On the first page of the introduction, Bosch reflects that “the term ‘mission’ presupposes a sender, a person or persons sent by the sender, those to whom one is sent, and an assignment. The entire terminology thus presumes that the one who sends has the authority to do so. ( 1)” Some groups agree that God is the sender who has authority. Other groups vest the authority for sending in the church or in a mission society.
This winter I’ve been visiting weekly with LDS missionaries (my 3-year old asks, “Are the Normans coming today?”). We’ve talked a lot about authority and where it comes from. How do the missionaries get their authority to preach the Gospel to those who will hear? Why do I think that I, a protestant woman, have authority as one also sent out into the communities of Eastern Idaho?
For the Mormons, authority comes through the church structure. The Church only exists as it has been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith, and as other Prophets have one by one taken the mantle of Church leadership (Prophet is a technical term for the Mormons, designating the person with full authority for God’s revelation and the Church, rather than just a person God calls to hear and speak a Word). The authority of the Church is found in “keys,” which reside in each of the particular ministry roles (High Priesthood, Melchizideck priesthood, Aaronic Priesthood). Each key gives authority for particular ordinances and actions. The Prophet is the only person in the Church who holds all of the keys. The Church structure itself, as assured by the Prophet, contains all the keys of authority, and designates who holds what authority.
It’s been interesting to study the Biblical origins of the keys with the LDS missionaries. The Mormons tie Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah and the subsequent giving of the keys of the kingdom to the transfiguration (Matthew 16 and 17). Where I’ve always understood the office of the keys to relate specifically to the binding and loosing of sins, the Mormons understand the keys to relate to the revelation of Moses and Elijah about Jesus’ Sonship. Lutherans believe that Ordained Ministers hold the office of the keys for the sake of forgiveness. The missionaries believe that as they hold the keys, they hold the power of revelation.
We studied Jesus’ authority in the Gospel of John: “The Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. (John 5:19)” Jesus’ commission to his disciples comes in John 13:15-17: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” Jesus acts in authority because he does what he sees his Father doing. We act in authority when we do what Jesus has done. I proposed to the missionaries that our authority as people “sent out” comes directly from the Father, through Jesus. Our apostleship comes through the call of Christ, received and acted our in our lives, rather than through the church hierarchy.
In taking this position (authority coming directly from the Father through Christ, rather than mediated through the Church), I depart from the official understanding of apostolic authority within the ELCA. In 2000, after fierce debate, the ELCA adopted “Called to Common Mission” which granted altar and pulpit fellowship with the Episcopalian church. I was one of the first people ordained by an ELCA bishop who had been ordained to the Bishopric by Episcopalian bishops. Even though as an Ordained Minister who holds the historic episcopate I have an authority-laden pedigree, I regard those authorizations as functional privileges which open opportunities within a variety of institutions. The authorizations help the church function in good order. Whatever spiritual authority I have, especially as I am sent out to proclaim the Gospel, comes from the Father through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Authority Under the Sign of the Opposite
Authority: Yesterday I reflected on the chain that John describes between us and the Father. We act in authority when we do what Jesus did. Jesus only did what he saw his Father do. Bosch, in his discussion of Matthew, broadens the discussion of what it means to be in correspondence and solidarity with Jesus and the disciples who followed him. Inextricably tied to missionary authority is suffering. As we see in the tenth chapter of Matthew, disciples are sent out to proclaim the good news, to cure the sick, raise the dead cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons. At the same time, they are sent as lambs in the midst of wolves, expecting to be persecuted, even to the point of death, and even by family members. They are to witness to Christ who came, not to bring peace, but a sword. In the midst of all this, they are not to fear those who kill the body, but only the one who can destroy both soul and body. Truly, whatever message of Good News we think we have is hidden under the sign of the opposite. We can rightly expect that our faith will generate suffering.
And so the disciples go out in weakness. “As Matthew looks at the members of his own community – living at a frontier, experiencing difficulty in defining their own identity on the borderline . . . he wishes his community to know that mission never takes place in self-confidence but in the knowledge of our own weakness, at a point of crisis where danger and opportunity come together. Matthew’s Christians, like the first disciples, stand in the dialectical tension between worship and doubt, between faith and fear. (76)” It is not despite our weakness, but through the humility of living in worship and doubt, in faith and fear, that God’s power is manifested.
