Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Our Unifying Vision" - Daniel Shin on Grace Upon Grace: Our Unifying Vision

Today's post is the third in a series of weekly posts that will re-examine the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990) Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today.  This piece is written by Dr. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius & Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair in Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center.  Dr. Shin is commenting on the second section of the document.  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

The section “Our Unifying Vision” immediately follows the “Introduction” in Grace Upon Grace, the theological statement of the mission of The United Methodist Church. It is appropriate that the statement begins with theological reflections on our church’s unifying vision as we are one in Christ, but also different in many ways. What is of interest concerning unity-in-diversity in the title “Our Unifying Vision” is it can be interpreted at least in two different ways: one, it suggests a collectively defined and accepted vision that is at work and exerting influence to move the church toward a common goal; two, it intimates a vision still in the process of coming together toward a common horizon. Whereas the former suggests a united vision already out there waiting to be implemented, the latter implies a vision becoming unified right before our eyes—perhaps, a fusion of horizons—far more attentive to the church as a hermeneutical community in conversation, debate, and mutual enrichment. Which interpretation best reflects the spirit in which the document was written?

It seems the authors of Grace Upon Grace had in mind the former. Consider Paragraph 3 which begins with the following words: “Scripture provides our decisive vision of mission.” In Paragraph 9, it also says, “We, as United Methodists, pursue a unifying vision by ‘looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’ This is our vision, a vision which sets our vocation.”[1] Our vision already has been provided to us, rather than standing in need of being articulated and adopted. Moving beyond the surface reading of the document to its depth, we cannot help but notice the implied sensitivity and alertness to diverse theologies and practices of mission present in the United Methodist Church. After all, we are the heirs of a rich heritage of different traditions such as Anglican (Wesley), Reformed (Otterbein), evangelical, and pietist churches.[2] Moreover, it is only proper and necessary we recognize diverse missional responsibilities in the church if we understand our distinct missions to be participation in the missio Dei in contexts other than our own. The scope of God’s mission is indeed universal, and different missions around the globe are the many and varied manifestations of the mission Dei. Others are also summoned and faithful in God’s mission just as we, too, seek God’s reign of justice and peace. Hence, affirmation of the polyphonic character of missions is the result of coming to terms with the missio Dei. It is a deep recognition of the complexity of human conditions we encounter in the world as well as the universal character of God’s offer of grace in all facets of human experiences.

However, we do not remain in isolated enclosures of our own choosing where we dwell on our differences, because we have a uniting vision of grace that is bringing us together as one in the triune God. Mission is first and foremost the action of God who creates out of love, redeems in Christ, and empowers the church in mission through the power of the Holy Spirit.[3] The church has a common missional vision of God’s grace which it does not create as it is given by God’s saving activity in and on behalf of the world.[4] It is a vision of God’s continuous self-giving that comes again and again like the waves of the sea. This image of God’s grace is particularly fitting for the United Methodists as Wesley understood God as “the great ocean of love” which is inexhaustible.[5]

We, as recipients of God’s superabundant love, are invited to participate in God’s mission guided by the following reasons, means, and ends: one, God’s continual self-giving evokes our way of being; two, we are to give our lives in sacrificial love by offering our lives in service of others; three, both the Old and New Testaments definitively provide our vision of mission, and most decisively in Jesus Christ who as both Lord and Servant embodies the generosity of God’s self-emptying love; four, grace is not merely a gift but essentially the giver, and this being the case we need to give our very selves; five, Jesus’ ministry sets the ground for us; six, the church is to be a sign of the kingdom of God and to embody God’s grace in mission in specific human form and in specific historical contexts; and lastly, “we envision lives changed by grace, a church formed by grace, and a world transformed by grace.”[6]

