by Chris Ferguson, WCRC General Secretary
Living God, renew and transform us!
A communion confessing the God of Life in a world fallen among thieves as all creation yearns for liberation from bondage.
It is my great pleasure to present this excellent collection of articles exploring the theme of the World Communion of Reformed Churches’ 26th General Council Meeting in Leipzig, Germany, in June 2017. The WCRC has asked outstanding theological thinkers, teachers and leaders to help all member churches and congregations enter deeply into work of the 2017 General Council by engaging its theme: “Living God, renew and transform us.”
The General Council meets at the intersection of colliding contexts!
The context of the WCRC itself is the first, a newly formed Communion with a long history and deep roots as a family of Presbyterian, Reformed, Congregational, United and Uniting, Waldensian, Hussite and other Reformation churches. Only together in our present form since 2010—still learning to be a Communion as we both grow closer together in deeper koinonia and also face challenges to our unity. We have been shaped by recent financial pressures, relocating from Geneva to Hannover, and the subsequent need to purposefully reconnect and witness within the wider ecumenical family, as well as to bring our contributions to inter-religious situations and relations. Representing 80 million Christians, most of whom live in the Global South, we need to close the distance between and among us.
We embrace diverse regions and have far to go in order to honour all our regional, linguistic and cultural diversity and identities as a Communion. We are part of the Reformed church always reforming. We are committed to communion and called to justice. Ecumenical by vocation in the context of a wider ecumenical movement facing historic challenges. A confessing communion of churches of Jesus Christ everywhere in the world. Witness, ministry, service and mission. Everywhere. A World Communion that reaffirmed the Belhar and Accra confessions seeing justice as a matter of faith. Economic, racial, ecological, social and gender injustices and complicity with them is far from faith in the living God.
The 2017 General Council will meet in the context of the common commemoration of 500 years of the Protestant Reformation. For the Reformed tradition, 2017 is not the key historical year; Martin Luther is not the key theologian of reference; nor is Germany our main geographical focus. Our meeting in Leipzig gives us the opportunity to embrace our own roots and history, to add our distinctive voices, to consider our unique contribution with humility and repentance. Clearly our tradition must take responsibility for our part in divisions within the church, regardless of intentions, and for the exclusion and violence against those who did not follow our understanding of what faithfulness to God required of us.
The point of this critical reflection is to move forward in faith and in response to the God of Life. The Reformation commemoration is for us not about theological nostalgia. It is about putting the Reformation into the present tense. This means not just the here and now; it means bringing Reformed traditions, theology and the confessing faith stance into the tense present—into the tensions, conflicts, violence, suffering, beauty, wonder and promise of this historical moment.
These two contexts collide explosively and urgently with our global context: a world of no peace, and no justice; with unprecedented human displacement and migration; spiralling militarized violence; unfettered racism and social exclusion. We live in a crisis of “the whole.” The planet and the people…all of creation face a massive threat to life. Not all of us can see this, but those whose lives are most threatened can help us see that it is a truly global crisis. We live in the depths of a world created and loved by God fallen among thieves (John 10:10).
Our theme speaks to these colliding contexts. It is dynamite. It refuses to let us alone. For people of faith there is no business as usual. For our Communion there is no separating love of God from justice here and now. Economic, ecological and gender justice issues grip us as a foundational imperative of faith in the Living God as revealed through Jesus Christ lived in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We start by crying out of the depths of our contexts to the Living God. It is both a prayer and a confession. Our faith tradition calls us to turn to the God of Life. We engage and pray to God when confronted with brokenness and threats to life. The biblical tradition shows us that the Living God is invoked when the community is faced by false gods (Jeremiah 10:1-10): idols of war, of death, of domination; idols of prosperity and of “Mammon.” In confessing the Living God we reject those systems, structures, values and teachings that foster racist, economic, ecological, social, religious and gender injustice.
We confess that the earth is the Lord’s and all that it is in it. But this world is beset with many masters, and our confession of the Living God requires us to name and resist the lords of domination and embrace the God of Life. Our theme invites us to a theological and spiritual encounter with the God of Life as revealed through the Scriptures and through Jesus Christ. The invitation is to engage the three contexts we face. The first movement of the theme is to evoke and turn to the living God. To turn to God is to embrace Life. To embrace life is to love and serve God. It is to defend and protect the life of all people, especially the poor, marginalized, excluded, dispossessed and all creation (Luke 4:16ff, Matt 25, John 3:16-17).
Renew and Transform
The next movement of our theme invites us to embrace reformation in the present tense, “renew and transform.” Here Romans 12:1-2 calls us “not to be conformed to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewal of our minds…” For the WCRC it is imperative to address this not only as individuals but as church and a Communion. Here we are called to embrace the renewal of the church for the transformation of the world. Here transformation is based on the Greek word metamorphosis—which means a total and radical change in thinking, acting and understanding, a transformation of form and substance. The biblical concept is more radical than any political or psychological concept of mere reform.