Movement vs. Institution:
My ministry formation has occurred during a cultural shift from loyalty to institutions to participation in movements. My upbringing and education, even through seminary, trained me to be a loyal, conscientious institutional partner. What more is there to being Christian than being part of the Church? However, in college, I started to experience the limits of an institution. Institutions, being bodies that conserve norms, are also bodies that are ill-equipped to respond to seismic shifts in culture and context. It’s difficult for an institution to flex enough to use the gifts of or meet the needs of people who aren’t white, male, and heterosexual.
Along with many people, especially those in generations after mine, I am energized by being part of a movement. “There are essential differenced between an institution and a movement . . . the one is conservative, the other progressive; the one is more or less passive, yielding to influences from outside, the other is active, influencing rather than being influences; the one looks to the past, the other to the future . . . the one is anxious, the other is prepared to take risks; the one guards boundaries, the other crosses them. (50-51).” In a movement, there is energy, flexibility, room to use gifts, encouragement to synthesize information and context in new ways, space to dream, and freedom to pour oneself out working toward a passion.
Bosch, I think, finds a solid middle ground between Institution and Movement. The Movement cannot exist in free-form forever. Like kindling, it produces a fine blaze, but will burn itself out without a structure that conserves the essential content of the movement. The blaze finally must find its way into heartwood (an Institution), where the fire will burn with less heat, but with more stability and longevity. “We can’t have it both ways, then: purely and exclusively a religious movement, yet at the same time something that will survive the centuries and continue to exercise a dynamic influence. (53)” At its best, the Institution will steward the content and passion of the movement. At its best, it will keep its verve.
The place where I find myself, and I think where I will continue to be, is solidly within the institutions of denominational Christianity, but always pushing the edges, crossing boundaries, and creating connections (conceptual, relational, and polity). Within my Presbytery and the ELCA synod, I’ve earned enough respect that I have freedom to bring people and ideas together in ways that challenge the institution to adapt. Sometimes I spend relational capital as I push the institution’s reality to more closely match local conditions. Sometimes I rebuild institutional capital by serving the institution in more traditional ways (committee service, etc). The challenge, I think, is to continue to grow in nerve and humility. I ought not let my desire for respect within the institution cause me to lose nerve when I press the institution. I also need to retain a posture of humility when facing systems and people whose loyalty to the past is (I believe) damaging the present and future.
What Does the World Have to Offer the Church?
I’ve been thinking about what the world has to offer to Christianity. I have reflections about social Christianity, social sciences, wisdom literature, the analogy of the Mormon Church, and the witness of Luke and Isaiah.
Social Christianity: It appears to me that during Christendom, the Church has been more and more informed by the surrounding culture. The temptation for the church is to lose its distinctive center, which is the affirmation that humanity is saved by no other name than Jesus the Christ. The temptation is to set aside distinctiveness (which is a nice way to phrase a less-popular claim of exclusivity) for the sake of social acceptance. Churches remember the heyday of the 1950’s, when part of being a respectable member of the upper class was membership in a Protestant church. The churches functioned like clubs – classes for kids, circles for women, fundraisers to support missionaries in exotic lands. But I wonder about their spiritual richness? When the contract for being a Christian is satisfied by loyal membership in an institution, is there encouragement to experience and serve the risen Christ through our individual vocations? When the culture started to shift and Christianity became less of a status symbol, many of the young people drifted away (Is it causal or just correlation?). I believe that when the club aspect of church membership became less important, churches and their members just didn’t have the spiritual center to make the Christian community important.
Social Sciences: Certainly our study of the Bible and Theology have been informed by development in social sciences. The Biblical critiques of the last century (historical, structural, literary. . .) have their basis in social sciences. More recent developments in Systems theory, Leadership theory, Organizational Theory, and Economics are also finding their way into our interpretations of Jesus, the Bible, and the early church, and current ecclesiology.
Wisdom Literature: As we studied in Seminar III, wisdom from near-eastern cultures found its way into Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. There is wisdom that the Christian church could receive today from world cultures: the care for the land which native cultures stress, ways of balancing self-differentiation and close community which African cultures could teach, values about justice that we could learn from people in South America and South Africa. The temptation for the Liberal Christian church is to pursue these sources of wisdom to the detriment of the center, which is our confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. The temptation for the Conservative Christian church is to hold on to the center to the detriment of what flows from the center: justice, mercy, love.
