Surprising News

[The following is a sermon preached on Sunday October 2, 2016; World Communion Sunday]

Matthew 28:16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Last summer I attended Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, PA. The event proved to be a very mixed experience for me. I reconnected with old friends and made new ones. I listened to encouraging stories of various women’s groups developing theological associations in South America. I was challenged by the questions of faith expressed by a young adult from Ethiopia. I was concerned and troubling by some missionary practices in Indonesia. I argued theology with a guy from Niverville (out of all the small groups I had to be placed in!).

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When no news is good news and other gospel truths

Acts 16:6-9

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’

At Jesus’s ascension in the beginning of Acts Jesus tells the disciples that they will be witnesses to the ends of the earth. If this is the case then why keep them from going into Asia?

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A call to worship

At the Mennonite Church Manitoba gathering on March 5th we watched a video describing the report of the Future Directions Task Force (FDTF). This report details substantive changes in the structure and work of Mennonite Canada, Area churches, and congregations. While I am broadly in support of the structural changes (or at least don’t have some other great idea) I want to focus on one element of the guiding theology in this report (and in the general communication of Mennonite Church Canada).

One line from the video crystallized this element for me. While explaining the various proposals of the report the narrator said, “Mission is the tone for everything we do.” Mission is the tone, the animating stimulus and identifying frequency of everything we express as the Mennonite church. This is a theological misstep.

Until we have done the explicit work of understanding and acknowledging the abuses of historic Christian missions then I simply cannot see how it can be helpful to think of mission as that which animates and identifies everything. While much has been done addressing abuses in missions one crucial component remains almost completely neglected. In nearly every official document of Mennonite Church Canada what is good moves from the church into the world. There is no accounting for how the Christian and how the church can receive good news.

For this reason alone I cannot support mission (that is, sending, the moving from church to world) as that which animates all we do. And even if we had adequately addressed the issues related to Christian missions I still wouldn’t think it is the right way of orienting ourselves as a church.

The beginning, way, and end of faith is worship.

Perhaps this goes without saying but if this is the case then there is all the more need for it to be understood and articulated well. Perhaps there is a concern that such a statement would reflect a culture of narcissism or navel gazing. This would be to misunderstand worship.

Worship is the practice and context in which we direct our attention, determine our values, form attachments, and express devotion.

If this is our understanding of worship then it necessarily forms a dynamic relationship with the rest of the world. For instance our worship will put us in conflict with our current economic system. Advertisers attempt to direct our attention, money is used to determine an equivalent for nearly any value, debt and wage-labour form our attachments and call us to express devotion. Worship, understood in the broad strokes I have outlined, has profound implications in relation to the world around us (in ways that we would have typically called ‘mission’).

Worship nurtures a form of offering and receiving which can help disentangle ourselves from the supremacist elements of missions that work explicitly or implicitly in our theology.

Worship provides a more interactive understanding of formation and witness which have functionally operated as silos in our current structure.

I understand that worship is a term that can quickly become vague and nebulous taking its shape from our various contexts and practices. But this is the case with any term we offer as providing some larger context or understanding. I would still maintain that it is difficult argue against the statement of worship being the beginning, way, and end of our faith and so it should be articulated as such in this time of change. Worship is a practice and context that pulses in our gathering and spreading. The circulation that worship offers is necessary for a healthy church near and far.

Declaring the good news

16 ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.19 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time.’
Matthew 10:16-19

What are we doing as Christians when we declare the gospel, the good news? Typical of historic Christianity has been the assumption that the gospel, as a message, as a relationship, even as the power of God (to put it in the Apostle Paul’s language), is something which moves from the Christian or church to the non-Christian or the world. It is hardly necessary to point out that the mission of the Church has been to declare the gospel throughout the world with either the implicit or explicit assumption that the world is insufficient (to put it mildly) before such a message is declared.

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For the cross to be the cross sometimes it will not be the cross

In a recent comment exchange regarding a post I wrote about the supremacist elements in Christian missions Tom Yoder Neufeld made a familiar Anabaptist move gesturing towards the particularity of Christ when he states,

“I think the mission of the church is about being the body of the one who made peace not with no-name healing and hope, or a generic just peace, but by the specific act of creating in himself a new human, destroying the hostility between us and our enemies and between us and God through the cross. That mystery is supreme over any and all of our efforts to articulate and live it; and it stands in perpetual judgment on our profound betrayals of it.” [emphasis mine]

I want to start by addressing the first half of that statement while hopefully coming to comment on the second half. By and large I agree with the move to particularity when it comes to talking about the content of our faith and thought. What I think Neufeld is critiquing is the notion that we can arrive a neutral or even secular criteria for ‘healing’ or ‘justice’ when it fact such notions come loaded with their own sets of assumptions and values that often go unnoticed. So for instance the liberal western notion of individual freedom often does not take into account indigenous claims to the land on behalf of an entire people group. These two notions of justice are at odds and one must, consciously or not, side with one particular notion or the other. I acknowledge and support such a critique.

Neufeld, however, wants to move this particularity under the category of ‘the cross’. The cross, however, was not a theological abstraction but a particular event from which particular believers were formed in their thinking and acting. I want to suggest, though, that perhaps the Gospel is actually much more generic, actually does arrive as one with no-name. That, and I hope I will understood here, for the cross to be the cross sometimes it will not be the cross. It seems that, according to the Gospels anyway, Jesus was not really concerned about the name under which ‘messianic’ or ‘kingdom’ elements were brought under. When asked by John’s disciples if he was the messiah Jesus asks them to simply tell John what they see. Jesus tells the disciples that they will be serving the king when they attend to the realities of the nameless marginalized. And most specifically Jesus clarifies that naming our lives and actions under the title ‘Lord, Lord’ gives no special place of status.

I know Neufeld is aware of all these things. I expect that his expression is at least somewhat in agreement with them. However, I still wonder if the ‘mystery’ in the second half of his statement should actually offer more judgement over the way we recuperate any possible notions of mission or gospel within our existing theological categories, even if those categories are as broad as ‘the cross’.

There is no question that the image of ‘the cross’ has been appropriated in all sorts of ways. Many expressions of the cross have been easily taken up into dominant cultural modes whether in outright superstition or just gaudy consumerism. So I want to suggest that for ‘the cross’ to have any integrity in theology or missions it will of course remain particular to the Gospel accounts but the Gospel itself should actually be much more generic. The Gospel has no-name other than the ones that emerge from those testifying to their encounter with it. This is its power and its vulnerability. And it is precisely at those intersections of deliverance, testimony, fellowship, and discernment that we all must be open to having our thoughts and actions laid bare for the unmaking and remaking of our lives.