Click here for General Assembly coverage

Singing our faith

I’ve been taking classical guitar lessons for a number of years, so I wasn’t surprised when my teacher recently asked me to put down the guitar and sing the piece I was attempting (not altogether successfully) to play. This had happened before, and I knew it was coming, because I did not have a good sense for how to proceed. “Sing the piece, Roger,” he said. “As you know, the music has to be inside of you in order for you to play it.” I’ve heard those words before, and I’ll no doubt hear them again. Did you know that some music departments require instrumentalists to take a course in vocal music — to facilitate learning to sing the music so that they can play it? I find that fascinating!

The guitar is an avocation for me — I am under no illusion that I will ever master it! But one of the reasons I’ve stuck with it is that I continue to learn a great deal about my spiritual life by playing the guitar — and learning to sing the music in order to play it is one of those lessons. Think of the Ghanaian folk song: “Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love; show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.” As the song suggests, the Spirit of Jesus fills us with love so that we can practice, or sing, the faith. And surely, each of the fruit of the Spirit is about singing the faith so that it may be embodied in lives and communities that bear public witness to new creation and the Spirit’s power. The fruit are manifestations of the life of the Spirit in us — they are like songs in us that find visible expression in the lives and communities of disciples. Faithfulness (one of the fruit explored in this issue) is a case in point.

The concepts of faith and faithfulness play an important role in Galatians, and I have been captivated by a recent scholarly debate over a significant translation issue in texts such as Galatians 2:16: Are we justified by “faith in Christ” (NRSV and NIV), or by the “faith of Christ” (CEB), that is, by Christ’s faithfulness? The first translation possibility makes Christ the object of our faith — someone in whom we place our faith. In the latter translation, Christ is the subject of faith — we are justified or made just by Christ’s own faithfulness. Thus, Jesus’ life of faithfulness is the basis of our salvation. These options are not mutually exclusive, but the more I reflect on this question, the latter makes far more sense to me. Scholars who favor it contend that by the power of God’s Spirit at work in us, we are shaped by the faithfulness of Christ. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God and embodied it in his life, resisting all that deformed and defaced God’s good creation, and the Spirit shapes in us the mind of Jesus, empowering us for lives of faithfulness in the world resembling Jesus’ own. In other words, God’s Spirit at work in us empowers us to sing Jesus and to live into the kind of faithfulness he embodied in this world.

In her powerful book, “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God,” theologian Kelly Brown Douglas speaks of Jesus’ solidarity with the Trayvon Martins of his world. Indeed, she insists that his solidarity “with the lynched/crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the ‘crucified class’ of his day.” So if Jesus’ faithfulness compelled him to stand with the abandoned and the marginalized, his Spirit at work within us is inspiring, empowering and forming us to do the same: to stand in solidarity with crucified people in our own time and place. His faithfulness shapes our faithfulness, finding visible, embodied expression in our own lives. So as the apostle Paul put it, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). This is how we sing the faith. May it be so.