Living God, Renew and Transform US

A Theological Essay from Prayerful Preparation

by Anna Case-Winters

When we pray, “Living God, renew and transform us,” how are we meaning the word “us?” This is a word with many dimensions and points of reference. We could mean it very personally, as we as individuals need God’s renewing, transforming work in our own lives. Or we might mean it more communally, especially now as we pray it in the context of our Reformation jubilee. We hope that the God who reformed the church in the 16th century is still at work reforming the church today—renewing and transforming it. Even as we pray with the church in view we remember that God is at work not only in the church, but also in the wider world, embracing the whole of creation. The meaning for “us” embraces an ever widening circle.

Renew and transform the church: “Called to Communion”
The church stands in need of transformation and renewal today. God’s reforming work in the church did not begin or end with the Reformation! As we look back to the Reformation from the standpoint of this jubilee, we want very much to reclaim its insights, to repent its oversights and go forward with the unfinished business of the Reformation. Part of that “unfinished business” is in deepening communion particularly with those from whom we have become estranged. Our celebrations of the Reformation must make clear that we are not celebrating the division of the church. This is a good time to shine a light on our good faith efforts toward more visible unity both among the churches of the Reformation and with the Roman Catholic Church. Our interpretation casts a compelling vision of how we together may make visible the unity which—by the grace of God—is already ours in Jesus Christ.

This is a kairos moment for the church. This could be a time not only of celebration and commemoration but also of much needed reorientation—a metanoia (turning around). There may be a turning toward those from whom we have become estranged not only by that Reformation divide but by all the many divisions since, among the churches of the Reformation. Some say that the Reformation set a precedent for dividing in the face of difference. Now we have “developed a habit of splintering”—even our splinters have splinters! We have too often been content to live apart; complacent with our separation. Though we may hold that the Reformation was necessary; the divisions that came in its wake were tragic.

Luther (and Calvin with him) thought the division in the church was scandalous. Neither aspired to founding a “new church.” Martin Luther, even after his excommunication in 1521, constantly strove for dialogue. He was completely convinced that Rome would come to see the necessity of the reforms, and he cherished a hope that that the Pope would convene a General Council. John Calvin shared Luther’s profound regret over the division of the church. He expressed his deep concern in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury (Thomas Cranmer). He declared that the division of the church “is to be ranked among the chief evils of our time….Thus it is that the members of the Church being severed, the body lies bleeding.”1 Calvin’s depiction of Christ’s “dismembered” body is a powerful and compelling image. His discussions of the Lord’s Supper insist that we cannot separate communion with Christ from communion with one another.

We are called to communion. Can God renew and transform us in this calling? Can we possibly be renewed by new patterns of reconciliation that will foster a more visible unity? Can we be transformed into new forms of being together—something like what Cardinal Walter Kasper called “a communion of communions?”

We may take hope when we consider examples of advances made just since the last General Council. Ongoing efforts between churches of the Reformation have come to fruition in Communion: On Being the Church which expressed the foundations and expressions of our communion. The Reformed-Catholic International Dialogue has yielded a new shared statement on “Justification and Sanctification: The Christian Community as an Agent for Justice. The new pattern of “differentiated consensus” has opened the way for affirming what we can affirm together while allowing remaining differences to be articulated rather than obscured. It testifies that differences need not divide but may become occasions for further conversation. Progress toward reconciliation is possible. God is at work renewing and transforming the church, leading us toward true communion.

We are most receptive to this work when we are turned toward Christ, in him we find that we are being “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2). Perhaps an ingredient in this is having in us “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2; being in our right minds at last!). As we “day by day, more and more” are conformed to his image we necessarily draw closer to one another in deepened communion. At the same time we are drawn outward in mission and ministry to the wide world beyond the church.

