Thursday, August 21, 2014

Grace, hope and mission - Lisa Beth White on Grace Upon Grace: A World Transformed by Grace

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 tenth section of the document, "A World Transformed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

Don Messer issues a strong challenge to the United Methodist Church in his blog post on “A World Transformed by Grace”.  He asks whether Grace Upon Grace is “simply a lovely treatise on theology or does United Methodism actually seek to practice what it preaches when it declares ‘inclusiveness of all people’ is to be characteristic of the missional church?’” 

As this response to Dr. Messer’s post is written, headlines in the United States are full of the chaos in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18 year old, shot several times by Darren Wilson, a white police officer.  Hope of a world transformed by grace seems dim indeed in light of Michael Brown’s death and other news of international conflict and innocent lives taken because of ideological and religious differences.  How are we, United Methodists, able to proclaim hope in the Gospel and live out the audacious form of mission – obeying Christ and loving our neighbors – in such chaotic times?

One way forward is found in the title of the original document – grace upon grace.  Paragraph 61 states that “grace received is motive of mission”.  The United Methodist Church is called by this document to participate in God’s ongoing mission in the world – God’s continual offering of grace to all persons through the mercy and love of Jesus Christ.  “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:16, NRSV).  Because we have received the grace of Jesus Christ, we are called to live as his disciples, offering grace to all.  It requires both humility and confidence to participate in the mission of obeying Christ and loving our neighbors.

Grace received as our motive of mission is evidenced in the United Methodist liturgy for communion.  With both humility and confidence we recognize that we are recipients of God’s grace and pray for our participation in God’s mission to the world.  First we confess our sins, and we receive God’s pardon.  Then we remember God’s gracious activity in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.  Finally, we pray that through the elements God would make us “for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”  We invoke the Holy Spirit, that as a church we would be “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”  This prayer makes clear our sinfulness and states our humble need for God.  It is only through God’s grace that we are able to have the confidence to participate in mission.  As our nation still struggles to overcome the sin of separating ourselves from those who are other – those whose skin is a different color, those whose native language is different than ours, those whose sexuality or gender are different than ours, those who vote differently than we do, those who have different access to education or economic opportunities – the sacrament of communion calls us to remember that grace transforms our divisions into unity in Christ.  Although we retain our diversity, as the body of Christ our walls of division are overcome.

Our witness as a denomination is challenged by the divisions and disagreements present in our polity.  Dr. Messer asserts that our current disagreement over LGBT inclusion “imperils our missional outreach to the world.”  In fact, I have witnessed denominational discussions that have begun with a focus on mission – proclaimed as what the United Methodist Church does well – that quickly erode into arguments about whether and/or how the denomination should split.  Our motive for mission should empower us to be able to resist principalities and powers, to love one another across limits of country, color, clan, creed, class or culture (paragraph 62).  And yet we so quickly forget our motive for mission – grace received in humility that gives us the confidence of the children of God – and vie instead to be right or to retain power and privilege.

Far from being simply a lovely treatise on theology of mission, Grace Upon Grace challenges the United Methodist Church to live out its identity in Christ, being one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world, regardless of race, nationality, language, sexual orientation, gender, creed or class.  We are to be “the daughters and sons of God, holding up in prayer the well-being of all” (Paragraph 62).  Through participation in the sacrament of communion, United Methodists can find renewal in the grace of Jesus Christ.  Through the sacrament we can confess our pride and sinfulness, and be made whole with the church to be the body of Christ for the world. 

United Methodist mission is clearly grounded in the grace of Jesus Christ and is not our own mission.  Left to ourselves, we remain sinful human beings.  Transformed through the grace of Christ, we are made able to participate in the ongoing mission of God to usher in a new kingdom, a world transformed by grace.  The world so desperately cries out for justice and reconciliation.  Our news headlines daily proclaim war, inequality, pollution, climate change, disease, and a thousand other ills.  Only through the grace of Christ are we able to boldly proclaim hope in this context.

Dr. Messer concludes with a prayer that United Methodists will “continue to experience the grace of God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ and seek in every way to witness by word and deed to that marvelous gift.”  One answer to this prayer is found in the sacrament of communion.  May the United Methodist Church find the humility and confidence found in the prayer of Great Thanksgiving and the courage to be made truly one in Christ and audaciously proclaim and live out God’s inclusive grace.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if we are assuming what many in our denomination do not assume: that grace quite naturally "includes" those who are different. Because for many grace also quite naturally and theologically excludes. It excludes evil and unrighteousness because they make life hell on earth for the weak and innocent. Sometimes grace takes out a restraining order. Sometimes grace must built a fence. Sometimes grace must build a prison.

    One reason it has been difficult to make the case for grace as inclusion is that those making it have not shown a robust understanding of the depth of human sin, and have therefore not acknowledged the reality of human fear. Grace as an offer to cast out fear is far more Christlike than grace as a demand that we include.

    And that in turn means inviting people into a full and transformative Christian life of worship and fellowship rather than just sending them into mission to learn inclusion by including.