As is generally true of ecclesial statements of faith, the section “Our Unifying Vision” is compact and full of theological and ethical significance, and needs to be unpacked. While its emphasis lies on a unifying vision toward the common end of participating in God’s mission in the world, there is sufficient attention to the diverse human conditions and contexts of missions. More specifically, in paragraph 8, it refers to “specific human form” and “specific historical context” where we are to be “a sign” of God’s reign and “embody God’s grace.”The statement is mindful of the condition of human finitude and the impingements specific historical contexts make on different Christian missions. In other words, the question “What would Jesus do?”, or commonly known as WWJD, is an important one, but equally important is the question “What shall I do as a follower of Christ given my human finitude and specific historical context?” We need a dual vision that focuses on Christ and our specific context. This is why the document from the outset recognizes the need for a vision “to discern both the graceful actions of God and the everchanging conditions of the world.”[7] The issue of human form and specific historical context is of particular importance given the increasingly widening gap between the rich and the poor, the unfortunate history and effects of chattel slavery in the Americas, and the ongoing practices of global colonization that adversely affect women, children, and the non-persons of the world. Invitation to follow God’s way of being as continually giving by offering not merely our gift, but our very own lives in sacrificial love in service to others need to be revisited in order that it does not inadvertently commit the mistake of pushing the marginalized further in their downward spiral.

Then, how shall we proceed? It makes a great deal of difference to remind ourselves that the church is called upon to follow Christ, but not to preempt the role of the Christ as the savior of the world. The church is situated in its own historical contexts different from the web of human relations and historical realities in which Jesus Christ was situated. Hence, the church cannot repeat or preempt what Christ already has achieved, but only refract in part—not from too close but only at a distance—in the figure of a disciple than in the cosmic, miraculous and unsubstitutable destiny of Jesus Christ.[8] We follow Christ with a recognition that there is a limit set due to the impassable difference between Jesus and his followers. It may very well be that God’s providential ordering of the world in Jesus transcends the intramural activities of the church. Yet we continue to hammer out a common life patterned after Jesus Christ in order be a sign of God’s reign in the world and, shall we even dare to say, embody God’s grace and be the people of God for the world in hopes that by God’s grace all events will find their place in the eschatological summation of history.[9]

Until then, as a pledge and token of that eschatological hope, we proclaim God’s grace in word and life following Christ as the common horizon.[10] Focusing on Christ does not make the church myopic in its horizon and succumb to the temptation of sectarian withdrawal from the world because, as Paragraph 6 nicely suggests, in following Christ we engage the world, especially the poor, weak, and marginalized. God in Christ was incognito among the downtrodden of our world and, therefore, we must remain vigilant and alert to discern God’s hidden-revealed presence and activity in the world. Until we see face to face, we see dimly, so with the center of theological gravity secure in Christ, the church must practice synoptics, the art of seeing together, involving ecumenical conversations, interfaith dialogues, and forging ad hoc correlations with our public interlocutors.  In a post 9/11 world in which different religious constellations collide with one another, our future may depend on seeing rightly, using central vision as well as peripheral vision.

[1] Grace Upon Grace, Paragraph 9.
[2] Grace Upon Grace, Introduction.
[3] Grace Upon Grace, Introduction.
[4] Grace Upon Grace, Introduction.
[5] John Wesley, “The Law Established Through Faith: Discourse II,” in  John Wesley’s Sermons, eds. Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991), 282. John Calvin also describes the inexhaustible grace of God that keeps on giving using the image of the fountain of goodness, the fons benorum.  See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1536 Edition (ed. and trans. F. L. Battles; London: Collins, 1986), 57.
[6] Grace Upon Grace, Paragraph 9. 
[7] Grace Upon Grace, Introduction.
[8] Hans Frei, “Theological Reflections on the Accounts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection,” in Theology and Narrative: Selected Essays, eds. George Hunsinger and William Placher (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 56.  See also Hans W. Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997).
[9] Grace Upon Grace, Paragraph 8.
[10] Grace Upon Grace, Paragraph 8-9.

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