June 19, 2017

A Missional Trajectory

Several years ago I spoke at a diocesan event in Southern California and, as I often do, used a Scripture passage as the basis of my address. In the feedback submitted afterward, one comment stated that it was ludicrous that I thought this ancient text would be helpful in our modern lives.

This reflects one of two common approaches to the Bible among Christians in the west. Either we use Scripture as a tool to provide distinction between us and others. Or we abandon the text as antiquated dribble whose only purpose is to be read in respect of tradition and nothing more.

We have to remember that these words compiled to make the canon of Scripture were done so purposefully. These pages were documented and passed down through the generations because the authors in various times and places believed that someone who was not present during the original telling needed to have the information they were writing down. The Bible exists for those that have not yet been exposed to it.

The King James version of Acts 1:8 (yes, this is the one time I'll refer to the KJV) it reads:
But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
Some of Jesus' last words to his friends was a commission to start at home, and work away from home towards the "uttermost parts" sharing stories of what they had seen along the way. It was a commissioning that echoes the ancient covenant between God and Abraham; that God would bless all nations through these people. Similarly, we don't abandon these ancient texts. Nor do we use them as a boundary between us and those around us. Rather, we continually come back to these stories while simultaneously inviting others into conversation with these stories. Just as Brueggemann (see what I wrote of his approach here) argues, in each reading there is the announcement of God's good news and the invitation to the outsider to respond.

Back to that Acts reference, we don't simply move away from the text, just as the early church would continually view Jerusalem as the seedbed of their story–even as it passed into people groups never imagined. This is not moving from one point in a direct line to another. The image of a spiral might be more helpful here; we continually orbit this central narrative we call our Scriptures while simultaneously reaching out to others, inviting them into our ongoing dialog with this grand Narrative.

I grew up in the evangelical tradition where invitations to respond to the message of the gospel was common. In no way do I endorse ham-fisted attempts to coerce people. But I do think we should teach Scripture with an expectation that hearers might respond. More specifically, do we speak of Scripture in a way that invites the outsider to engage? Or just appease the insiders?

As the early church read Scripture in this manner, it radicalized its members. They did in fact embody what Jesus commissioned in Acts. They watched as what started as a fringe group of Jews move into other people groups. Like what we read in Acts 10, the leaders of the early church were forced to grapple with their own biases and assumptions about what it meant to participate in the good news of God's kingdom. This cross-cultural movement is what would distinguish them from other religious traditions. It was only when the Church traded this vision for hegemony by conquest–whether in harmony with the state or the market–that she lost her way. Neither Constantine's or Calvin's church–for example, would have tolerated what Peter did in the tenth chapter of Acts. The missional church is an attempt to return to this original vision that we read of in Scripture.

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