Mission and the Body of Christ

The text from a presentation given at the Total Ministry Gathering at St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Chelsea, MI for the ministry leaders of all the Total Ministry congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan on September 15, 2012.

Jesus did not stop, did he?

He had been healing people and teaching at the temple – including one instance where he drove everyone out of the temple for turning it into a marketplace.  He had been baptizing people and consorting with Samaritan women.  He challenged the interpretation of Jewish teaching on a regular basis.  He was performing miracles.  He had spoken with such powerful language and unabashed conviction that he had started to garner the attention of the temple’s chief priests and Pharisees.

Jesus was not a man to stay beneath the radar.

Living under an occupying force is treacherous business, to be sure.  And the Jews lived under the occupying force of Rome.  The Jewish leaders knew that if they stepped too far out of line, if they challenged authority at all, if they demonstrated any power of any kind, the Roman authorities would make sure that Judaism was wiped out.  They were worried, you see, that Jesus would get them in trouble with the Roman authorities.  They were worried that this man Jesus would give Rome a reason to take away their life-giving Law and force them to do what they forced everyone else to do, worship the emperor.

The Jews had carved out a deal with the Roman authorities.  They asked for special dispensation to continue practicing their ancient religion and be excused from the worship of Caesar… and in exchange, they would behave.  They would stay below the radar.

And Jesus was not a man to stay beneath the radar.  This made the Jewish leadership a little nervous.
And then he goes raises a man from the dead.  From the dead.

Perhaps, then, their reaction is not surprising:
“What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (John 11:47-48)

And you can almost hear the political wheels turning in the head of Caiaphas.  It’s almost as if he’s saying, ‘If we want to stay in the good graces of the Roman authorities, we’d better offer him up as an example.’  And so he says, “You know nothing! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”  (John 11:49-50)

And, indeed, that is what happened.

Scholars believe that the Gospel of John was written around the turn of the first century.  This would have been about 60 years after the death of Jesus and about 30 years after the destruction of the Temple.  For sure, the person who wrote this Gospel in Greek was not there when this actually took place.  It is supposed that the Johannine community, for whom this Gospel was written, was one in which the followers of Jesus had truly started to define themselves as apart from the Jewish community, apart from those who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah.  Which helps to account for much of the anti-semitic language in John.

What is clear is that this was written at a time when the practice of Judaism had become dispersed.  The second Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, and the Jewish diaspora had begun.  And for the next 200 years, the followers of Jesus would slowly come to know themselves as Christians while remaining relatively hidden from persecution by the state.  They became adept at remaining under the radar.

And we can see from our vantage point that this was probably the best practice at the time –  stay under the radar, don’t attract too much attention, don’t give the Roman authorities reason to investigate what you’re doing… even though this is the opposite of what Jesus did in today’s story.

How do we know when it’s time to be bold and when it’s time to lay low?  When we put things on the line and offer ourselves up as possible scapegoats or when we know this isn’t the time or the place to push any further.  How do we know what our task is?

My liturgy professor Louis Weil used to say (and probably still does), “You have to decide if this is a ditch you’re willing to die in.”  Which is definitely a phrase that applies to liturgy.

So, as humans do, we study and we observe.  We learn about things that fill our brains and our hearts.  We feel empowered by what we know, as we should.  We suffer as we grow older and we gain some insight from that suffering.  We learn some more about why we suffered so we don’t have to go through that again.

And we get to a point where we believe we have learned enough so that surely we know the right path forward… and then God comes to us out of a whirlwind and reminds us:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its measurements – surely you know!… Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? – when I made the clouds its garment… Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place… Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?” (Job 38:1-17)

I love it when God gets sarcastic in the scriptures, probably because I can be a little hard-headed sometimes.  I’m the kind of person that sometimes needs God to say, “Hey, smarty pants!  Knock it off!”

But then, God also seems to know when the gentle tap on the shoulder is much more powerful than any smack upside my stubborn head.  And in those instances, those profoundly quiet and deep places of vulnerability when I’m lost and seem to think that salvation has to lie in one particular direction, I can feel God redirect my heart with a subtle but sure shifting of my compass…and I call the right friend, or I read the right poem, or I watch the right episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer… and I can again hear the Holy Spirit whispering in even the most so-called “secular” places.

