The author, who leads an intentional Christian community in Charlotte, N.C., attended the recent annual national conference of the Christian Community Development Association, a network of Christians committed to wholistic restoration for communities spiritually, emotionally, physically, economically and socially. This is the last of four reflections by him on the event.
By Greg Jarrell
In good evangelical fashion, the final evening plenary session/worship service of the Christian Community Development Association conference concluded with an invitation. I do not think this has been a standard expectation at these annual conferences, but on this night, the sense of the Spirit’s presence in the room was so vibrant that an invitation seemed like it was a necessary next step in the evening. The Good News had been made so clear that it would have been a mistake to go back home without making sure everyone was walking with Jesus when they got there.
An altar call in a room populated primarily by ministers and leaders from Christian ministries seems like an odd thing to do. It certainly seems like an unlikely place to get much response. To make this work, we would need a strange sort of invitation, one that went well beyond the clichéd call to “come to Jesus” who wants to be your “personal” Lord and Savior. Noel Castellanos, CCDA’s executive director, stood up to sound the call. A strange invitation is just what we got. It was just what I needed to hear.
Noel invited us to be courageous along the uncommon way of discipleship. I needed to be encouraged to keep along this odd adventure of following Jesus. I’m not talking about just any old Jesus. Not gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Not the American Jesus, ascending to Heaven wrapped in a shroud of red, white and blue. Definitely not white Jesus. Too many of our churches have preached this insipid Jesus, one who never upsets the order of the day.
In these troubled times, a domesticated God is going to be of little help. But the one who has walked before us in the way of sorrow, the one who has stared down empire and death to rise victorious, the one who continues to appear among the poor and downtrodden: there is one worth following with my whole life.
Noel invited us to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. I needed to be reminded to rest in the arms of Jesus. Following the Crucified One is not easy. Cultivating cross-racial, multicultural communities of shalom is difficult work. There is no way to do it without unpacking narratives of privilege and oppression that extend across centuries and that creep into our lives in ways we never would have imagined. Learning the way of Jesus, who reconciles us unto himself and unto one another, means we’ll have do the work of humbling ourselves and submitting ourselves to people who will tell us the truth about our lives.
That truth can set us free, but it may also exhaust us in the process. Sabbath rest reminds us that the work we do does not depend on us, but on God. We will not save the world by our theologies or organizations or churches. Our work will not reconcile the world to God. God will save the world by grace. We can and should join in the work, but anything we do is finally the gift of God.
Becoming communities of peace is no easy work. We live with pervasive violence. We are part of the violence we preach against, meaning that we will find it not only in the world, but also stubbornly rooted in ourselves. Standing for peace in this world means facing the principalities and powers that use violent means to achieve selfish ends. No single one of us will destroy any of the domination systems that exert control over our lives and over the lives of the rest of God’s children. Along the way, we’ll have to struggle with demons. But “Take heart!” Jesus says. “I have overcome the domination system.” In him, the world-weary worker will find rest, for Jesus’ “yoke is easy and his burden is light.”
Noel invited us to know that we are not crazy. Or at least if we are crazy, there are other people who are crazy in the same way. Carrying a countercultural banner can be lonely and isolating. On this night, we could all hold one another up in friendship and prayer.
Around our makeshift altar we stood in solidarity. The room filled with grief and with joy, with trial and with triumph, with lament and with praise. The God surrounding us was big enough to take it all in.
And having taken it all in, Jesus extends an invitation: Come and follow me.