Mission: Church in the world

Celebrating the Chrism Eucharist:

One of the more popular models used for the Church today is the model of communion. This is not a new model and was one used in the document Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council: the Church is a sign of communion and brings about communion, both with God and among his people.In this time of Easter we see this model played out in the annual chrism Eucharist when the church gathers together around the Bishop and celebrates its "communion". In a fragmented world like the one in which we live today this model of communion offers a great message of hope for the future, a hope that is expressed in the Eucharistic celebration. This annual festival brings together representatives of the whole community - ordained and those who are not ordained - in a liturgical action that brought together all of the sacraments in the blessing of the oil. The Chrism Mass is a powerful expression of the entire Church gathered together - in communion with God and in communion with each other. The opening prayer is instructive:

You anointed your only Son Messiah and Lord of creation;
You have given us a share in his consecration
To priestly service in your Church.

The beauty of this prayer is that it declares all Christians (through baptism) to be consecrated to share in the priestly ministry of Jesus. This is echoed in the opening of the Preface: Christ gives the dignity of a royal priesthood to the people he has made his own. The priesthood in which we all share is the priesthood of Christ the Priest. But it is a single priesthood, a priesthood where all are brought together in Christ.

But there is more to this celebration as well. In the Chrism Mass we also renew our baptismal vows (and the ordained their vows of ordination). This is a significant moment for it stands as a public proclamation to the world but a proclamation that only works when it is faithfully lived out. What this does is encourage those making the vows to strive, with the help of grace, to engage in a day to day struggle for faithfulness. Timothy Radcliffe offers a reflection on this: It is one thing to say that one will give everything, offer all that one is now, and it is another to promise to go on year after year, no matter what happens (I Have Called you Friends).

We are reminded that God is always faithful to us. The renewal of our baptismal vows is a sign of our participation in this divine faithfulness and a call to reveal God's faithfulness to others. It shows that the Church exists as a communion, that communion across differences is genuinely possible. In celebrating this Eucharist in the public forum the Church declares that she will live in clear witness of the love of God for all peoples.

The chrism represents an affirmation of the configuration of the believer to Christ through baptism, confirmation and ordination. With the oil of the sick we are invited to accept that we are to identify ourselves with those who struggle with sickness of any kind and to share in the suffering of the Son of Man whose sufferings give us life. The oil of catechumens acts as a reminder of our commitment to those who are seeking to find their way into life in the faith community. In this way all are called upon to be the "chrismed" (the anointed) presence of Christ in the world. 

We are thus called to be not just a sign of the communion that is on offer through a life lived in covenant faithfulness to God but to also accept that we are part of the hand of God moving in creation to bring his plan to realization.

The importance of Servant Theology:

The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12

The early Christian community saw in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah something of the person of Christ and so it is worth our while to look briefly at what this song is telling us.

ISAIAH 52: 13 See, my servant will act wisely[a];
   he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him[b] -
   his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
   and his form marred beyond human likeness -

15 so he will sprinkle many nations,[c]
   and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
   and what they have not heard, they will understand.

ISAIAH 53:1 Who has believed our message
   and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
   and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
   nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
   a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
   he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

4 Surely he took up our pain
   and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
   stricken by him, and afflicted.

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
   he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
   and by his wounds we are healed.

6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
   each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
   the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
   yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
   and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
   so he did not open his mouth.

8 By oppression[d] and judgment he was taken away.
   Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
   for the transgression of my people he was punished.[e]

9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
   and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
   nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
   and though the LORD makes[f] his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
   and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

11 After he has suffered,
   he will see the light of life[g] and be satisfied[h];
by his knowledge[i] my righteous servant will justify many,
   and he will bear their iniquities.

12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,[j]
   and he will divide the spoils with the strong,[k]
because he poured out his life unto death,
   and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
   and made intercession for the transgressors.

An Exegesis of the Servant Song:

