Thursday, April 24, 2014

Robert Hunt on Grace Upon Grace: United Methodism in Mission Today

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director, Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology. Dr. Hunt is commenting on the seventh section of the document, "United Methodism in Mission Today."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

I suppose the thing that jumps out about the statement "Grace Upon Grace," first published in 1990, is the incredible churchiness of its language. That is probably to be expected of a document created by the United Methodist church to stimulate United Methodist churches, yet also indicates some limits to its usefulness some 24 years on in a post-Christian world.

Sections 1 to 10 focus on the scriptural precedents for a contemporary understanding of mission, stating clearly that "Scripture provides our decisive vision of mission" before elaborating on the life of Jesus Christ as the embodiment of God's mission.

Then in a fascinating move the document jumps from Jesus to the era of the Wesleys to capture the distinctive heritage of Methodism. The two thirds of the New Testament most directly related to the mission of the apostles and 1600 years of Christian history receive no mention!

If only from a hermeneutic standpoint this is strange. Fidelity to the Christian canon demands that we understand the actual mission of the apostles as the clearest and most direct interpretation of fidelity to Jesus' command and the church as the continued embodiment of God's mission through the indwelling Spirit of Christ. The gospels are themselves the apostolic witness to Jesus. Neither he nor these accounts of his life and ministry come in any other guise. Can we really know Jesus without knowing Peter and Paul, Corinth and Galatia? It seems doubtful.

It is characteristic of us as Methodists that sections 10 through 28, a quarter of the document, recount our mission history. The mission of the church for most of its existence apparently provides neither examples or precedents of value. Unfortunately a focus on Wesley, Otterbein, or Albright obscures the reality that Christian mission has not been, and will not be, a unidirectional move from Christendom to the so-called rest of the world. A global church cannot form itself around an identity rooted only in these particular historical narratives.

That is not to say that sections 29 to 39 are irrelevant. Quite to the contrary, since we have here a clear theological rational for mission and clear theological critique of church structures that hinder mission. Which brings us to sections 40 to 41, seeking to reclaim our heritage in mission.

Unfortunately that heritage, just as it excludes most of global Christian history, is apparently a heritage that deeply excludes any insights into the human experience other than its own.

"With our predecessors, we return to the gospel to recognize the world for what it is; powers organized in opposition to God. Ours is a world filled with unbelief, a world whose social systems often express structured evil, and a world populated with people who need God. To recognize that this world is subject to principalities and powers (Romans 8:38, Colossians 1:16) is a work of grace. Grace enlightens and grace enlivens. By grace, hiddenness brought to sight allows sight to envision mission."

Apparently this section means that United Methodists (and one supposes other Christians) can clearly see and analyze what the world needs while the world sits ignorant of its own condition awaiting enlightened Christians to enlighten it.

This will not do in the 21st century. It is the ultimate imperialism at the end of an imperialistic age to say that we as Christians have a special knowledge of the chains that clasp the world in their embrace; to say that our mission begins with a lecture to the world on the character of its lostness so that it can experience the fullness of God's grace.

"The church’s presence in the world, its existence in mission, is defined by God’s way of being in the world." (para 41) "So we look to Jesus." What follows is a notably thin account of Jesus' ministry. "Jesus proclaimed the kingdom."(para 41) Even the earlier account in paragraph 4 says only "Jesus Christ offers redemption to all people and invites them to become disciples and go forth as ministers or reconciliation." 

Yet the astounding thing about Jesus is that the apostolic witness tells us of Jesus' enormous openness to approaching others with God's grace as it addresses their self-understanding. Jesus observes and listens. His offer of redemption doesn't appear to assume in advance that he knows better than others what they need. Even the instance in which he offers forgiveness of sin without a request for forgiveness is intended to show the breadth of God's grace, not to restrict it to a single form. Listening and observing typify his approach to humans in need, not a lecture on theological anthropology.

God in Christ is in the world not telling people who they are, but learning who they are, giving them agency in self-understanding. The fullness of grace isn't making every human a nail for our gospel hammer. It is knowing that out of God's plenitude in Christ is the answer to every human need.

It is unfortunate that paragraph 63 ("God is preveniently present to all people.") cannot really undo the problematic nature of this limiting vision of Jesus' ministry. And the problem may be the word "integrity," which appears to imply that the religions of the world in interaction are somehow wholly enclosed units. The reality, historical and present, is that the religion called Christianity is always emerging out of the engagement of the gospel narrative with widely varying human self-understandings. That gospel is not a closed world of a particular grace meeting a particular definition of sin, or even freedom meeting oppression. It is the Trinity reaching out in Jesus Christ to embrace the world with its love. And that grace; grace upon grace, calls us to graciously allow the world to determine where that invitation touches its self-understanding, and how it should respond.

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