The analogy of the Mormon Church: I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be non-Christian looking at the Christian church, and wondering if I would even want the Christian church to accept some of my worldview. The closest I could come was thinking about the Mormon church. Do I appreciate that the Mormon church has appropriated Christian language and some Christian ideas, while holding to the center of their theology (I’m specifically thinking here of their concept of the Godhead and the plan of salvation). The Mormon church uses Christian language and ideas, but nuances them in ways that take them far from the orthodox meanings. I can talk for a long time with the missionaries, thinking that we are talking about the same thing, before I realize that actually we are not. Imagine how confusing it is for lay people who haven’t learned to parse theological definitions, when Mormons come to their house appearing to believe the same thing, and more, than the Protestants down the street. It almost seems deceptive, like the missionaries are converting people under false pretense with unclear language. Christians need to be very careful if we appropriate ideas or language from other traditions, not just to uphold the integrity of our faith, but to respect the integrity and clarity of other faith traditions as well.
The witness of Luke and Isaiah: In Luke and Isaiah, the direction of missional intent seems to go back and forth. God’s original plan seems to have been that the Jews would be the light of the nations, the light standing on the hill that draws the nations to God. The Jews failed in that mission, and Jesus became the one standing on the hill, beckoning the nations. The early disciples were sent out in mission among the gentiles (and the Jews, too, even though they repeatedly failed to welcome the Gospel). The gentiles were reminded that they were branches grafted onto the root of Jesse. It seems that the mission to the Jews exists for the sake of the Gentiles, and the mission to the Gentiles exists for the sake of the Jews. It goes both ways. But always at the center is the confession that Jesus is Lord (or in Isaiah, that God is the only God).
Does the world have something to offer to Christians? It appears that the answer is yes, although for me it is a cautious yes. Perhaps the ongoing reform of the Church has always been about regaining the “verve” that was lost when the movement became an institution. I believe that the reform that is needed at this time is regaining “verve,” spiritual robustness and a desire to follow in the vocation that God gives us all. That reform puts us in a position of first looking closely inside our tradition, fueling our passion for Christ, and second, looking into the world to see where love, mercy, and justice might be practiced.
When They Saw Him they Worshipped Him, But Some Doubted
I’ve been reading Isaiah for my devotional reading. I’ve never read the whole book before – only the sanitized lectionary version. It’s a troubling book. I relate with feminist critiques of Christianity which compare the unpredictable volatility of God with an abusive relationship. God seems bi-polar – at one moment punishing his people and destroying the nations, and the next moment proclaiming his exquisite love. I’ve been wondering, is this a God to whom I want to entrust myself?
In Luke, Jesus’ first audience is the faithful Jews of Nazareth. For them, Isaiah brings a promise of political victory. Isaiah gives the vision of a restored Israel, freed from the oppression not just of Babylon, but of Rome as well. Isaiah promises vindication for Israel and vengeance against the nations. Jesus’ contemporaries expect a prophet and king who will wage a holy war against Israel’s enemies.
B. Violet and Joachim Jeremias (Jesus’ Promise to the Nations, 1958) suggest that Jesus’ sudden rejection by the Nazarene Jews (Luke 4:16f) is because of the disappointing way that he reads Isaiah 61. Jesus disrupted the Hebrew parallelism, which made the omission of vengeance obvious. Again, as Jesus speaks to John the Baptist (Luke 7:22), Jesus disappointingly splices different passages from Isaiah (Is 35:5f, 29:18f, and 61:1). Far from promoting holy war, in these periscopes Jesus edits out any indication of vengeance against Israel’s enemies and asserts God’s compassion on those enemies. It appears that in Jesus, God gives a messiah who ushers in peace between nations and peace with God, rather than judgment and punishment.
How are we, then, to find space to thrive within the tension between Old Testament texts which portray an angry, almost arbitrary God, and the in-breaking reality of forgiveness and compassion that Jesus brings? Just because Jesus came to bring mercy doesn’t mean that we don’t still have the difficult Old Testament texts as part of our canon. The difficult texts are still part of God’s Word to us.
Lutherans rely on the “canon within the canon” to shape our reading of the Bible. Jesus, with his embodied Word of forgiveness, mercy, and resurrection life, are the lens through which the rest of scripture must be read. In Christ’s death and resurrection, vengeance and punishment are superseded by love and grace. And yet, the God who brings punishment and destruction on Israel and the nations is the same God who Jesus calls Father. Just because Jesus has changed the outcome doesn’t mean that God’s essential nature is changed.
So I’m challenged, and doubting. What does it mean to worship a God who has repeatedly used creative power to terrify and destroy? What does it mean to worship a God who can mete out punishment just as easily as grace? What does it mean that (if we agree with substitutionary atonement) that Jesus has borne the punishment that God would otherwise pour out upon us?
