Sunday, April 28, 2013

How to be ‘the always generous and ever-ready Church of today’ described by seminary Dean

(scroll to the bottom of the story to view a video and slide show of the ceremony and lecture)

Jayakiran Sebastian gave his remarks during a ceremony conferring on him the H. George Anderson Faculty Chair for Mission and Cultures on April 23, 2013. He joined the faculty in 2007.
Do Christian antiquity or the Protestant missionary expansion to India in the 18th century have anything to teach those of us living through what some regard as a “bad” time to be the church?
Dr. Sebastian with Dr. Karl Krueger (L)
and LTSP Board Chair Dr. John Richter
In a word, yes, believes the Rev. Dr. Jayakiran Sebastian, Dean of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) and a resident of Philadelphia’s East Mt. Airy. Sebastian’s thoughtful advice was part of a paper presented in The Brossman Learning Center at LTSP during the occasion of his receiving the H. George Anderson Faculty Chair for Mission and Cultures. Part of that learning, he said, is to discern from the past how best to remain true to “our” faith while remaining open to others different from ourselves as they express their foundational faith perspectives. He noted the critical importance of being willing to “accompany” others.
In remarks he titled “The Always-Generous and Ever-Ready Church,” Sebastian, known as “Kiran” by colleagues and friends, at the outset took note of the words of the Rev. Dr. H. George Anderson, a seminary alumnus and one-time Presiding Bishop of the seminary’s parent Evangelical Lutheran Church in America denomination: “The most insidious challenge we face as the church … involves the soul of the church … that it is a matter of faith, ‘trust in God’s promises’…We are in danger of losing that core conviction.” His lecture was a thoughtful exploration about the always challenging work it takes to be the church, staying true to our faith in a world that has been changing since the early days of Christianity and promises to continue changing through the ages. Dr. Sebastian, a Presbyter of the Church of South India, directs the seminary’s Multicultural Mission Resource Center as well as serving as Academic Dean, a post he assumed July 1, 2012. He has also served as chaplain of the seminary.
Near the outset, Sebastian acknowledged with gratitude the legacy and leadership offered by Anderson, “who faced a variety of challenges as a pastor, seminary teacher, president of a Lutheran college, and as the second presiding bishop of the church.”  In Anderson, he said, “we are honoring someone who championed ecumenical hospitality and denominational rootedness, along with compassionate sensitivity to all the changes that were shaking long-held convictions and certainties.”
Reflecting on Anderson’s ministry in Columbia, SC, during the Civil Rights movement and the questions that were facing churches who, for various reasons, had not taken a prophetic stand, he talks about how choices resulted in the possibility that the churches could be “that voice of prophetic truth, a sign of grace, a beacon of hope, and a source of healing for our culture,” where the “church was not in the headlines; but the headlines were different because of the church.”
“Aren’t we living through a bad time to be the church?” Sebastian asked. “Aren’t we living through declining memberships; economic hardships, theological bottlenecks, cultural tensions; social ferment, denominational instability; interfaith misunderstandings; and a survival doomsday scenario?”
“For Bishop Anderson, every day was a good day to be the church, and this meant that the gathered community had to fulfill its vocation and calling in the public sphere,” Sebastian said.
Sebastian drew upon two historic chapters to outline a rationale for thinking through how to be the church today. He first referenced a short letter by Cyprian of Carthage to his congregation during the Decian persecution (249-251), noting that the term “always-generous and ever-ready” is a paraphrase of the words of Cyprian. Sebastian explained the Decian persecution was “a universal” persecution of the day, requiring all inhabitants of the Roman Empire (with the exception of Jewish communities) to offer sacrifice and receive a certificate that they had done so. “Before this persecution there had been no centrally organized and executed persecution of Christians,” Sebastian said. The Emperor Decian’s purpose was to produce “not martyrs but apostates, and in large measure he had succeeded,” Sebastian said. As for Cyprian, he fled to a “safe hideout” from where he attempted to rally his congregations to resist the demands of the state and organize help for those who were suffering. “He notes how anxious he is to return to his people, who are eagerly longing to see him quickly. He says that the reason he cannot fulfill their desire is because he has to take into account ‘the general peace of the community’ which leads him to endure the separation even though it leaves him feeling dispirited. His point is that his presence in Carthage could be a cause of provocation for the ‘pagans’ causing ‘an outburst of violence. He hopes his lack of visibility would leave his congregation as untouched as possible.” In his letter, Cyprian offers detailed instructions regarding the ongoing need to continue the “charitable works so necessary to sustain and empower the vulnerable members” of the congregation. He urges clergy to be “scrupulous” in caring for “widows, the sick and all the poor.”
“The world of Cyprian’s letter was a world of uncertainty and unpredictability; it was a world where systematic, organized cruelty, which underlay the veneer of civilization, tried to stamp out what the ruling powers considered to be acts of defiance and deviance,” Sebastian said. “It was a world where it seemed to be every person for himself or herself, where suspicion reigned and familiar patterns of life in community had broken down. Sound familiar? In this context the desire of Cyprian to concretely care for the ‘least’ and most vulnerable members of his community, his preparedness to take risks for the sake of Christ, shines out as an example of something from which we can continue to learn in a world of competition, a world of which has no time to look back at those deliberately left behind, a world which is increasingly seeking glamour, riches and success, a world that seems to be denying inter-connectedness of the human family and easily overlooks the joys and aspirations, the hopes and fears of vast sections of humanity, especially those whom (LTSP faculty member) Wil Gafney, in writing about female prophets, talks about – those ‘whose names were forgotten, whose stories stopped circulating, but we know they were there.’”
