanity of Jesus, perhaps because he also God in the flesh, the movement from the Garden to the Cross might just seal the deal. Jesus suffers.

Jesus wrestles with God in prayer, recognizes the powers of darkness surrounding him, and hangs on a cross mocked and humiliated. Jesus enters fully into the human experience of death, persecution, and injustice.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus leaves eight disciples behind, takes three deeper into the Garden with him (Peter, James, and John), and then finds a place to be alone. He has come to pray, and his prayer is saturated with grief and his spirit is agitated. He goes off by himself three times, and each time he returns he finds his disciples sleeping. He prays without a sustaining community surrounding him. Sometimes praying is more important than sleeping. His prayer progresses from hesitation to acceptance, and ultimately to commitment. Jesus submits to the will of the Father.

As Jesus begins his way to his trial and to the cross—the via dolorosa (the way of sorrow), he announces to his opposition—hostile rulers—that “this is your hour—when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:53, NIV). Darkness evokes the memory of the chaos of Genesis 1:2. It remembers the power of God’s enemies, including Satan. When darkness reigns, innocent people are executed. When darkness reigns, the righteous are mocked. When darkness reigns, women weep over the loss of their children. Nevertheless, the light of the kingdom is present. Even as he hung on the cross, kingdom light breaks into the darkness.

While on the cross, according to Luke, Jesus speaks three times. He speaks about forgiveness, God’s Paradise, and trust. Though dying on a cross, Jesus prays for his enemies. He testifies to the death of evil and suffering because the Paradise of God is real. And, quoting Psalm 31, he expresses his trust in the Father.

Forgiveness, Victory, and Trust.

Though darkness reigns, the kingdom is revealed in Jesus from the Garden to the Cross. Amid the darkness, Jesus struggled, and then he accepted his journey, and finally completed it in full trust of the Father with forgiveness in his heart for his enemies and an assurance of the future to his new friend, a fellow-cross bearer.

Jesus Serves: Temple, Template, and Table

March 1, 2023

Texts: Mark 10:41-45; 11:15-18; 12:28-34; 14:22-25

Days 43-46 in Around the Bible in Eighty Days.

As Jesus traveled to Jerusalem in order to suffer and die, he frames this journey as one of service. The mission of Jesus is to serve others, and that is why he became a “slave of all.” The “Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45 identifies a core value: the mission is for others, and it requires the gift of his own life. The whole mission of Jesus is shaped by his intent to serve others, and he gives his life for the sake of the world.

Days 44-46 highlight how this service plays out, at least in part, in the last week of Jesus’s life. After Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he is hailed as the coming king (Messiah) by the crowds, he enacts his role as Messiah in three distinct ways in texts appointed for this session.

First, Jesus comes to Jerusalem in judgment; he serves judgment. Out of a zeal for God’s house which is designed for prayer, he engaged in prophetic symbolism by turning over tables. Overturning a few tables would not stop the economic system in place at the temple, but it did testify to God’s judgment upon the temple authorities and their practices. We might say Jesus’s symbolic action was a promissory note on the future of the temple; it would be destroyed (Mark 13). They had made the temple a hiding place for their own interests, like a den of robbers, instead of a place of prayer for all nations.

Second, Jesus serves the teachers of Israel. At times, he affirms and at other times condemns the ethics and practices of Israel’s temple life. Jesus complimented one scribe who affirmed that the primary ethic is to love God and love neighbor. These two commandments, according to the scribe, are more important than the temple’s whole sacrificial system.  The love of God and neighbor are the template ethic for the kingdom of God. It is the pattern of life for in God’s kingdom.

Third, at table, Jesus served his disciples his own body and blood. Just as he told them that he would serve many by giving his life as a ransom, at the table Jesus gives his body and blood to us for our own salvation, sustenance, and communal life. We sit at the table as servants who are served by the host of the table. This, too, is the pattern of our life in the kingdom of God.

Service for the sake of others is the hallmark of the kingdom of God because it is how the Messiah saves and rules his people.

Revival – Historical Comment

February 19, 2023

“Revival” is sometimes used quite specifically, and at other times it is used rather broadly. It can mean anything from one’s own personal spiritual awakening to the impact of a culture-shaping movement of God across churches, regions, and even nations (e.g., the First Great Awakening). It can also refer to a spontaneous local congregational event (e.g., Jonathan Edwards in 1734-35), a planned series of meetings across several congregations (e.g., Cane Ridge was one in a series of communion festivals in 1801 Kentucky), or a spontaneous movement of congregations in a region (e.g., Welsh Revival in 1904-5).

