Thursday, July 20, 2017

James Labala: Comment on Wonder, Love and Praise

This blog post is one in a series containing responses to the denomination's proposed ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise." These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. This piece is written by Rev. Dr. James Z. Labala, Associate Dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology and Conference Secretary for the Liberia Annual Conference.

We are living a in time in the life and history of the church when the need for our self-understanding is very critical. There are challenges within and without that make this need very acute. From the general global, continental and local contexts, the image of the church as a sign of hope has become so blurry that there seems to be very little difference between the church and the world which the church is called to transform. At such a time in the varying contexts of The United Methodist Church, I see “Love, Wonder, and Praise” as a necessary instructive construct which invites us to engage in an intentional process of critical reflection on our nature, vision and mission as a church.

Drawing from the historical, theological and missional roots of the church and locating The United Methodist Church in that general background, the document develops a framework that provides much needed insights about its distinctive convictions. The distinctive convictions include the following: the saving love of God is intended for all people everywhere; the saving love of God is transformative, transforming the life of everyone that embraces it by the power of the Holy Spirit; and it is a love that creates community, a community in which love is learned and lived out.

The document uses the three convictions as a foundation to cast a renewed vision that is relevant for the present and varying contexts of The United Methodist Church. This renewed vision challenges the church to see itself as a gift of the triune God, a communion whose life is sharing in the life of the Triune God. The new vision of The United Methodist Church, gleaned from careful analysis of the core belief or creed of the Christian tradition as well as the ecumenical document, Towards a Common Vision, presents the church as a community whose life is generated by the very life of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. It describes the life of the church as “a sharing in the life of the Triune God,” and the mission of the church as communicating “that possibility to a world in need.” As koinonia, “the church is not an association of like-minded individuals serving purposes they may have devised for themselves.” It is rather a community established by God and rooted in the very life of God. But “Wonder, Love and Praise” is quick to point out that the church is also a human community which serves human purposes that sometimes counteract the purposes of God.

Our awareness of the church as human community lifts up its need of constant self-evaluation of its self-understanding and missional effectiveness. As such, the church must be intentional to engage in self-critical reflection in an effort to determine its areas of need for reformation and renewal. The document argues that Wesley himself presents a lesson to learn in this regard: the church is to exercise a realistically self-critical capacity when it comes to the quality of our own life and witness as Christians and Christian communities and be sensitive to the danger of self-deception and be aware of our own permanent need for repentance and renewal… we are to also be open to the presence of God, and open to the love of God that might come to us through them.

Critical in the life and structure of the community is the theology of ministry, “Wonder, Love and Praise” argues. It is a theology that is rooted in the “threefold office” of Christ as prophet (bearing witness to God’s word), as priest (offering the life of a life lived in discipleship), and king (serving as instruments for the establishment of God’s reign). In this new age our participation in the ecumenical forum, reaffirmation and exploration of the triadic pattern of “Word, Sacrament, and Order” would serve to strengthen our theology of ministry.

Finally, the document discusses the question of locating The United Methodist Church within the global Christian community and the impact its participation in the ecumenical conversations might have in addressing the issues of its diversity. The effort is to construct a renewed ministry theology. Amongst the points the document uses in fashioning this ministry theology, two really stand out for ministry context particularly in the west Africa Central Conference: the first is the fact that our connection is intended for “the strengthening of all by the gifts of all.” We are stronger together as we value one another for who each one is and for what each brings to the table for the common good of all. The other is the emphasis on theological reflection. This is the tool that helps to keep us in check as a people of God when appropriately utilized, for the un-reflected life is not worth living (Socrates in Plato’s Apology).

The last portion of the work discusses diversity and conflict leading a new vision of the church that is relevant to the present reality with which the church is faced. As called out people from diverse backgrounds, we are challenged to see our differences as a gift that enhances our unity. Our differences should be seen as an opportunity to open ourselves to learning from those who do not see things as we do. This means that such learning experience should empower us to be who we are and at the same recognize and honor those with whom we might not agree. This is the church we are called to be, a sign of hope and life to a hopeless and dying world.

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