Monday, July 17, 2006

From the Great Commission to the Great Invitation

The other day at Border's I was flipping through the latest issues of Christianity Today (how analog!) when I ran across this interview. Andy Crouch interviewed the Rt. Rev. Dr. David Zac Niringiye, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Kampala in the Church of Uganda. This part in particular was intriguing to me. Bishop Niringiye says:

We need to begin to read the Bible differently. Americans have been preoccupied with the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the Great Commission: "Go and make." I call them go-and-make missionaries. These are the go-and-fix-it people. The go-and-make people are those who act like it's all in our power, and all we have to do is "finish the task." They love that passage! But when read from the center of power, that passage simply reinforces the illusion that it's about us, that we are in charge.

I would like to suggest a new favorite passage, the Great Invitation. It's what we find if we read from the beginning of the Gospels rather than the end. Jesus says, "Come, follow me. I will make you fishers of men." Not "Go and make," but "I will make you." It's all about Jesus. And do you know the last words of Jesus to Peter, in John 21? "Follow me." The last words of Simon Peter's encounter are the same as the first words.

Can we begin to read those passages that trouble us, that don't reinforce our cultural centeredness? Let's go back to Matthew 25 and read it in the church in America, over and over. Who are Jesus' brothers? The weak, the hungry, the immigrant workers, the economic outcasts. Let's read the passage of this woman who pours ointment over Jesus. Let's ask, who is mostly in the company of Jesus? Not bishops and pastors! The bishops and pastors are the ones who suggest he's a lunatic! Who enjoys his company? The ordinary folk, so ordinary that their characterization is simply this: "sinners." Can we begin to point to those passages?

Yet this ability to read different passages, to read the Bible differently, won't happen until people are displaced from their comfort zones. I thank the Lord for deep friendships he has given to me beyond my comfort zone, beyond my culture, beyond my language. Until that happens, we will all be tribal, all of us.

Bishop Niringiye's words resonate with me. They speak directly, I believe, to the reticence that many Episcopalians, have about evangelism. The idea of "making" someone into a Christian seems out of character to our stories of faith. Many of us were made, but by God not by people. Many of us responded to an invitation to follow. I am impressed by the Bishops call to evangelicals (and the rest of us) to encounter scripture outside of our comfort zones, and to seek relationships that are beyond our usual cultural boundaries.

This will be an especial challenge for Christians who differ on issues of sexuality and full inclusion of GLBT folk into the life of the church. We have to be prepared to hear each other with the assumption of mutual integrity, mutual faithfulness and humble obedience to Our One Lord, Jesus Christ.

The cheif lesson of the interview for is how we ground our evangelism. Our evangelism must be grounded in sharing a gift that we have been given, new life in Jesus Christ. Rather than striving to make a person into an Episcopalian, or into something that they are not, our job is to cogently and clearly present the Gospel both in our words and our actions. Probably mostly in our actions. We are sharing the invitation that Jesus gave to the disciples, "follow me." We echo Andrew's words to Peter, "Come and see."

Niringiye's words are significant in a part of Africa where the Gospel was introduced alongside colonialism. In letting go of the need to link the Gospel with the power structures of society, he shows us a way of thinking about our situation as the Episcopal Church where we no longer represent the core of social, political and economic power. American evangelicalism, still bound up in "Go-and-make" kind of evangelism has been striving to be at the centers of American power for generations and now they have succeeded. Niringiye's testimony frames a reality that we are only, as Episcopalians, coming to terms with. Being at the center of the power in a culture may hamper both the spread of the Gospel and imperil one's soul.

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