Renew and transform the human community: “Committed to Justice”
Here the “us” begins to broaden out, because it is not only the renewal and transformation of the church that God intends. God’s project is much larger still. So the “us” turns out to be all inclusive. In a world that so readily divides into “us” and “them,” friends and enemies, insider and outsiders, it comes as a revelation that there is no “them”—we are all together “us”—we are all together one human community. In Scripture we read that, “God so loves the world” (our God is a “worldly” God). The whole world is included in God’s renewing, transforming work.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God’s will may be done on earth. This is a prayer on the lips of every Christian—across the theological spectrum, across all the divides of denomination and across the disagreements of current debates. It has been prayed by Christians for two millennia and is offered up most every Sunday in most every church. But what are we really saying as we speak these words? What way of life is incumbent upon those who pray in this way? For example, we have a habit of privatizing the petitions of this prayer. But there are no first person pronouns in this prayer. It is not about “I” and “mine.” It is about “us” and “our.” When we take the “us” and “our” to include the wide circle of the world we unavoidably encounter global implications. A petition for “our” daily bread lays upon us a calling to address the problem of world hunger. A petition that goes “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” lays upon us a calling to address the global debt crisis. So the prayer goes, petition by powerful petition.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer is a “subversive” activity. When we pray “thy kingdom come,” kingdom is not a place but a new reality, namely the reign of God in our midst. So we are actually praying for the overturning of the present order. We are aligning our hearts and lives with a new reality. We cannot pray for the coming of God’s reign while contradicting it and even resisting it, all at the same time. We cannot pray it without working for a different kind of world—one where justice prevails. Christians pray this prayer by heart—what would it mean to pray it from the heart—to begin to live as we pray? A commitment to justice is entailed.

  • Where are the places of injustice and suffering in our world today? We contradict ourselves if we pray “thy will be done” and allow ourselves to “pass by on the other side?” Because we pray this prayer, we cannot refuse to see what is happening in the world around us or fail to interpret the “signs of the times” or close our ears to “the cries from below.” These insights are integral to the Accra confession and its call to justice in the economy and the earth. The readiness of the Reformed representatives gathered at Accra to make such a radical call to justice was heightened by our shared experience of the “slave castles” at Elmina (a personal accounting of this transformative experience is appended to this contribution).2
  • Where are we being called to prophetic ministry? Our commitment to justice may call us to bear witness that challenges unjust systems and structures. We have a calling to speak truth to power, and issue a resounding call for change (repentance). If we read the book of Jonah through a liberationist lens3 the story is substantially reframed. Many of us grew up hearing the story as a call to evangelize the nonbelievers. In fact, it may better be read as a call to speak truth to power. Nineveh is the capital of the powerful Assyrian empire, and the Ninevites inhabit the seat of power. Jonah and the Israelites, along with many other people, inhabit the margins. They are destined to fall to the Assyrian armies within a generation of this story’s setting. Jonah turns out to be a story of “an evil and oppressive empire that has achieved wealth, power, and privilege at the expense of the surrounding marginalized communities.”4 A rebellious and reluctant prophet from the margins, Jonah is charged to bring them a message of repentance. He is angry when God shows them mercy. We can almost hear him cry, “No justice, no peace!” There are clear socio-political parallels to “empire” as it is manifest today in world powers. How might we, like Jonah call for repentance?
  • Are there places where it is we ourselves who need to hear the call to repentance? Some of us inhabit centers of power in our contemporary context to which a prophetic witness is being addressed today. Are we able to hear and respond? Is our hearing muffled by the benefits we ourselves receive from oppressive systems? Where are we implicated? Are we lending credence and support to a system that is not working—or is working only for the privileged and powerful? Where are we co-opted by empire? There is no neutrality. To be neutral is to support the oppressive system.
  • Do we believe that our God is one who answers prayer? In the Exodus story we read that God saw the misery of the people, heard their cries, and came to deliver them (Exodus 3:7-8). If our God is one who sees and hears and comes to deliver, then we as people who worship and serve and pray to this God should see, and hear and come to deliver.
  • What does it mean to follow the one who taught us to pray the Lord’s Prayer? Jesus’ own ministry brought to the center those who were at the margins (the little, the least, the last, and the lost). The most vulnerable persons seemed to be at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and message. If his is the pattern for our ministry, what would that orientation mean for us? Jon Sobrino has proposed that Christ is to be found precisely among the poor. This is the case even though “we have learned that the world’s poor are practically of no consequence to anyone.”5 In every crisis it is they who suffer the most. “The same things happen to the same people all the time.”6 Sobrino speaks of them as the “crucified people”—the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. Their suffering presents an urgent demand that we “take them down from the cross.”7

