Who Do We Say That We Are

by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill

As I trust you know, St. John the Divine inaugurated a bold ministry initiative on January 14. The Door is a new worship service Sundays at 5:30 pm in our beautiful church. The liturgy is intended to be warm and welcoming, offering an “unplugged” modern musical style, accessible homilies, a holy space for prayer, and a shared meal following. Hospitality and belonging are central values to The Door.

I have shared in numerous contexts that the vision for The Door is to connect the gospel and our Christian fellowship with people all around us in the city who may not have a church home, who may be spiritually open but not yet committed to the Christian faith, and any who yearn for warm and welcoming community. The Door is not primarily intended to represent an additional Sunday “menu” option for members who already worship at SJD. Again, the missional goal is to connect our gospel life with new people. And that goal is not likely to be accomplished by slick marketing strategies to strangers (although they help!). It is most likely to be accomplished by our members’ taking personal initiative by inviting friends, neighbors, and acquaintances to come, taste, and see.

Episcopalians have the reputation for being notoriously reticent about inviting others to church. Thus, what an opportunity we have to step boldly into practices earlier generations of Christians have taken for granted as central to their call: to share Christian fellowship with friends and neighbors.

The initial weeks of The Door begin with a homily series entitled “Questions Jesus Still Asks.” As you recall, there are numerous instances in the gospels when Jesus engages a variety of people he encounters with questions: “What are you looking for?” “Why are you afraid.” “Do you wish to be made well?” “Do you love me?” As I have studied these exchanges, it has struck me that each question Jesus asks touches on a fundamental issue of the human condition. His queries always go deep to the heart of things. Our first service of The Door opened with the familiar question he asks of his own disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Yes, it is a pretty foundational question for Christians! And how do we answer?

A slight reframing of the question is helpful in contemplating this opportunity to invite others to The Door: “Who do you say that SJD is?”

Kavin Rowe is a New Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School who has written on the Book of Acts. Rowe identifies a key narrative device used throughout this biblical account of the early church: speeches. Reading through The Book of Acts one notices numerous speeches by apostolic figures like Peter, Stephen, James, and Paul. Rowe reasons that the plethora of speeches in Acts is present to stress the importance of articulating the Christian community’s identity and purpose. Each of the speeches in Acts offers a raison d’etre for the life of the church in the world. Evidently, it was necessary for the early Christians to be reminded often of who they were and why. How did those first Christians answer, “Who do you say you are?”

I like that Rowe argues the response to this foundational question requires no professional mastery or theological sophistication. The answer is not the prerogative of religious professionals or scholars but the call of every believer. We recall Acts 4, wherein Peter and John are hauled before the Jewish authorities and interrogated about how they healed a man who had been lame. Peter delivers a short speech, and the authorities are stunned at the power of his testimony. Why? Because Peter and John are deemed “uneducated, common men.” It is noted in commentaries that the Greek is quite strong here: they are “illiterate idiots.”

Rowe makes two points about this story. First, “in Acts to be articulate is not necessarily… to be sophisticated; it is quite simply the ability to say what the ultimate reason for the community’s existence really is [and] to say by what name the community lives.” Second, thriving churches know how to answer the question because members have been formed well through their teaching and life together in the faith.

As God brings people across your path, perhaps nudging you to invite them to join you in our fellowship, how do you respond to the question: “who do you say SJD is?” For months, we have been developing strategic plans seeking to exemplify our response. Our vision is to be a congregation where more and more are gathering in Jesus, growing together in his likeness, and going forth to be his lights to the city. Jesus. Community. Ministry. You could answer with those three words. Or you might say, “We love Jesus, we love this church, and we would love to have you among us as we continue his work in the world.” That may not represent a sophisticated answer, but it is hard to improve upon. And as we see from Scripture, God does much with simple and daring testimony.

Weekly Wisdom

In the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, shine as lights in the world….
— Philippians 2:15

One Good Recommendation

A Walk Through the Bible by Lesslie Newbigin (Regent College Publishing, 2005)

I am again recommending a helpful and accessible resource for encouraging a discipline of Scripture reading. This slim volume consists of the published radio addresses by the missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin recorded shortly before his death in 1988. Newbigin outlines the whole narrative arc of the Bible as God’s initiative to save the whole creation through the calling of a particular people, Israel, climaxing in the particular person of Jesus.

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