Thursday, September 4, 2014

Humble, receptive evangelism - Jack Jackson 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. Jack Jackson, E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Global Methodism at Claremont School of Theology. Dr. Jackson 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.

Does the world need to be transformed?  If so how, and to what end?  This is a central question for Christian churches in the 21st Century.  I find Grace Upon Grace both a compelling and frustrating document.  It is compelling in that its aim is to provide an overarching vision for mission from a United Methodist perspective.  In some ways it succeeds as it touches on many important elements of mission.  But it is a frustrating document in that it is at times repetitive, vague, and historically incomplete.  Many of my colleagues provided overviews of the document in previous posts so I will refrain.  I will only say that I share both Robert Hunt’s and Carlos-Cordoza-Orlandi’s observation that the document, in its effort to be inclusive, ends up ignoring significant individuals and communities that inform United Methodist understandings of mission.  Of course it is impossible to include everyone in a document of this length, but Grace Upon Grace would be stronger if it were more succinct.

But back to the question in the beginning, does the world need to be transformed?  Grace Upon Grace’s answer is an emphatic “Yes!”  This world is marred by “egoism, nationalism, racism, classism, militarism, and sexism” (par. 56) that will not prevail when the reign of God comes in its fullness.   Central to the church’s mission, according to Grace Upon Grace, is to witness to this reality.

For the remainder of this section Grace Upon Grace discusses the concept of “witness” in United Methodism, namely proclamation (par. 57 and 63), evangelism (par. 58), incorporation (par. 59), and servanthood (par. 60 and 64).  I found this section a bit cumbersome as it confuses the concept of evangelism (defining it only as inviting people to faith in Christ as opposed to the Biblical idea of proclamation) and because it addresses the idea of servanthood in a repetitive manner throughout the entire document.  But the main points do come through and can be affirmed.

United Methodists believe the gospel must be announced.  The world does not intuit either God’s love or the particular story of Jesus that we believe most clearly demonstrates God’s love.  God’s grace must be articulated if it is to be understood, believed, and claimed.  The reality of the beautifully diverse religious landscape in our world today demonstrates the need for the gospel to be announced.   While Christians share with many other religious and non-religious communities similar ethical and moral values, the motivations behind our ethical systems are quite different.  Grace Upon Grace affirms the need for United Methodists to articulate the motivations for what drives us in our plural world.

Grace Upon Grace rightly affirms the need to articulate our understanding of the story of Christ both humbly and receptively.  We do so humbly because even as Christians we are still a broken people who understand this story of Christ dimly, as through a cloudy vessel.   For example we United Methodists admit we made mistakes in the past in our understanding of what a transformed world looks like.  Perhaps this is no clearer than in the issues of slavery and women in Christian leadership, specifically the ordained ministry.  We repented.  We acknowledge we need to keep hearing the gospel story so that it continues to transform us.  And yet even as we repent, yearn to hear the gospel story again, and acknowledge that we see and understand Christ dimly, we also humbly offer Christ to the world for we know no greater good news. 

We articulate Jesus both humbly and receptively, for usually only if we truly listen to others articulate their own vision of transformation will others listen to our vision.  Par. 63 describes this need to listen to others even as we articulate, or present, Christ to the world.   Perhaps E. Stanley Jones’ model of the round table is an appropriate model for interfaith conversations in the 21st century.  Jones’ round table provided a venue where people of different faiths, or no faith at all, could sit as equals in voicing their deepest beliefs, motivations, and dreams for the world.  But Jones knew the round table was only effective if all people were both willing to evangelize and be evangelized.   He was ultimately a seeker of truth and he wanted to hear others’ understanding of truth and offer the most beautiful truth he had found in Jesus.  He believed the vision of life offered in Jesus was greater than any other vision and he was willing to test it.  If the world is to be transformed it will only be through a community that humbly admits its weaknesses, listens to other visions for the human community, and offers its own vision of a world in the image of our crucified and risen lord.

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