Indeed, how do we know what we are called to do?  What is an appropriate response?  How do we know we are following Holy Spirit and not just feeding our own needs for attention or support or power?  It’s not an easy task.  But because we are baptized Christians, we are called into the work of Christ’s mission.  We are called to ministry.

Our baptism raises us to a new life of grace and marks us as Christ’s own.  And being marked as Christ’s we are received into the household of God and invited to share in Christ’s eternal priesthood – share in Christ’s eternal priesthood.

This new life of grace as members of the Body of Christ means that our baptism brings us into a larger community of people who are all committed to be the Body of Christ together.  Baptismal ministry is something that arises as a response to this gift, a response to the grace of membership in the Body of Christ.

Now, I’m quite sure that you know this.  As I’ve talked to most all of you over the past month, I know that you get this.  I know that Jo Gantzer and Sandy Benes and Roger Walker and Canon Lisa and Bishop Wendell have done a great job, as have you all, in helping to establish a culture of Baptismal Ministry here in Michigan – primarily by nurturing one of its most troublesome expressions – Total Ministry.

I say troublesome because, as you’ve witnessed firsthand, Total Ministry is not welcomed with open arms by all people in this church.  Because, as we just read in today’s Gospel, no challenge to the status quo ever is.  Let me be clear, I’m not equating your fellow ministers who have yet to embrace Total Ministry with those who offered up Jesus to the authorities.  I’m merely pointing out the human tendency to resist change.

And so I think you all have been brave to take this on – embodying it with such grace.  You heard the call to be bold and you responded and continue to live that out.  And I am honored to be invited to walk alongside you as we continue to discern the Holy Spirit’s call in ministry together as the Body of Christ.

MISSION

I think that in order to know what to do, we need to take a step back and ask, “Why are we here?”  That question focuses us.

So, I turn it over to you.  Why are we called to be the Body of Christ – in this place, at this time, with these resources?  What do you think?

Mission is that which reminds us why we’re here as the Body of Christ – at this time, in this place, with these resources.  Having an understanding of mission gives us a sense of what this whole thing is about.  It focuses us.

What can happen when we engage in ministry without a sense of mission?  Very simply, without mission, ministry can devolve.  It can become self-indulgent and too reflective of our preferences.  We can forget why it is we gather together to worship God, why is it we are called to be the Body of Christ at this time, in this place.

Without mission, ministry can be more about survival of the institution of church – like those desperate Jewish authorities.  It can be more about us and our own needs than about being the Body of Christ, broken for the world.

Now, I always hesitate to use axioms or sayings from the business world in church – mostly because I believe that our life as the Body of Christ serves a different purpose than most American businesses do.  But I used to work for Best Buy and one of my managers used to say, “Manage the people and the numbers will come.”

Now, the axiom doesn’t translate directly, but the sentiment does.  He was telling us that our focus needed to be on people rather than on statistics.  He was telling us that while statistics could provide us with information and, indeed, it was often how we were assessed by the powers that be, our mission lay in another direction.

I think as church, we can get a little too focused on the maintenance of church.  We look backwards to a time when churches were bursting with people on Sunday mornings.  When it wasn’t a question of whether or not you went to church, but rather which church you went to.  And I think that because we have loved our church communities so much, we moved into a never-say-die mentality, which is typically American.  I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.  Survival is important.

But when we forget why we are the Body of Christ, survival becomes about us rather than about Christ.  We start to think in terms of scarcity instead of abundance.  The things we do become more about having our talents and gifts affirmed rather than about how examining whether we are serving the world beyond our church walls.

And we start to forget.  We forget that our savior has already come and we start looking for a savior, any savior, to lead us out of the wilderness that our life has become.

Christ is our mission.  Jesus knew this.  And so he did not stop.  Even death did not stop him.  As a matter of fact, his death was exactly what ensured that the Mission of Christ continues 2000 years later.  We are not the Body of Christ here for ourselves.  We are the Body of Christ broken for the world.

The mission of Christ does not stop because it is about the coming of the Reign of God.  And we are called to be the Body of Christ broken for the world, not because without us it won’t happen.  That is folly.  The Reign of God is becoming with or without us.  And when we forget, the words from Job help to remind us of that.

