Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lisa Beth White on Grace Upon Grace: Mission: An Expanding Agenda

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 Lisa Beth White, doctoral student at Boston University School of Theology.  Rev. White is commenting on the sixth section of the document, "Mission: An Expanding Agenda."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

The section of “Grace Upon Grace” before us today titled “Mission: an expanding agenda”, asks what is grace in the twentieth century? When this was written in the 1980s, the question of grace in the twentieth century was timely, but we have turned the corner into a new century and are several years into that new century. The question before us now is: what is grace in the twenty-first century?

In an earlier post, Dr. Sathianathan Clarke wrote that the church lives today in the “hybridity of the modern and post-modern world”. Dr. Clarke argued that it is the responsibility of the United Methodist Church in response to God’s grace to purge ourselves of overconfidence in mission to the world. In this modern/postmodern hybrid, the extremes of absolutism and relativism are giving way to a chastened optimism in which “the Christian church and the Christian mission may once again, humbly yet resolutely, present the vision of the reign of God” (Bosch, 1991, p 361). The title “Mission: an expanding agenda” might suggest an outward look alone, but this section provides us with two movements for mission grounded in twenty-first century grace. These movements are an honest confession and looking at the world with a new vision.

The first movement is confession. Paragraph 31 states that to respond faithfully to God’s grace in Christ “it is necessary to confront our own unfaithfulness: unfaithfulness generated by bland, sentimental, comfortable, and blurred relating of the gospel to the world.” Our missionary response to the grace of God begins with a call to pause and reflect on ourselves and our own unfaithfulness, as individuals and as a church. These are boundary crossings – the boundaries of our own hearts and the boundaries we have within our denomination. God’s grace is a “strong love, a judging and transforming love” (paragraph 29). This grace calls the church to begin with the judgment and transformation of individuals and the church, and calls the church to stand with God against injustice and oppression.

We confess that we have not seen our own spiritual poverty. A bland or comfortable gospel does not challenge us. God’s judging and transforming grace confronts us. The boundaries we have around our heart keep us from close self-examination, and blind us to seeing God’s vision for a transformed world. In the United States, our consumer culture makes it easy to hear a bland gospel, easy for us to be rich in things and poor in spirit. God’s 21st century grace calls us to confess our spiritual poverty.

We are challenged by God’s strong love to confess that we have not seen the physical poverty, injustice and oppression that surrounds us. Too often the church in the United States searches for mission projects beyond its own zip code, failing to see our neighbors who struggle. God’s 21st century grace calls us to confess where we have failed our neighbors.

God’s grace in the twenty-first century requires confession of our failures as a church. Today in the UMC in the United States there is a great deal of attention paid to LGBT rights and inclusion. Clergy engage in passionate debate online, and national news coverage highlights the controversies and church trials within our beloved UMC. Paragraph 33 in “Grace Upon Grace” states that “the body of Christ is a reality which must be made incarnate in our living”. When Paul writes to the Corinthian church regarding their divisions, he tells them they are part of the body of Christ which God has put together. Although there are divisions due to their human failings, Paul describes God’s more excellent way to live together as this body of Christ – the way of humble love. God’s strong and transforming grace calls the UMC in the U.S. to confess the sin of disunity and to live instead with patient, humble love for each other.

This movement of confession is not easy. David Bosch says that “we hate to expose ourselves, to take off our masks, for we do not want [the other] to peep into our own struggles and weaknesses, into our own processes of spiritual development. We present ourselves to them as those who already have all the answers, who are finished products, and who have now come to tell them what to do to become like us” (2001, p 68). Twenty-first century grace gives us the confidence to confess our missionary failings. God’s strong and judging love is also a transforming love which makes the next movement possible.

The second movement of 21st century grace is new vision. Paragraph 37 states that God makes the invisible visible. Sin clouds our vision and makes it difficult to see injustice and oppression; God’s grace is clear-eyed. When we have confessed our sin, God’s grace enables us to see the world as it really is. This is the chastened optimism Bosch spoke of – our hearts, humbled by confession, have renewed vision to see where our neighbors suffer and are oppressed. We have hope because we see our neighbor through the lenses of grace, the lenses of God’s love for all people.

Twenty-first century grace calls us through confession to a clear vision of our need for each other. Once we recognize our need for God’s grace and our place in the whole body of Christ, our mission is transformed by God’s love into a relationship with those whom we serve. This is the love Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians, God’s true love expressed in the body of Christ. For mission, this true love means “accepting that you are dependent and expecting something from the other” (Bosch 2001, p 71).

Paragraph 37 states that God’s clear-eyed grace mandates action. Once we accept God’s grace, we see the world as God sees, and we must act. God’s mission to the world is not passive. God’s 21st century grace requires our participation. Further, paragraph 38 emphasizes the prophetic dimension of mission. The United Methodist Church must face difficult questions and speak prophetically about our complicity with systems of power and oppression such as globalism, consumerism, immigration, economic disparity and the criminal justice system. The mission of God’s transforming love calls us to critique ourselves in these systems and to look for ways to be in solidarity with the powerless.

Twenty-first century grace is challenging. Through it the United Methodist Church can be transformed to be in every aspect of our life and work, the people of God, the people for God in the world.

Works cited:
Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991.
Bosch, David J. A Spirituality of the Road. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001.

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