Thursday, August 28, 2014

Proclamation: Laceye Warner 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 Dr. Laceye Warner, Executive Vice Dean and Associate Professor of the Practice of Evangelism and Methodist Studies at Duke Divinity School. Dr. Warner 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.

Paragraph 57 begins by describing Christians’ calling to proclaim the gospel: “We proclaim the gospel. We tell the story of God’s gracious initiative to redeem the world.” This language is inspiring and authentic to Christian Scripture as well as reflected in baptismal liturgies. By our baptisms each Christian is commissioned to proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.[i] However, the term proclamation can at times cause confusion if understood as merely verbal proclamation. While this paragraph in Grace Upon Grace goes on to clarify proclamation as an embodiment of the good news of Jesus Christ,[ii] such confusion often persists.

We proclaim the gospel.” When the biblical texts were initially translated into English (with the Tyndale and Wycliffe versions of the Bible) the Greek root for evangelism was translated simply as “preaching.” This was an attempt to employ language that could be widely understood.[iii] While preaching is an important means of our sharing the good news of the message of salvation, this more narrow translation, while well intended, has contributed to truncated understandings. This truncation may also have contributed to the exclusion of various voices from Christian ministries simply because these voices were not allowed to preach. For example, women and people outside dominant cultures have experienced exclusion by denominations or credentialing bodies to the office of preaching and ordination at times in relatively recent Christian history. In The Methodist Church women were not included in all provisions related to the formal ministries described by the Discipline until 1956. Despite this historic decision, male pronouns related to those provisions remained in the Discipline until 1968.

Individuals and communities are differently gifted and called in distinctive ways to proclaim the gospel. This results in a variety of ways through which the gospel may be embodied as Christians in communities of faith allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us often in surprising and sometimes uncomfortable ways.

“We tell the story of God’s gracious initiative to redeem the world.” Proclamation of the message of salvation begins with God’s gracious initiative to redeem the world. At times proclamation can be reduced to human opinion or desires to control the gifts of the Holy Spirit. However, our proclamation of the message of salvation is rooted in God’s activity that invites our response and participation.

Mission has its root in the Latin phrase missio dei or the mission of God. According to the commission text in the gospel of John, the mission of God is to send Jesus Christ to the world, and with the Holy Spirit to send the Church to the world. A relatively recent (mid twentieth-century), but important shift has occurred within the Church’s self-understanding from the Church sending missions to the world, to God’s initiative of sending the Church in mission to the world.[iv]

A defining theme of the gospel of John is God’s sending and with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit our being sent. After the example of God sending Jesus, the Church’s identity relates to being sent. Jesus sends the disciples and the Holy Spirit. But for what are the disciples sent in John? Although Jesus’ commission in the gospel of John could seem to be ambiguous, “as the Father sends me, so I send you,” (John 20:21b) the message is actually the messenger.[v] The Church is sent to the world to proclaim Jesus Christ in words and actions, by attempting to live in a manner resembling the self-giving love that characterized Jesus Christ’s ministry in life, death and resurrection.

The commission in John (20:19-23) shares parallels with its prologue: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, similar to Jesus came and stood among them. This divine presence was and is the source and motivation for Christian ministry, including proclamation. The message of John’s Jesus to the disciples in the midst of the tense and anxious atmosphere is peace be with you. More than a greeting, the message is an affirmation of Jesus’ promise of the Resurrection. Upon seeing the risen Christ the disciples are filled with joy, a joy that is contagious and meant to be shared.

If we take seriously God’s gracious initiative, our proclamation of God’s story will expand beyond our imaginations—and words—into embodiments of Christian witness both individual and communal that reveal God’s reign in our midst. From preaching and teaching, to political advocacy for social justice or the quiet care for physical and emotional brokenness, our proclamation of God’s story not only shares God’s love with others, but continues to form us by deepening our relationship with and knowledge of God.

[i] The United Methodist Hymnal, see pp 35, 40.
[ii] “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (II Corinthians 4:5-6)
[iii] See David Barrett, Evangelize! An Historical Survey of the Concept (Birmingham: New Hope, 1987), 22. Barrett offers an example of a study too narrowly focused on verbal proclamation. Based on his research Barrett argues that the six closest English synonyms to the term “evangelize” are: preach, bring, tell, proclaim, announce, and declare, thus perpetuating the emphasis upon verbal proclamation.
[iv] Ibid., 377-78.
[v] Walter Klaiber, Call and Response: Biblical Foundations of a Theology of Evangelism, trans. Howard Perry-Trauthig and James A. Dwyer (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 63.

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