Two scripture verses are giving me insight and courage in these thoughts. First, in John 6, Jesus taught the disciples that they must eat the bread of his flesh if they are to have eternal life. Many of his disciples said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” And many turned back and no longer went about with him. Jesus asked the twelve if they wished to go away. Peter confesses, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Second, Matthew writes in chapter 28 that the eleven disciples were on the mountain with Jesus. “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
Obviously, worship and doubt are not mutually exclusive. Even in the midst of the most foundation-shaking doubts, we can still worship. And even if we cannot say the words ourselves, we can surround ourselves with a community that will pray on our behalf, who will sing on our behalf, who will confess our common faith on our behalf. What it comes down to for me, also is, where else would I go? Even though God’s ways are hidden to me under the sign of the opposite, is there anyone else to whom I can turn for true life?
Openness to doubt and the difficulties that our faith presents are two antidotes to the Missional temptation to arrogance. In the midst of our own faith struggles, we can only approach others with compassion and humility, walking with them as fellow sojourners on a path that often holds more questions than answers, and often more pain than blessing.
Paul’s Missionary Paradigm
I’d like to explore some of the tensions that we must navigate as we consider Paul’s missionary paradigm.
Bridging the time gap: There have always been groups of Christians who seek to return the Church to its first-century purity, sometimes creating an anachronistic expression of the faith. And other Christians, seeking to make the Message relevant, have made it relative. Bosch suggests that Christians must bridge the gap between Paul’s context and ours, drawing forward Paul’s ministry through historical and theological exegesis. I particularly like Bosch’s suggestions that contemporary churches manifest a Pauline expression of faith by holding onto the “triangular” interdependence of justification, gratitude, and blameless living. Movement through the triangle goes from justification to gratitude to blameless living. Blameless living is the result of justification and gratitude: one cannot reach either justification or gratitude through blameless living.
The Church as a New Community: Paul’s expression of the gospel radically affirmed our oneness in Christ. As the vanguard of the new creation, the Church must live into this radical unity. Segregation is a denial of the gospel. There are many challenges to the contemporary Church on this point. Globally, the Church is segregated, unequal. Western Christians stand by while Christians in third-world countries suffer starvation, oppression, and persecution. Even as we stand by, Western Christians experience our own poverty – spiritual poverty in all its nuances, and hunger, abuse, and oppression in our own congregations. The North American Church struggles also with internal segregation based on race, affluence, gender, and sexuality. Part of our struggle is wondering if the global church will remain in fellowship with us if we abandon segregation based on sexuality. At the same time, hope for the new creation glimmers as people whose only experience of family and community is brokenness find community relationships that are a foretaste of the new creation.
A Mission to the Jews: I appreciate Bosch’s sensitivity to the difference (for some) between the people Israel (God’s covenant people) and the modern state of Israel. I also appreciate his care for profound humility as Christians enter into dialog with Jews. I remember in 2004 when General Assembly actions toward the State of Israel (selling PC(USA) investments in Caterpillar because the tractors were being used to build the Wall) and about Presbyterians proselytizing Jews (God’s covenant people) became tangled together, to the detriment of both conversations.
Mission and the Transformation of Society: How does the Church relate to society if it follows Paul apocalyptic thrust? Paul opposes both the Jewish apocalyptic which leads to a withdrawal from the world, and the enthusiasts, who believe the promises of the Gospel have already been fulfilled. In both cases, believers are relieved of responsibility to work for the transformation of society. For Paul, transformative action isn’t undertaken in society because it is good (although it is), but because the Christian’s life proclaims that Jesus is Lord. Paul also recognizes that human exertion, even well-intentioned, will not usher in the new world. God alone can do that, and Christians will do well to watch for God’s action and get involved in it. “Christians can combat the oppressive structures of the powers of sin and death . . . as well as the false apocalypses of power politics . . . only by accounting for the hope that is in them and by being agitators for God’s coming reign; they must erect in the here and now and in the teeth of those structures, signs of God’s new world. (176)”
Mission in Weakness: For Paul, God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Suffering is not just a result of mission work, but also a mode of missionary involvement. I’ve been wondering about how Peter and Paul compare on this point. Peter’s vocational call came after a time of personal suffering (at least I imagine that he anguished and was to some extent isolated from the community because of his denial of Jesus), but the witness in Acts is that Peter is an eloquent speaker, converting thousands with a sermon. Peter also stayed in Jerusalem, the hub of whatever power the Christian movement had. Paul, on the other hand, made a career of marginalization, imprisonment and catastrophe. God worked through them both.