The word can refer to many different things depending on who is using it, and it means something a bit different in different traditions and contexts. This is one reason we see some back-and-forth in social media about the significance of the Asbury “revival.”

In the present moment, I think we can discern three sorts of revivalistic practices or experiences that are linked to historic traditions within Christianity. I do not intend for the list below to restrict overlapping or expansive practices, and neither is it exhaustive. The distinctions are often fluid, but there are discernible traditions. These generalizations may be somewhat unfair as a typology, though it does offer a way of seeing a bigger picture.

1. One stream focuses on conversions, and this is strong in Presbyterian and Baptist traditions (especially in the 1700-1800s). Generally, these revivals focused on preaching, teaching, and convicting sinners and/or nominal Christians for the sake of their authentic conversion. This was often the function of protracted meetings or Gospel Meetings among Stone-Campbell congregations, and often they were intended to plant a congregation. Conversion (often including rededication) was the focus, and the preaching of the Word was the primary means.

2. Another stream focuses on igniting the fire of holy living, and this is primarily the concern of the Holiness Movement (1850s and beyond). Generally, these revivals focused on deep contrition, repentance, mourning, fasting until awakened by the Spirit through intimacy and encounter. The primary manifestation of this intimacy was expressed in worship and holding on to that presence. This is similar to what we are seeing at Asbury, whose roots are in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. Sanctification was the focus, and worship was the primary means.

3. Another stream is represented by Classic Pentecostalism (1900s-1920s). Because Pentecostalism, at least in its origins, is closely linked to the Holiness Movement, much of what is present in Holiness revivals is also there in Pentecostalism. However, it is more expectant that the outcome will be speaking in tongues, miracles, and extraordinary expressions of the Spirit. These will result not only in personal and communal awakening but also serve the mission of God as a witness to their neighbors. Sanctification was the focus, and the tangible presence of God through extraordinary gifts was the evidence.

I am grateful for the Asbury revival. It is a rather classic example of Holiness Revivalism. That does not mean everything is simply psychological as if manufactured by the human spirit. God is no mere spectator when God’s people assemble. Quite the contrary, it appears (I can only speak from a distance) God has come to Asbury in the mode in which Asbury’s tradition is both seeking and expecting, and God is gracious.

Revivals are traditioned. They exist within traditions (as the three types outlined above indicate). There are historical precedents and models. They do not easily transcend the traditions in which they are nurtured and practiced. That does not make them bad or inauthentic, just different. One is no more “revivalistic” than the other as all of them experience spiritual awakening through their traditions, habits, and practices. God uses all these traditions, and the Spirit is the active agent in all the good fruit they produce.

These different traditions, however, are helpful to the body of Christ due to the different circumstances, personalities, cultures, etc. present in the world. We need all kinds for all kinds of people. Ultimately, what we need, however, is the work of the Spirit in our hearts and communities.

In addition, the historic church–the liturgical tradition, in particular–has not generally been regarded as revivalistic in the modern sense of that term (especially in light of the evangelical revivals of the 17th-20th centuries). Nevertheless, it seems to me, that the goal of revivals is present in liturgical contexts as well.

If the assembly is a moment where we encounter God, and the Spirit is active there to form people into the image of Christ, liturgy is also a means that the Spirit uses. This is most particularly true of the sacraments, which are not typically the focus of evangelical revivalism (with some notable exceptions, like Wesley himself). Yet, God is able to revive the soul and community through its assemblies for worship, sacraments, and service to God.

“Revival” comes in many ways but always by the Spirit of God. Authentic revival transforms. This can happen in a recovery group, a small group Bible study, a coordinated Gospel Meeting (e.g., Hardeman Tabernacle Sermons in the 1920s Nashville), chapel services, or churches.

Though initiated and led by the Spirit (since only the Spirit can sanctify us), revivals have traditions and traditioned practices. There is nothing wrong with that.

However, we must be careful that we don’t make a particular tradition of “revival” a one size fits all, or assume a particular tradition of “revival” is more authentic than another. Instead, let us celebrate every way in which the Spirit encounters us and give thanks for the fruit the Spirit bears in our lives and in the lives of others, even if it comes through different practices, traditions, and settings.

Sola Dei Gloria

What Does God Do When We Assemble?