Our Baptismal Covenant doesn’t call us to produce the Reign of God, it calls us to participate in it.  To witness it.  To name it.  To confess it.  To celebrate it.

Wayne Dyer says, “Abundance is not something we acquire.  It is something we tune into.”

It’s like that.  We don’t produce the Reign of God.  That is the work of the Holy Spirit.  But rather, when we hear her whispers, we become more and more acclimated to seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, tasting it.  More and more skilled at naming it.  More and more committed to confessing it.  More and more overjoyed to celebrate it.  And more and more capable of fully participating in it.

John Kater was one of my favorite professors.  He brought me to tears one time in a sermon he gave when he said (paraphrased) “We are called to stand at the cross roads and witness both the state of the world and the already-but-not-yet Reign of God – at the same time.”

This is the mission of the Body of Christ.

It it is easy to forget Christ’s mission.  Because if we are too focused on what we do inside the walls of the church, we can lose sight of the Reign of God.  But the mission of Christ will go on without us because it’s just that powerful.  Christ is the Alpha and the Omega.  And this, quite frankly, is one major reason why churches close – they lose a sense of mission.

By virtue of our baptism, we are bound to Christ’s mission.  We have committed ourselves to it.  We have covenanted ourselves to one another as the Body of Christ.  And that makes all ministry sacramental work.

HOLY SPIRIT

Missiology is, very simply, the study of mission.  Many folks assume mission is always connected with what we have traditionally called missionary work.  This is a false assumption.  Missionary work is an expression of mission.  But it is not one in the same.  It’s the same relationship as Total Ministry and the Baptismal Ministry.  Total Ministry is an expression of Baptismal Ministry, they are not one in the same.

Missiology is directly related to pneumatology – which is the study of the Holy Spirit.  ‘Pneuma’ is from the Greek for breath or wind.  Like pneumonia – a disease of the lung, where our breath, our wind, resides.

The reason these two are linked is because our understanding, or our theology, of the Holy Spirit and its activity in our lives is what helps us discern Christ’s mission in the world.  I’m not saying that there aren’t other ‘ologies’ related to the study of mission.  But what I want to focus on today is a method for encountering the Holy Spirit – a practice that helps us to discern mission in our midst.

Let’s take a minute to examine our beliefs about the Holy Spirit.  What do we say in the Nicene Creed?

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life.  Who proceeds from the father and son.  Who, with the father and son, is worshipped and glorified.  Who has spoken through the prophets.

We, as Episcopalians, take this to be our most basic set of beliefs about the Holy Spirit as Christians.  This is the basis of our doctrine of pneumatology.

And, as Episcopalians, as you know, we are born out of the Church of England.  Our basic theology that forms and informs our identity was given to us by the theologian Richard Hooker.  One very useful and widely-known framework we’ve come to know is the 3-legged stool of Anglicanism.  It was never articulated as such by Hooker, however.  He never called it a 3-legged stool.  What he was articulating was a hierarchy of authority:  scripture is foundational, while tradition and reason are vital and important but not as central as scripture.

I would say that this, at its core, is a pneumatology too.  This is a way of articulating the activity of the Holy Spirit.  We are guided by scripture.  We are guided by tradition.  We are guided by reason.  We believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to us in the voices of all three.

As an example, we are not a people who sit idly by and say gay people are an abomination because Leviticus 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

As Episcopalians, as Anglicans, we read that piece of scripture along with all the other pieces of scripture that have come to be known as the “clobber passages” and we read the entirety of scripture so that we understand the larger message of the Bible, listening to the voices of biblical scholars as we do.  And we reference our tradition – theologians and the lives of saints and the action of the church.  And we study our experience – our relationships, our culture, our own lives as informed by all the things we’ve learned.

And when we’re doing that intentionally, we are engaging the Holy Spirit.  We are listening to a choir of voices, rather than just our own interpretation of a small piece of scripture.  And by doing that, we are practical theologians.  We are practicing Practical Theology.  We are listening to Holy Spirit.  We are discerning mission.  We are discerning when to be bold and when to lay low.  We are figuring out whether it’s a ditch we want to die in… or a cross we should be bearing.  We are participating in the Reign of God.  And becoming the Body of Christ broken for the world.

