Part of a series on The Way of Love. Other previous entries are available here.
Presiding Bishop Curry should be applauded for his work to bring the Episcopal Church the program, The Way of Love. For many Episcopalians discipleship is almost a dirty word, but we are at a cultural point where Christian discipleship is desperately needed. The Way of Love is an excellent tool to get the Episcopal Church thinking, talking, and acting on discipleship.
The trick will be to make sure we are talking about biblical discipleship. We are prone to make our own plans without reference to what God may be up to. And so the fact that Bishop Curry has placed Turn as the first element of The Way of Love vitally important. The word turn has an implied implication that we are facing in the wrong direction. We turn to go in a different direction. Pointedly, we turn away from our own schemes, plans, efforts — even our own hopes and dreams.
Ash Wednesday is an excellent day to ponder this. Aside from being told we are dust and that we are headed back to dust (can I really claim my work in and of itself will be any better than dust?), we have a cross signed on our forehead. This is a strange and powerful echo of when a cross was first made on our forehead: when the priest said “…you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
This answers the question of where we turn to. In our baptism we have turned away in the three great renunciations: of “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God…the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God…all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.” Then in the three great affirmations we “…turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as [our] Savior…put [our] whole trust in his grace and love…promise to follow and obey him as [our] Lord.”
We turn to Jesus.
What it means to turn to Jesus needs to be clearly set forth. This was done very well by Bishop Marriane Budde in her reflection on this theme. This turn begins on God’s side: “We turn towards the one who first turned toward us.” This reflects 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” Any view of turning, and therefore discipleship, that does not start with the fact that God first turned to us in love will not be a biblical discipleship.
Pardon me for climbing on my favorite soapbox, but we must be clear about this love. To do that, we must think more deeply about the word “turn.” In this usage, turn is a spatial metaphor. We turn left and right, we turn around, we turn and face the east, west, north, or south. We live in space, so such language is useful. As such, it conveys important truth. We are headed in the wrong direction, but our predicament is much more dire. We could add that we are headed over a cliff — danger ahead! — but this implies that the danger is solely in the future, and our turning will save us.
A better metaphor is that we have already fallen over the cliff, and our next stop is the rocks far below! When we say, “God first loved us,” what are saying is that God has stepped in and rescued us from this fate. God, in love for God’s whole creation (including especially us!), has saved us at great cost. That great cost was the cross. Our view of turning, and the discipleship that follows, must have a view of that great cost. God’s love has the cross at the center. To change metaphors, we are drowning, and Jesus didn’t come to jump in the water and drown with us. In a twist of the job of a lifeguard, Jesus did come to drown, but so that we didn’t have to. We say in the Good Friday liturgy:
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
Turning must have this view of God’s love, a love that is centered on the cross.
It would be a mistake to conclude at this point that there is nothing left for us to do in turning. This has been a point of rabid debate through the centuries. If it is “all God,” not a few Christians have suggested there is nothing left for us. Nevertheless, the witness of Scripture and the experience of the Christians down the centuries show that somehow, God uses our choice in turning. The mystery of the divine transcendence is that God is entirely active and so are we; there is no competition or even sharing in agency. And Jesus seems to take pleasure in our turning to him; he says, “I stand at the door and knock,” and goes on to say that the one who opens the door (what a lovely change of metaphor for turning!) experiences the intense intimacy of eating together.
What we must say is that the turn we make must be rooted in God’s love shown at the cross and must be consistent with that love. That turning will involve the deep experience of God’s love. But it will also call out of us the necessary repentance because of our sin. There is no avoiding that subject; the cross is too serious a point to escape. It is tempting to paper over sin and remove repentance from turning. We might believe that God loving us is incompatible with a view of our sin, but it is precisely at the point of knowing our darkness that we can most deeply experience that love. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died” (Rom. 5:8).
We must admit that language of “turning to Jesus” is somewhat foreign to our Episcopal ears. It shouldn’t be! As Bishop Budde points out, every Sunday in the Eucharist we are re-invited to turn to Jesus. That turning is strongly connected to the cross. We can use Sunday as a beachhead on our soul to help us ponder the rest of the week what turning to Jesus will entail.
Two important points remain. First, we must be careful that we make the focus of our turning Jesus himself. It is tempting to make the turning about “following Jesus” rather than about Jesus alone. Make no mistake: following him follows turning to him as surely as day follows night. We must take seriously the promise in our baptism: “promise to follow and obey him as [our] Lord.” But if we place all our focus on following Jesus, forgetting that we are also saved by Jesus, we miss the most central part of why we follow Jesus: our complete dependence on him. It is all too easy to begin following someone or something else if we forget this basic dependence.
Finally, while we wrestle with turning (or should we say re-turning) to Jesus, there are those around us who have never turned to Jesus. It is easy to lose sight of what we have laid out here, but as we invite others to turn to Jesus, we remember that our own turning was rooted in God’s love for us. Then we will not invite them to turn “on their own.” We are not going to invite them into our turning. We not going to ask them to accomplish some grand feat. We are inviting them to turn to Jesus and experience the deep, deep love of God. And we are inviting them to find out that after turning to Jesus they will find that following him is the true great adventure!
Charlie Clauss is a technical support representative for a company that builds humidification equipment.