February 18, 2023

Thoughts in Light of the Asbury “Revival”

On February 8, a rather routine chapel service at Asbury University developed into a continuous worship and nonstop prayer meeting where God has responded to the prayers for inner healing, deliverance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. According to what I’ve been told and the reports I have read, this continuous assembly of worship is student-led and is primarily worship in song with occasional testimonies and brief lessons from Scripture. An ordinary student chapel service grew into a “revival.” (I don’t use “revival” in a technical sense but in the sense of an awakening, a transformative encounter with God.)

I understand the skeptical voices; I can sense that in myself as well. Should not revival mean the poor have good news preached to them, the oppressed are liberated, and people are treated fairly and with dignity? Some might suggest that is true revival (or true fasting, to use Isaiah’s language in chapter 58). Others might insist that revival only comes through the preaching of the Word so that hearts are convicted by the gospel. Nevertheless, I think people assembled to love on God and receive God’s love is the most basic form (perhaps the starting point) of revival.

It is a both/and. Revival gatherings like the one at Asbury are means of grace through which God works for transformation. And they are invitations to embrace the whole mission of Jesus, including sharing Jesus with others, caring for the sick, sharing resources with the poor, and advocating for justice.

In my understanding, God is doing something every time believers assemble, whether in chapel, campground, home, or a church building—no matter where they assemble.  Every assembly has the seed of revival because of God’s own initiative. When the people of God gather to seek God’s face, God is present. God has promised an active loving presence, though sometimes that loving presence becomes a word of confrontation with those who use the assembly as a “den of robbers” (Jeremiah 7:11).

When we approach assembly as a “den of robbers” (“we are God’s people,” so it doesn’t matter whether our lives are transformed), or as a pep rally (we are here to pump you up and create a spiritual high for you as if this were a concert), or as mere duty (part of checklist to avoid Hell), then we miss the fundamental meaning of assembling. What is that? When we assemble as a community in the Spirit, God is present for us, with us, and in us to encounter (meet) us for the sake of communion with God and each other as well as the transformation of our lives into the image of Christ.

The assembly gathers as a community of believers to love on God, and God loves on us. More accurately, God takes the initiative by calling us and gathering us into assembly to love on us, and we respond to God by loving on God and each other. This circle of love, a mutually indwelling love from the Father through Son by the Spirit, is the most significant and fundamental dynamic within the assembly, though it is often scarred by pettiness, hatred, exclusion, and discrimination. The circle of love, however, is the dynamic that drives revival or awakening when we experience it.

God transforms us through encounter, which may come with a tangible sense of God’s presence, a quiet spirit, or many other descriptors. The Spirit of God is always active when we are assembled, creating space in our hearts to know God. We may experience this inwardly through mourning, repenting, lamenting, rejoicing, or praising. We experience this communally as believers share prayers, longings, songs, testimonies, Scriptures, and the Lord’s table. We are transformed by the work of God’s Spirit within us and among us. This inner revival is a gift we receive with gratitude.

An authentic encounter with the loving and holy God also calls us into the life of God. We are invited to participate in the communion of Triune God where there is shalom. Many seek peace and security in other things, including sex, drugs, consumerism, alcohol, nationalism among many other things. The high levels of anxiety in Western culture create a deep need for encounter with transcendence. A worshipping assembly can be an occasion for such an encounter. I know have experienced it many, many times. This is, in part, what many see in the work of God at Asbury—an anxious generation seeking peace in God’s love.

Moreover, an encounter with the loving and holy God calls into God’s mission. When we experience God’s transforming grace and holiness, our response is not only gratitude but participation in the mission of God. With Isaiah, we say, “Here I am! Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). This mission is wholistic, including not only leading others to that encounter but also sharing shalom with others through hospitality, generosity, and advocacy. If revival stops with inner renewal (as wonderful a moment as that is), it fizzles out without the embrace of God’s mission. The embers of revival will die out without participation in God’s mission. This calls for endurance and persistence.

I am not a skeptic of revivals because I believe assembly is one place where God has promised to revive us. At the same time, I do apply discernment and wisdom (as best I can) to give thanks for the good fruit and to identify the bad fruit. Though God is present in every assembly, we are still human beings, and human beings bring with them not only their genuine search for God but also their self-interested baggage, including their consumeristic expectations.

What we yearn for, I hope, is a moment to genuinely bring our hearts before God and for God to transform our self-interested, consumeristic baggage into the image of the Son, both in communion with God and on mission with God.

That is my prayer every time I gather with the people of God, and when God does something more surprising than I imagine, I hope to receive it without deconstructing it.