Written by Justin Gohl
Thursday, 19 April 2012 00:00
In this season when we reflect on the Passion of our Lord, we are once again confronted with the symbol of the Cross and the many claims it makes on us and on the world.
At risk of sounding trite, I am wondering if we have a tendency to forget the scandal of the Cross, in the context of missional theology. Certainly it is trite for most—which most definitely includes myself—in 21stcentury North America to speak of “sharing in Christ’s sufferings” when compared with the experience of, say, Christians over the first few centuries of the Church’s life or in many times and places throughout the world up to the present day.
So, what are we to do with this paradox? Christians are sent on a mission to a world which is fundamentally opposed to the message, to the God, which Christians proclaim—a recognition we see throughout the NT, perhaps most poignantly in 1 Cor 1-2 and John 14-16.
If the way of God’s mission is redemptive, participatory suffering in the world, is that at least part of what we mean when we talk about “missional theology”? If so, how does this calling to suffer and to scandalize fit into the discourse and practice of missional theology?
Again, apart from theological artifice, I admit I don’t quite know. But what I think this pushes us to is the question of “wisdom” and “fittingness”—of knowing how and when to speak, to suffer, to scandalize, etc. Or, in short, we are pushed towards self-criticism, towards constant (though not paranoid) self-evaluation in light of the paradigm of the Cross.
Here are some possible avenues for such:
From whom do we seek affirmation?
A Cross-shaped missional theology must continually ask this question, beginning with its own practitioners (ideally, all Christians). Within the Church and within academia, is there not a tendency to create structures of “recognition” that can subordinate Christ and him crucified as the source of our glory and worth?
Are we as Christians more interested in being accepted by or found palatable by a particular subculture than we are in maintaining our accountability to Christ and his Church? Even more, are we encouraged to “sacrifice” our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ for this acceptance?
The various ways these questions can be heard within the contemporary Church itself once again pushes us towards the pursuit of wisdom and discernment, certainly part of which is humble listening.
Suffering is not an end unto itself.
St. Peter makes this point on no less than three occasions in his first letter (1 Pet 2.20; 3.17; 4.15-19). Christians can find themselves suffering for reasons that have nothing to do with the scandal of the Cross, indeed, for no laudatory purpose at all. And it takes wisdom to know the difference.
If I can editorialize slightly, this is one reason I think it is important to guard against the tendency of turning the life of the Church into an “agenda” that requires “activism.” The Apostles of Christ’s Church have little room for such a model:
1 Peter 3:8-12 8Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called-- that you might inherit a blessing. 10For "Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; 11let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it. 12For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil" (Ps 34.12-16).
1 Timothy 2:1-4 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. 3This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
This emerges not out of a so-called “status quo conservatism” but from a robust understanding of the nature of the Church’s life and calling—a calling that is centered not in “social change,” whatever its potential necessity or merit, but in the fruit of the Spirit, embodied in both personal and corporate Christian life.
Nor, to be sure, does this rule out valuable and urgent causes which Christians might take up—such as combating the evils of human trafficking, or defending against gov’t intrusion into the life of the Church. Which is again why we must seek wisdom to discern the appropriate times, reasons, and ends for Christian activities that might lead to agitation, to scandal, and to suffering. Certainly a paramount consideration is whether our agitation brings endangerment (of whatever sort) to ourselves or to others.
Proclamation is Spirit-generated, not self-generated
As we seek to participate in God’s mission, living in the tension between the scandalous nature of the gospel message (that is, “Jesus is Lord”) and the responsibility of Christians to suffer for the right reasons, we must also crucify our speech. Jesus promises the Apostles that, when they are maliciously interrogated, the “Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say” (Lk 12.12).
Competence in God’s mission is not a function of our own erudition or persuasiveness—even as we seek to follow the apostolic injunction to “be prepared to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3.15). Our competence comes from the Spirit who infuses and empowers the Church, enabling us to combine wise gospel deeds and gospel words with fitting times and places.
But perhaps you can help me out? How do we reckon with the “scandal of the Cross” within a commitment to missional theology?
Justin Gohl is an adjunct professor of theology at Biblical. He is married to Kate, his wife of 7 years, and is a full-time stay-at-home dad with two kids, Caleb (2) and Phoebe (1). He is ABD at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia where he is in the latter stages of writing his dissertation on the early church’s use of the Book of Proverbs.