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Practicing Resurrection: Eugene Peterson on Christian Maturity



Introduction

Practice Resurrection is the culmination of decades of teaching on Ephesians and Christian formation[1]. Over thirteen chapters, split into four sections, Eugene Peterson surveys and comments on the book of Ephesians while simultaneously having a conversation about Christian maturity and the role of the church. Both sides of the conversation must occur to discover what God is doing in the church. By engaging with poets, philosophers and theologians such as Martin Buber, Wendell Berry and Baron Friedrich von Hugel, Peterson calls us to practice resurrection as we mature in Christ.


Practicing Resurrection

It is necessary here to clarify what is meant by practicing resurrection. Peterson adopts the phrase "practice resurrection" from Wendell Berry's poem The Mad Farmer Manifesto. In the poem, Berry speaks of living authentically or inauthentically, "yet he also believes that we can practice resurrection," coming alive and bringing the earth back to life.[2] Peterson interprets Wendell's phrase, practice resurrection, as living "our lives in the practice of what we do not originate and cannot anticipate", entering into something greater than ourselves, and going "from glory to glory" as we keep company with the resurrected Saviour.[3]


We participate in resurrection life. A life that does not involve a checklist or achievable goals. It is a life that is comprehensive and requires our participation. Peterson likes these words: comprehensive and participation. Comprehensive is found thirty-five times and participation twenty-five. Both relate to practicing resurrection. Resurrection and comprehensive are words concerned with God. It is God that resurrects and it is God who covers everything. Practicing and participation are verbs that are concerned with us. We are invited to participate and practice in what God does. Practicing resurrection is deliberate, intentional. It is believing and participating in life, a life that comes out of and trumps death. The life that is found in Jesus.[4]


Maturing in Christ: Insights from Paul

Practice Resurrection is as much a commentary on Paul's letter to the Ephesians as it is a commentary on the church. Both go hand in hand to make his message effective. That is, without Ephesians, there would be no measure for the 'church' to be held accountable. Without this measure, "we would be left to guesswork [and] easy prey to every church fad that comes along."[5] His discernment is frightening. However, through his commentary on Ephesians, he seeks to realign the church to its calling.


Ephesians is unique compared to Paul's other letters as there are no personal acknowledgements, nor are there any apparent practical or doctrinal issues that Paul is addressing.[6] Peterson notes this, suggesting that it may have been a general letter to all the churches. It is a letter concerning "the holy and healthy conditions out of which a mature life can develop."[7] Peterson categorises these conditions as God initiated, human participation in and through relationships.


Paul "lays the groundwork for spiritual formation" in the letter to the Ephesians by identifying God as the source and power for spiritual maturity.[8] Peterson reassures that we are born into a cosmos where God has initiated "all the requirements and conditions" for maturity.[9] Just as the conditions of a baby's environment are determined before their birth, so it is with the Christian. Practicing resurrection is only achievable through God's activity in our lives.


Peterson acknowledges, however, that we get distracted with ourselves and forget God. He identifies seven "verbal rockets" in Ephesians 1:3-10 that Paul uses to restore God-orientation. The verbs – blessed, chose, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, and gather up – describe all of what God has done and initiated.[10] Yet, these verbs are not abstract things that happen to us.[11] Instead, we are involved, and this "all-encompassing action of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit" requires us to develop skills or receptivity.[12]


In Ephesians 2, Paul writes of the new life in Christ, for which we are "saved by grace" to do good works. Dallas Willard picks up on the correlation between grace and works in the Great Omission and wisely discerns that "[g]race is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning."[13] Effort is an action, whereas earning is an attitude. Willard suggests that "to be a person of grace", we should live a holy life of works upheld by grace.[14] Put simply, to live out of grace, we must be involved in spiritual formation or, as Peterson describes it, practicing resurrection.