“They are here,” Sebastian said, “and it is here that we recognize that people like Cyprian speak to us across the centuries, in terms of urgency, urgency because of their experience of grace. As we continue to strive to merge our modern ideas and structures into actual oneness, we must not grow deaf to his words nor immune to respond as Cyprian, enriched by his experience of the God of all grace affirmed that it is always a good time to be the church, the always generous and ever-ready church.”
Sebastian’s second illustration comes from his homeland, involving the first Protestant missionaries to India, who hailed from Germany, Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau, who served in the Danish Colony of Tranquebar in South India 300 years ago. Sebastian described how, in a short time after coming to India, Ziegenbalg not only mastered the language but also delved deeply into Tamil literature, wrote grammatical works, investigated Proverbs and cultural practices, organized meetings between the practitioners of local religion, which involved religious “disputation,” started educational opportunities including probably the first school for girls in the region, and set up a printing press.
Ziegenbalg’s work entitled “A Detailed Description of the South Indian Society” was dedicated to King Fredrick IV. The work remains “one of the most significant sources of sociological and religious inquiry into the life of the peoples of South India at the beginning of the 18th century,” Sebastian said. On the title page, the book is described as presenting in a comprehensive manner “the theological as well as the philosophical principles and teachings of South Indians that are based on their own writings and communicated to beloved Europe for useful learning.” Explained Sebastian, Ziegenbalg undertook the work  “to show in what kind of terrible (religious, spiritual) errors the South Indians live and how urgent it is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ for their salvation.” He noted at the time that in order to convert a group of peoples, it was considered critical to understand them and their religious customs and practices. “In order to convert one has to understand,” Sebastian said of the view of the time. “In order to understand one has to enter deep into the life and practices of the people; in order to correct, error must be understood, in order to triumph, evil should be detected and named. This is hardly the basis for inter-religious understanding, but is surely the basis of the desire to know and to name…”
 The goal of the missionaries? “All through our life we desire to heartily serve God and the Royal House of Denmark in an appropriate and useful manner so that through our present work many South Indians would be saved.”
Sebastian commended the painstaking efforts of Ziegenbalg to analyze the customs and mores of Indian society, but noted the broader intentionality of the analysis needs to be remembered. “It is not my purpose to point an accusing finger at Ziegenbalg,” he said. “Rather we ought to use such occasions (as the 300th anniversary) to ask ourselves how we, who have entered this rich and varied legacy, have internalized, whether consciously or unconsciously, embedded attitudes toward those who continue to live in accordance with their long-held faith practices. Reducing people to mono-identities based on presumed religious identity has long been the bane of comparative religious studies. It is to the credit of Ziegenbalg that he glimpsed, albeit in a patronizing manner, the reality about the goodness and truth being found amongst people of good will, wherever they come from and whatever their religious allegiances could be. “In the inter-religious venture today, one has to foster the virtue of humility and the willingness to introspect honestly and courageously,” Sebastian said. “There is much that we can learn and much we can unlearn from the attitudes and behaviors of pioneers like Ziegenbalg. We have the benefits of hindsight and living in interesting times.” He said there is always room for consideration of “the other” in the always generous and ever-ready church of today.
For a missiology today, Sebastian concluded, the right approach is one that is respectful, curious, engaging and always prepared to give an account of what our foundation means to us, while at the same time remaining open and ready to receive accounts and explanations regarding why others believe in their particularities and the ways in which their foundational truths are expressed. He referenced language in The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America document “Global Mission to the 21st Century” that talks about accompaniment – walking together in God’s mission implying mutuality and interdependence – as the model for mission in the current time.
He said that, as Bishop Anderson once noted, “If we repent of our pride, our gracious Lord may still have work for us to do…”
Sebastian recalled the occasion of his marriage 26 years ago to the date of his lecture, and briefly traced his career journey of faith through the decades in India and beyond to the point of “the unexpected invitation “ to join the LTSP faculty. “We have truly experienced the reality of the always generous and ever-ready exemplification of what the church is in this wonderful place.”
Dr. Sebastian joined the seminary faculty in 2007. He earned his Doctor of Theology in 1997 from the University of Hamburg, Germany (Magna Cum Laude). In 1991, he earned his Master of Theology from the Federated Faculty for Research in Religion and Culture, Kottayam, India, where he received the All-India Prize for having the highest grade in all branches of study for the degree. He was awarded his Bachelor of Divinity in 1984 from the United Theological College in Bangalore, India, where he was likewise honored for receiving the highest grades in his courses of study. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Bangalore University (1980). He went on to teach from 1988 to 2007 at the United Theological College, where he served as Professor of Theology and Ethics and Chair of the Department, Dean of the Doctoral Division, Secretary of the Governing Council and Editor of the Bangalore Theological Forum. At LTSP he has led courses on the History of Christianity, with a focus on the Early Church, Theology and Ethics of the Early Teachers of Faith, Gospel and Cultures, Global Christianity, Study of the Churches at the Edge of Empire, Eucharist and the Koinonia of the Church, Baptism and the Unity of the Church, and courses on Religious Toleration and Public Theology. He enjoys scholarly books and classical music, especially the works of J.S. Bach.
His wife of 26 years is Mirinalini, to whom he gives enormous credit for supporting his career and helping the family acclimate to a new culture in the U.S. The couple has two adult children, son Neeraj, who after studying cell biology is now engaged in creative writing, and daughter Saagarika, who is studying mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. 


Watch the video of the ceremony and lecture:
View the slide show (click any image to go to the photo gallery)

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