Life, Faith and Urban Farming

The life and happenings of an unconventional pastor and urban farmer living in the city with a family of five.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Naming Grace

I and the Open Door have been thinking a lot about God's work in the world. Thanks to one of my professors at PTS, Dr. Andrew Purvis, I've developed a really strong understanding of Christ's work in the world. I've learned to stop thinking of my own acts of kindness and care for people as the work of Christ and think of them more as my own actions which join Christ in the work that he is already doing in people's lives. I am not the barer of Christ, but the witness to Christ's action. So, the question that is now floating around in my head, thanks to my new friend Melvin (see a link to his blog below) is, when do we take action in naming the work of Christ in people's lives? Karl Barth says that the Word of God is active throughout the culture, even apart from the church. God is revealing grace to people through creation, through acts of love, kindness, mercy, and justice.

Dr. Purvis has taught us to first of all bear witness to what Jesus/God/The Holy Spirit is doing. This means we point toward the goodness of God's work. Then we must interpret God's work in the world. Sometimes just pointing toward Christ is not enough, we have to interpret. And the third thing we do is symbolic action (I like this part). We take part in Christ's work by acting ourselves. This might include anointing a sick person with oil as in traditional pastoral care, or it might include buying a meal for a homeless person.

Now, I want to suggest that Dr. Purvis' order of bearing witness, interpretation and symbolic action, when done in a missional/not-yet-Christian context, should be done in reverse order. In a missional context we must start out by doing symbolic action, then move to interpretation of both that symbolic action and of the work that Jesus is doing in and through people's lives. The question floating around for me is how long should we act symbolically before naming Christ as the barer of grace. I'm convinced that the purpose of mission is not fulfilled if we do not at some point make an attempt to name grace as Jesus Christ, but I think it may at times take years to do that. On the other hand I don't think we need to be scared to name grace. It's different than evangelizing, naming grace is non-threatening to people. My co-worker, BJ Woodworth, often names grace with his not-yet Christian friends, simply by pointing toward the good things in and around their lives and saying things like, "Jesus is at work in you". It's an acknowledgment that Jesus is already at work in someone, before they "accept him." Naming grace means we take the work out of our hands and the hands of the not-yet-Christian, and simply point toward the one who we believe is doing the real and important work, Jesus.

What do you think? Can we, in this post-Christian culture, do mission/symbolic action, without bearing witness?


Sarah Louise said...

Sounds like a good idea, as long as we are bearing witness.

Brian said...

Hi John -

Interesting thoughts. I think the core process remains the same as what Purves taught us - discerning where Jesus Christ is at work in a person's life is the starting point. I see your point about acting in symbolic action before interpreting but, as you point out, sometimes this last piece can get left out simply because it's the hardest part and how do you know when to say it.

Newbigin points out that Jesus, throughout the Gospels, always helps people interpret what he is doing with words. For Jesus, there was seldom a time when he did something and didn't use words to help the people around him understand what was going on.

I think the question that we need to wrestle with is not "when do we speak" but "how do we speak"? I think the challenge is to find a way to help people interpret what is going on in their lives. This comes back to Puves' model though - what is the Word of the Lord for a particular person or community in a given time?

Russell Smith said...

Great post -- Interpreting Christ is indeed the hardest part -- often because of the associations with pushy evangelism. And yet, that is a part of our calling as Disciples of Christ -- to name the good work that He's doing. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

phred said...

excellent blog and great idea.

phred said...

Finally work for Christ where we step out of the way!