To guide us in this practice of Practical Theology, the Anglican Consultative Council has given us a kind of measuring stick.

The 5 Marks of Mission

The Mission of the Church is the Mission of Christ.

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

PRACTICAL THEOLOGY

The practice of Practical Theology is a practice in listening to God’s Holy Spirit in the quest to discern ministry in support of the mission of Christ.  Whereas much of the work of theology is about discerning and articulating belief which arises out of experiences of the community of faith, the work of Practical Theology is about discerning and articulating practice or praxis.

“[Practical Theology] raises the theological issues of meaning and truth in relation to the living out of the life of faith.  It brings together theory and practice.”  (from Practical Theology in Action by Ballard and Pritchard)
Practical Theology is an activity of reflection.  Richard Osmer tells us there are 4 tasks or 4 questions. (from Practical Theology: An Introduction by Richard Osmer)

  1. What is going on?
  2. Why is it going on?
  3. What ought to be going on?
  4. How might we respond?

What is going on?
The Descriptive-Empirical Task
This is where we study our context.  Now, we think we know a lot about the place in which we live, but do we?  What if we could see it with another’s eyes?  Can we see the things we see every day in a new way?  The goal is to get us beyond our assumptions because it is our assumptions that become the status quo.  Assumptions don’t give space to the Holy Spirit.  They can actually prevent us from hearing her whisper because we’ve stopped asking questions.

More than that, assumptions often have value judgments attached – something is good, preferable to us or it’s bad, not preferable to us.  We often tread the same paths to get from one familiar place to another.  We have routines.  We have preferences.  We have opinions.  We have patterns of behavior.  We go about our day, moving around in our world.  We can even forget that the people we interact with everyday are people and not objects from whom we get something we need.

The goal of the descriptive activity is to get us beyond what we see everyday… to see anew.  To notice and describe things in almost excruciating detail.  Like we are anthropologists from the future studying this human settlement.  Or an alien landing on our planet for the first time.  This is about curiosity.  Curiosity is a form of love, really.  There is nothing that shuts us down more, than when someone assumes they know who we are because they’ve put us in a box.  Curiosity opens that box and invites sharing.

Why is it going on?
The Interpretive Task
We involve disciplines that can help to give us insight.  We look to sociology, city planning, psychology… what are some other disciplines that might help us?  In doing this, we are seeking truth.  We gather information that informs our context and helps to open our eyes to new insights and paradigms.  We start to understand things in new ways.  We come to see how this is related to other things.

What ought to be going on?
The Normative Task
Now that we have gathered information, we’ve described the situation or the context.  And we’ve learned a little more about how this situation came to be and the factors that are involved.  Only now can we begin to evaluate.  We use our tradition to discern how to best participate in the Reign of God.  We ask, ‘What does scripture have to say about this?’  ‘What does our tradition have to say about this?’ – theology, Baptismal Covenant, the 5 Marks of Mission.  And in good Anglican fashion, we also ask, ‘What does my experience as a Christian have to say about this?’

How might we respond?
The Pragmatic Task
This is where we look at the resources available to us in order to discern the best way to respond as the Body of Christ.  I want to point out that resources are usually much more varied than we often realize.  Eric Law of the Kaleidoscope Institute has discerned a list of Holy Currencies – several resources we have as a sustainable Body of Christ.

For example, perhaps you’ve determined that hunger is an issue of concern in your community but your congregation’s building doesn’t lie in an accessible place where people could take advantage of a Food Pantry housed in your building.  However, because you’ve done the work of Practical Theology, you realize that hunger in your community is really a result of larger systemic issues such as a lack of employment.  So, because you have the Currency of Truth, a team of ministers from your congregation decides to start talking with other faith communities because you have the Currency of Time.  And soon a faith-based employment advocacy organization starts to form, resulting in the Currency of Relationship.  And this group receives training in community organizing and learns how to build support and lobby elected officials to bring jobs into the community.

So, the question now is, “How can we intentionally use Practical Theology in the lives of our congregations?”

About Michelle Meech

I want to unfold. I do not want to remain folded up anywhere, because wherever I am still folded, I am untrue. -Rainer Maria Rilke
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