The Aim of Mission: Mission is not for the sake of growing the Church, but for the redemption of the world. Paul’s approach is positive, rather than negative. He proclaims that we are chosen by God rather than focusing on the plight of those who are outside the fold. Paul witness is one of single-predestination (You are chosen – believe it!), rather than double-predestination (some are chosen and some are not). As missionaries, we proclaim the promise, allow people the dignity of determining their response, make space for the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, and do not spend energy trying to parse who is in and who is out.
I’ve been reading Part 3: Toward a Relevant Missiology. It’s fascinating to see Bosch, in 1991, standing on the front edge of the paradigm shift and trying to peer into the mist. He’s done well extrapolating trends forward, but probably never could have imagined the pace of change initiated with the digital age, and the transformations in communication. I have about 80 pages left to read; I’ll finish up the reading then complete the final reflection on Bosch (hopefully in the next couple of days).
The Presbytery I serve has 11 clergy among its 19 congregations. Living in a place that is dominated by a religion without professional clergy, our congregations aren’t particularly fazed by not having a pastor. The elders get on with the business of leading the church, and the Presbytery comes along behind to figure out how to fit reality into polity. Watching these congregations function (or not) has given me some ideas about how Ministers of Word and Sacrament can effectively lead the Church as it emerges into a post-Christendom paradigm. Here’s my take:
- Elders can and should lead small congregations (base communities/households).
- Elders (as well as clergy) are, do I dare say, often? inadequately formed in their faith and leadership capacity.
- A Minister of Word and Sacrament can impact a number of congregations by investing in the faith and leadership formation of the congregational leaders. This person can serve by equipping the leaders, providing accountability, and teaching the leaders to help their congregations discern and live into God’s vision for their mission. And yes, the minister should be responsible for providing and overseeing the ministries of Word and Sacrament.
- Ordained pastors have worked very hard doing the ministry the people could be equipped to do (visitation, programmatic leadership, etc.). I think that pastors have gotten into that bind because unless congregations are quite large, there simply isn’t enough ministry of word and sacrament work to justify a full-time position. So they take on the work of the deacons and the elders, releasing them from their proper service. Although it’s a convenient way to draw a full paycheck, it’s a disservice to deacons, elders, and ministers of word and sacrament.
- How does it look to me? One model would be a parish/cathedral model. An ordained pastor could serve a ministry of oversight for a number of base communities/small congregations/parishes that are led by well-formed elders. The leaders would be formed in weekly discipleship groups led by the ordained clergy. The base communities would meet weekly (worshipping [parish-style], serving the world, and building maturity in the members). Monthly, all of the base communities would come together for worship (cathedral-style). A couple of times a year the communities would gather for mission/vision discernment.
- Ordained Ministers remain an important part of the church, but serve as a resource for members in their ministries rather than doing all the ministry themselves.
It strikes me how, even as I’ve been thinking so much about the Church’s mission (or God’s mission that is expressed partly through the Church), I still understand my role to be in service to the institution of the church. Even in attempting to renew the part of the church that I have access to, my understanding is limited to the life of the Church, rather than really engaging with God’s mission within and outside the church. I guess I’m hoping that I’ll still grow into deeper engagement with the world, and that the people I mentor will be able to go further than I can in the service of God’s mission.
I’ve struggled with the tension of holding firm convictions (Jesus is the way, the truth and the life; no one will come to the Father except through him; every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord), and also honoring the integrity of non-Christian experience. In what ways do we see God at work in other religions and in creation? And is it proper to read into another worldview the work of the Christian God (I’m thinking here of the offense that the “Anonymous Christian” brings to some non-Christians)? It’s helpful to recognize the tension as a place of creativity and mystery rather than a problem that can be solved by thinking about it hard enough.
I believe that at the end, everyone and everything will be “in.” Like the Big Bang contracting to a singularity, I believe that it is inevitable that all of creation will return to God, through Christ. Salvation, in its narrow sense, is assured for everyone and everything. So whatever missionary zeal I have isn’t motivated by getting people “in,” but rather by a belief that God means for his kingdom to break into our lives now – that God means for us to experience love, wholeness, and healing now. Our fragile lives will never be able to hold or express all of God’s kingdom, but as people with hope to account for, Christians can express and work for greater justice, greater peace, greater health in ourselves and the world.
At the same time, I recognize the potential for offense in claiming that everyone is “in.” Christians and non-Christians alike are agitated by universalism. I wouldn’t like to have a Muslim or Hindu tell me that it’s ok that I believe something different than them – at the end I’ll be absorbed into their faith anyway. I don’t imagine that someone from another faith would be flattered by my telling them they’ll inevitably be saved by Christ.