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Life in the Spirit

What will life and ministry look like in the post-pandemic church? Understandably, our conversations about this matter are often framed in terms of “getting back to normal.” But sometimes the conversation takes a different turn when the question is reframed: Will things ever be normal again? How will the life, faith and ministry of the church change in response to crises exposed by this pandemic? Important questions.

Perhaps Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia can help us grapple with them, for Paul was responding to a church and region where divisions ran deep. Crucifixions were, quite literally, part of the landscape of their world —  it was the way the Roman Empire kept a system of domination in place. At one point in the letter, Paul makes a striking statement: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!” (Galatians 3:1). At first glance, it is an odd thing to say to Galatian believers in Asia Minor who were not present in Palestine on the occasion of Jesus’ crucifixion. But Pauline scholar Davina Lopez makes sense of it in “Apostle to the Conquered” with a perceptive observation: “Paul’s Galatians did not see Jesus’ crucifixion, but they did not have to. There were plenty of examples before everyone’s eyes (in real life, in stone, on coins) of capture, torture, bondage and execution of others in the name of affirming Rome’s universal sovereignty through domination.” In short, in Galatians 3:1, Paul gives expression to a theology of the cross of Jesus that exposes other crosses – large and small – that litter the landscape of the world around us. I find myself wondering what Paul might write to 21st-century Christians – American Christians, Presbyterian Christians in particular – about our own response to the crosses all too evident in our current landscape. I imagine him saying: “You foolish American Christians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!” George Floyd! Children separated from parents at our borders! Public spectacles of racist and nativist fervor, even insurrectionist violence! Grinding poverty that is more entrenched than ever! Though one thing has changed since Paul’s day: Now we have cameras and cell phones to record and broadcast all such crucifixions, even as they are taking place — so we cannot plead ignorance of them.

Paul articulates a stark choice facing Christians in every time and place, one that echoes the alternatives Moses set before the Israelites before their entrance into the Promised Land: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Paul’s understanding of this choice is refracted through the lens of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Death mimics the power that crucified Jesus, and we never have to look far to discern its presence. Indeed, it is ever-present in abuses of power large and small and in manifestation of “works of the flesh,” which include “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions” among other things (Galatians 5:19-21).

Life, by contrast, is grounded in the power of the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. It is manifest in what Brigitte Kahl called “the politics of love” in her book “Galatians Re-Imagined,” a concept that entails losing an abusive and self-centered self in order to retrieve a fuller self “in the other, for the other, through the other, with the other, constantly dying and being resurrected” as the mystical body of Christ. The reality of life in Christ also finds expression in fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). In this issue of the Outlook and the next two, each fruit will be considered in turn. The graces the fruit represent are not simply private virtues, but also public ones that empower the church, as the body of Christ in the world, to pursue justice, resist evil and seek reconciliation.

What will life and ministry look like in the post-pandemic church? Of one thing we can be certain: God’s Spirit and its fruit will be goading and forming us toward life rather than death as we seek to make ever more visible in this world the Spirit’s gracious, life-giving qualities.