Renew and transform the whole creation: “Called to Communion, Committed to Justice”
Our calling to communion and our commitment to justice must extend to the whole creation—stretching even as wide as the divine embrace. The biblical notion of the oikos gives us a metaphor for understanding our true relation. Oikos, which means “household,” is the root in all our “eco” words, including both “ecology” and “economy.” “Ecology” comes from oikos + logos (reason). It signals the “logic” of the household—how it is configured and how it runs. “Economy” comes from oikos + nomos (law) we might say it refers to the “house rules.” As God’s own household, the creation’s internal logic or rule is the rule of love. Sharing, providing for one another, doing our part in upkeep and care, these are ethics implied in the metaphor of the creation as God’s “household.” It should be noted that creation is not just a “house” for humans; rather the whole creation and all creatures together are together members of God’s “household.” We are a community of life, a communion of love. We seek the well-being of the whole household in our work for the common good. Our life together in this household is to be marked by solidarity, sufficiency and sustainability. Part of the genius of the Accra Confession is in making the connections between economy and ecology, in committing us to “covenanting for justice in the economy and the earth.”

How wide is the divine embrace? Our Trinitarian vision is a vision of a God who is in, with and for the whole

  • The Creator is invested in the natural world: calling it into being and calling it “good.” And God deigns to be revealed in all creation, “everywhere we turn our eyes.” Further, God’s providential care in every time and place extends to the sparrow and the lilies, as it does to us (Matthew 10). And at the last, in the anticipated consummation of all things what is envisioned is a “new creation” where God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). These broad strokes tell a story of God’s all-embracing care for the whole creation.
  • Perhaps this reality is even more evident to us when we remember how God, in Jesus Christ, has come “down to earth” and entered into material existence as such. In the incarnation, our God proves to be a “down to earth” God. The writer of Colossians, reflecting upon the incarnation, recognized that the incarnate one is the divine logos, in whom all things were created and in whom all things hold together—the very foundation of creation (Colossians 1:15-20). The whole creation then, is a place of grace. God’s love, which is personal and particular in its expression, is cosmic and universal in its scope.
  • God’s Spirit, who hovers over the face of the deep at the dawn of creation, is even now the one who renews the face of the ground (Psalm 104:30). Our communion in the Spirit is surely a communion with all things. Here we see God in creation renewing, regenerating and reconciling all things in a loving, life-giving communion of communions.

As we pray, “Living God, renew and transform us,” who are we including in that word “us?” Surely we are praying for church and especially that its communion may be renewed. Surely, though, we are also praying for all God’s people in the whole wide world—a larger circle of “us.” We pray that our human communities will be transformed so that justice will prevail. As the circle of our care continues to grow it comes to embrace the whole “household” of God—the whole creation—as “us.” How wide indeed is the divine embrace!

1 Letter to Cranmer (1552), Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, pt. 4.
2 At the meeting of the General Council in 2004 in Accra, Ghana, our hosts took us to see what they call “the slave castles.” These fortresses date back to the days of trading rum and sugar and spices. Under the castles were cargo holds where this cargo would be stored until the ships came. In later years, the Dutch traders found a more profitable trade in human beings. West Africans of the area were hunted down, captured, and imprisoned. They were held in the cargo holds like so much cargo. The great doors were closed and padlocked and sometimes not opened again until the slave ships arrived—a period of up to three months. Food was sent down a chute from a window above. People got sick, but the doors did not open; women gave birth, but the doors did not open; people died, but the doors did not open. It was an unimaginable horror. We were stunned to see these places and hear what had happened there.
The tour continued and we found that just above the cargo hold there was a large open room with big, bright, airy windows—a lovely room. We asked, “What is this place?” They told us this was the place where the Dutch Reformed folk worshipped. We found ourselves asking, how could they worship above the cargo holds? Did they not make the connections between their worship in this high place and what was happening in the low places? Our group was outraged. One person quoted the prophet Amos where God says, “I hate, I despise your feasts, I take no delight in your solemn assemblies….but let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24). We were appalled. A righteous indignation rippled through our company. How could they not hear the cries from below?
It was then that we had a bit of a revelation. Someone asked the question, “I wonder…where are the places we are not hearing the cries from below?” This was a transformative moment. It was decisive for the work we needed to do. Much work remains, of course, if we would make good on the strong statements of the Accra Confession—transforming them from rhetoric to reality. May God give us ears to hear the cries from below and hearts to care and courage to act.
3 For this reinterpretation see Miguel de la Torre, Liberating Jonah: Forming an Ethics of Reconciliation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015).
4 Ibid.
5 Jon Sobrino, Jesus: The Liberator (Marykknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003).
6 Jon Sobrino, Where is God? (Maryknoll, NY: 2004).
7 Joh Sobrino, The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (Maryknoll, NY: 2004).