Peterson echoes Willard suggesting that the antidote of our culture of hurry, grind and hustle is the acquirement of passivity. He emphasises that the resurrected life is immersed in grace.[15] Peterson uses the observation of a swimmer by William Stafford as an analogy of grace, suggesting that just as a swimmer is surrounded and held up by the water, so is a follower of Jesus surrounded and upheld by grace.[16] It is through the unprecedented, "sacrificial self-giving" of Jesus that we receive the grace "to participate in resurrection maturity."[17] However, resurrection maturity can only occur within a community.



A Participating Community

It is within a church, a community of saints, that we mature in Christ. Although the church is not perfect, nor has it been or ever will be, it is Holy Spirit conceived[18] and core to "providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world."[19] The church is integral to resurrection life, a life that flawed people participate in together.[20]


There is no perfect church, nor has there ever been. Peterson emphases, "[t]here are no "successful congregations in scripture or in the history of the church."[21] This is something the modern evangelical church needs reminding of in a culture that focuses on birth or numerical "church growth."[22] Peterson warns, "for far too long we have let the ecclesiastical market analysts set the church's agenda."[23]


Thomas Frank agrees, suggesting that within Church culture, it is all about the next big thing as literature is flooded by "success" stories of charismatic (usually, if not always, male) leaders, who took a small group of people in the 1980's and "and now boast of hundred-acre campuses and tens of thousands of members."[24] Frank further notes that these churches are "not inherently good", especially when the "narrative of Jesus Christ" is downplayed to accommodate a "narrative that attracts people."[25] Peterson and Frank address the American Church in their diagnoses; however, the same is applicable for the church in Australia.


With this current cultural climate in mind, Peterson directs us to "immerse ourselves in Ephesians" and unclutter our minds from what we have added to the work of the Holy Spirit.[26] Ephesians reminds us that "[c]hurch is the appointed gathering of named people in particular places that practice a life of resurrection."[27] Church, as a place, is an accessible, safe place where God converses with us[28] and we re-orientate our lives "in the light of God's revelation."[29] We cannot and do not become mature by ourselves but only in the context of a relationship; in love.[30]


Conclusion

Peterson provides a text accessible to Bible College students as well as small groups. Practice Resurrection stresses the importance of church as the foundation of spiritual formation and Christian maturity. As he takes the reader through Ephesians, Peterson shares insights into church life and the calling of the body of Christ. He reassures us that the life of the Christian is not of striving or earning but of grace and participation. However, effort is not discounted. There are still things that we must do, but only when held up and surrounded by grace. Peterson calls the individual to be a part of a participating community, the body of Christ. Moreover, he beckons the church back towards its calling to be a place of growth and maturity. Ever the pastor and poet, Peterson's passion for biblical understanding and spiritual maturity are evident through each phrase and illustration.


Endnotes

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2010), xi–1. [2] James J. Farrell, ‘Practice Resurrection’, The Clergy Journal 81, no. 5 (March 2005): 14. [3] Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 10. [4] Peterson, 12. [5] Peterson, 17. [6] Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: An Introduction and Commentary, Reprint, vol. 10, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 19–20. [7] Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 15. [8] Angela Reed, ‘The Spiritual Theology of Eugene Peterson: A Review of Practice Resurrection’, Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 10, no. 2 (1 November 2017): 353, https://doi.org/10.1177/193979091701000224. [9] Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 68. [10] Peterson, 57. [11] Peterson, 66. [12] Peterson, 68. [13] Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship, 1st ed (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper San Francisco, 2006), 61. [14] Willard, 62. [15] Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 94. [16] Peterson, 94. [17] Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2010), 94. [18] Peterson, 25. [19] Peterson, 12. [20] Peterson, 17–28. [21] Peterson, 29. [22] Peterson, 5. [23] Peterson, 7. [24] Thomas Edward Frank, ‘Leadership and Administration: An Emerging Field in Practical Theology’, International Journal of Practical Theology 10, no. 1 (1 January 2006): 118, https://doi.org/10.1515/IJPT.2006.009. [25] Frank, 120. [26] Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 29. [27] Peterson, 12. [28] Peterson, 167. [29] Peterson, 172. [30] Peterson, 4, 232, 234.
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