In an essay entitled “Millennial Orthodoxy,” I outlined — albeit rather snarkily — my qualms with the dilution (or devaluation) of orthodox christian theology within the Episcopal Church, a baby-boomer backed trend which I posited was unappealing to millennials like myself, who are searching for a church that is more than yet another social justice non-profit. A clergy-friend of mine recently challenged me to ask what is authentic mission and whether the Episcopal Church — which seems endlessly enamored of things like so-called “missional” theology — really grasped it.
Has it fully understood the reality of Christ’s great commission, that which has been entrusted to us, and mission, his despatching us into the world? In the nineteenth century, he argued, we misinterpreted mission to mean conversion often by coercion, that is, a conversion without substance. Missionaries flocked to far flung climes and locales to convert the “savage heathen” to “civilized faithfulness.” Today, on the other hand, we look at mission as social action without religious persuasion, that is, social action without substance.
In both instances, our approach to mission has missed the mark, failing to demostrate our core conviction that Christ is the motivational center of our lives, that our outreach and our service flows forth from the inspiration of the Holy Ghost; and that in Christ is our redemption by his blood and our salvation through his grace. We fail to remark upon our salvific journey of regeneration, renewal, sanctification, transformation, and glorification. We fail to be sent out by him, instead presumably going out of our own accord.
Why is it no longer self-evident in our actions that we are“christians,” the followers, friends, disciples of Jesus Christ? Why do we seek to hide that he is our savior and redeemer, the mover of our being? I suspect that something is amiss, that our outward shame is rooted in an inward guilt that gnaws at us, a seemingly unassuagable guilt that we profess a spiritual faith within the context of a material institution that has not always been a faithful witness of Christ’s love, that has used its longstanding societal influence to corrupt the faith in favor of princes and principalities, denying Christ for gain of wealth and power — not absolutely, but enough.
That we remain committed to institutional reform, as well as restitution and recompense for past wrongs, does not seem to stem this pervasive guilt or empower us to reaffirm what is right, what is good and joyful in Christ, despite those wrongs. Instead, we hang our heads, employing ourselves in admittedly good work, but remaining always silent lest we resurrect the memory of our the fathers’failings.
If “nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known,” if whatever is said in the dark shall be heard in the light, if whatever is whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops, do we have any right to withhold the gospel of Jesus Christ, to omit the proclamation of our faith, for fear of offending those who deserve the opportunity to befriend our Lord and be saved?
Jesus Christ commanded his apostles, recorded in the gospel of John, “that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” which John again reiterates in his first epistle writing, “that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us,” that “all who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them, and that by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us.”
Certainly the works of love are manifest and certainly the Episcopal Church acts on its confession and undertakes to give meat to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, invitation to the stranger, clothing to the naked, visitation to the sick and the imprisoned, justice to the widow and the orphan; extending arms of welcome and love to the least and greatest amongst us. I do not question the Episcopal Church’s commitment to and fufillment of the imperative to love and serve one another in Christ’s name.
Nevertheless, I do wonder — often with a little ire — why we do not make it clearer who is the source and what is the substance of these good works; that we do not better undertake the commandment to also “go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation,” as the gospel of Mark records. Or, as in the gospel of Matthew, to “therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
We need not comport ourselves like nineteenth century missionaries, tactless messengers braying, “Convert, heathen, lest ye be damned to the abyss, wherein the worm sleepeth not and an unquenchable hellfire burneth eternal!” Rather, we must raise our voices just enough to witness to the hope within us. We bear false witness by omitting the most relevant fact of that hope: its ultimate beginning and end.
James in his epistle says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” but we have tried to show our works apart from our faith, apparently ashamed to share its origin and in so doing deny the gospel to those most entitled to it. We have helped to alleviate material poverty, while simultaneously helping to perpetuate spiritual poverty. We have fought for civil rights, but denied people spiritual rights. We have been guilty of bearing false witness, of omitting attribution, plagiarizing and claiming for own that which is properly god’s. We have forgotten to include the byline, “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
Internally, we pray in the name of Christ. Externally, we act out his commandment to love one another as if it were merely a human imperative and not a divine injunction. Why do our esteemed leaders insist on waxing poetic, referring to Jesus Christ only through the most opaque allusions and oblique metaphors? Only in the epistolary formalities of salutations and closings “in Christ?” Only in the fixed phrasing our prayer book, often heard by the initiated alone?
We talk about institutional transparency as a forward-going necessity, but do not consider doctrinal transparency worthy of note? How can Christ Episcopal Church, Peoria never mention the name of Christ save when it refers to its own name? On the first of January, the Episcopal Church officially celebrates the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, but how often do the good people of St. Swithin’s mention his name the rest of the year?
I was raised in a home that tacitly professed a vague iteration of secular humanism. When I first encountered Jesus Christ, I experienced the transformative power of his love. Suddenly and inexplicably, I found myself — a deeply introspective and inward adolescent — transformed into an empathic and other-focused individual. I know well how self-centered I would be were Christ not the center of my existence — or better, how much more self-centered I would be. I feel deeply the pull of Him that turned me around, and upside down, and inside out and exposed me to a love that fed my heart and through whom I learned to love.
Before I befriended Jesus Christ; before I submitted in friendship to him; before I underwent his regenerative ablutions; before I broke bread and supped wine, the oblation of his body, the hospitality of his table, I had never wept in empathy. After I gave myself to him, the sufferings of people, real people, brought tears to my eyes and compelled me seek to relieve them. I do not pretend that I am a perfect christian or a perfect servant, synonymous as far as I am concered. In fact, I am far, far from it. Yet, despite my failings, I know who is responsible for my paltry successes.
I am unashamed to say that I am the work of Jesus Christ, fashioned by his father’s hands in my mother’s womb. It is intolerable that we allow our shame, our guilt, and our affectations of hospitableness and welcome to undermine our faith in Jesus and our proclamation of the same. So, let me say it aloud: I believe that all I think, say, and do that is good and just is the result of that grace given in abundance by JESUS CHRIST, my lord and savior. It may be unpopular for most. It may sound naïve to some. It may have negative connotations for many. Nevertheless, it is, and as such I declare it, for truth should be declared.