We have as a family through the Accra Confession clearly named the specific structures, systems and institutions of neoliberal free market capitalism as a foundational source of injustice which demands transformation in order for us to be faithful to God. Rejecting the ideas, structures and spirituality of unlimited growth and accumulation is a theological imperative and an ethical obligation if we are to embrace God’s love and justice for all of creation and the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Attention to the systems and structures that make up “the patterns of this present age” as part of our world civilization and world (dis)order is the meaning of reading the signs of the times and discerning the kairos. The changing world situation and the intensity of the threats to life help us recognise that in 2004 the Accra Confession’s assertion that we live in a scandalous situation has only gotten worse. Specifically that there is a solid link between the cause of human and social injustice and the damage to creation which is rooted in our present economic system and which is defended by military and political power supported by cultural and religious ideas and practices in the interests of the few at the expense of the majorities. Foundational to this complex, multidimensional reality is racism, sexism, classim, casteism and all other forms of systemic inequality.
All around the world there is talk of transformation but often of a superficial kind. The United Nations has a framework for sustainable development that seeks to transform the world without changing the economic or political systems or structures. The Romans passage calls us to a deeper transformation of all structures, systems, attitudes and actions that oppress or enslave. Many in civil society are joining the call found in the Accra Confession and in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si to understand the link between the current neoliberal market economy with its structures and institutions and climate change and ecological destruction. Briefly, Naomi Klein has said that the inconvenient truth is that “climate change is not about carbon but capitalism.” There is a growing awareness that to protect God’s creation we must change the economic system. To address poverty and inequality we must transform the economic system. The WCRC family has proclaimed that this is tied to our faithfulness to and love of God. It is bound to our confession of Jesus as Lord.
Christians around the world are seeking to detangle themselves spiritually from the false gods of consumerism. Reformed theology powerfully challenges theologies of prosperity and spiritualities based on individualism rather than Jesus’ love and call to compassion and solidarity. Prayer and action must combine to follow Jesus.
Luke 4:16ff is Jesus’ public witness to his mission where reading from the book of Isaiah, he stands firmly in the prophetic and jubilee traditions saying:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus stands firmly in the jubilee and prophetic traditions. We recall Micah 6:8 in this critical moment in human history we do know what is required of us: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Our context and our faith compel us to seek justice and resist evil. The WCRC in its General Council will be guided by the Accra Confession and bring the confession into the present tense in seeking to faithfully resist all that threatens life in God’s creation and to follow Jesus in the mission of good news to the poor, liberation, freedom, healing and justice for the earth. This requires ecumenical, interfaith and civil society alliances to work together for justice, peace, healing and reconciliation for all of creation.
This is part of a wider journey, as well, as the World Council of Churches has called the whole Christian family and all people of good will to join on the “Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace.”
Here our theme is inclusive of person, church and world—all of creation. The call to put God-Life at the centre of all we are and do will change the WCRC. It will change our churches. It will change our society. It will change relationships between men and women. It will respect all differences. The “us” includes the earth—all of creation.
Unity and overcoming human and church division is an unshakeable vocation for us. We as a WCRC family don’t of course apologize for the Reformation and its world-changing contribution to humanity, but we do repent of the division, separation and violence that was an unintentional but real consequence. Calvin lamented the “dismembered body of Christ.” He said he was so committed to unity he would cross ten seas for that cause. The WCRC in seeking renewal as a Reformed church always reforming must, in fact, renew its approach to the visible unity of the church and embrace such unity as an imperative of the highest order. Not only the koinonia amongst the WCRC family, not only communion with other communions but the true and deepest unity for the sake of God’s kingdom. What renewal as churches and as Church are we called to? What renewal is imperative to join God’s mission without obstacles or hesitation?
What are the resources of our shared and diverse tradition that we must bring to theological reflection? What are the gifts and imperatives of being a confessing Communion turning to the Living God in a world fallen among thieves? How will we together name this kairos and chart a course together to overcome what threatens to divide us and instead together witness to justice? How will we show compassion, love and solidarity within the family as we pray, worship and witness together? How will we be powerfully present confessing Jesus is the way, the truth and life in a creation groaning in travail?
Our contexts collide. Church, history, present tense. The Spirit of the Living God also collides into us, urging our renewal for the transformation of the world so that all may have abundant life.
This booklet invites us to embrace this explosive prayer, confession and theme and prepare for the gathering of the WCRC family. The authors have grappled with key dimensions of our theme in order to debate, reflect, comment, engage and dialogue as each church, hopefully each congregation, prepares to embrace our three colliding contexts and enter into the communion-building and justice-seeking opportunity of the 2017 General Council in Leipzig.
Soli Deo Gloria! Glory to the God of Life!