  • The song begins with YHWH speaking. This man is God's servant and it is God who makes it clear that the end result of all that follows is the exultation of the servant. Given what follows, this is a significant promise.
  • Before the glorification there has to first of all be humiliation and suffering.
  • Verse 14 shows the servant as a marked and distorted man. He was not among the"beautiful people" of the earth.
  • He is so distorted and horrifying that they cannot bear to look at him but at the same time find it difficult to tear their eyes away.
  • He is an outcast.
  • Verse 15 throws all of that into confusion in that we see nations and kings standing awed before him. They stand before him in silence so overwhelmed are they by his dignity and his majestic bearing.
  • It is here that we find the inner theme of this poem. It is impossible to move from being marred to being awesome without the intervention of God.
  • It is not about humiliation and exultation but about the humiliated one who becomes the exalted one through the intervention of YHWH.
  • God transforms and transposes and the rest of the hymn develops this.
  • Behind it all is the massive, inscrutable coming of God's holiness that defies explanation or resistance.
  • This is how Isaiah presents Israel. They are the humiliated people who by the powerful intervention of God are about to become the exulted (restored) people of Zon.
  • While Isaiah did not have Jesus in mind, it is understandable why the early Church took this psalm as a way of understanding the meaning of the crucifixion. Here humiliation equals crucifixion and exaltation equals resurrection and ascension. It is here that it equates to Philippians 2:5-11.
  • The Church is not able to explain how we move from Christ on the cross to Christ ruling from God's right hand in heaven, just as the move from 52:14 to 52:15 can be explained.
  • Behind both the Suffering Servant and the crucified Christ is a belief that what is happening is that God is doing something new and that he is doing this new something through suffering.
  • This belief was justified in the restoration of Israel and the resurrection of Jesus.
  • In both cases there is a counter-cultural proclamation that goes against the world's insistence that suffering is a dead end with no future and that there can be no newness only endless derivations of the same old world experiences.
  • Newness through suffering is the message that attests to the power of God at work through human weakness to bring to fruition God's intention for the world.
  • 53:1 is a proclamation, an invitation to believe that requires a response: who has believed what we have heard? It is an invitation to believe that in humiliation there can be exaltation.
  • The second part of this verse gives the substance of the proclamation: God's power (arm).
  • This exaltation in humiliation is a revelation of the power of God who is not limited to or limited by human expectations and experiences. It is only God who can bring about this new situation.
  • There is no answer and it seems as though the proclamation is too much to believe and no one but the person of faith can be expected to proceed on the basis of this. The verse then gives witness to the power of God, the destiny of the servant as well as to the faith of the community which goes ahead and builds its life anew on the basis of this promise.
  • 53:2 is the story of the life of this servant, from birth to death (v.9 - buried). His life does not begin well for he is a root in dry ground. He began in humiliation and had no form, no majesty, nothing to notice about him and nothing to admire. He was a rejected person, ostracized of whom nothing was expected. He is of no consequence.
  • 53:4 begins with a grammatical form that is an indication of surprise; Nevertheless...This is significant because it highlights that it is this insignificant one of no account who is now to be the subject of active verbs.
  • This nobody from nothing is about to do something decisive.
  • A miracle happens with this nobody. This marred, dismissed nobody took on himself disabilities and diseases, hurts caused by sin, punishments. By taking all this on, this servant was wounded, crushed and bruised.
  • By doing all of this we are healed.
  • The question that is not answered is how hurt and guilt can be reassigned and redeployed from one to another.
  • We are not told how suffering of one makes healing possible for another.
  • But so it is: we are healed and we are made whole.
  • The mystery of all of this is the confession of sin. We have been wayward, recalcitrant, like mindless, unresponsive sheep who graze off the path without heeding the summoning voice of the shepherd. It is the servant who has been made to answer for this wandering off.
  • This poem is dominated by first-person pronouns: we, our, our, us, we, we, we, our, us.
  • It reflects the bewilderment of those healed. These pronouns are the reflections of the people who have been healed. They are looking on what happened with gratitude and bewilderment.
  • It is the voice of the Jews of the exile who are bewildered by what is happening to him.
  • This poem is for use by anyone who benefits from the actions of the servant.
  • One life can be vulnerable enough to permit restoration of another.
  • The individual person is transformed by this and also brings in the new era for the entire community.
  • 53:7 brings us to the example of the betrayal of genuine justice. The Servant suffered because of a perversion of justice. He was innocent and should not have received any punishment.
  • He is cut off. Humiliated. The ultimate humiliation was that he was buried among the wicked - outside of the cared for space where the righteous dead are kept and cherished. He is rejected, treated to the end as being utterly guilty, treated in death even as he had been in life. He is treated in death as he was treated in life.
  • It is because he is a nobody that he utters no sound and does nothing to defend himself. Because he is innocent he could have screamed for justice and legal protection.
  • He is more like the docile, timid sheep held down by the shearers.
  • It is like the docile sheep who is led to the slaughter. He absorbs the unjust blows, and in Christian terms he is the lamb that was slain.
  • This is a life given for the life of others. No satisfaction of anger, no victory over the power of death but only a gentle surrogate in punishment.
  • It is as if the vicious circle had been broken. They cannot be broken by force, by power, by assertion, for such vigorous assertion only escalates and evokes more from the other side.
  • This servant, this nobody with no resources, breaks the cycles of death and hurt precisely by a life of vulnerability, goes into the violence and ends its tyranny.
  • Verse 9 sees the ending of this savaged life. But 53:10 takes us beyond this so called end. We are drawn up short by yet it is the will of YHWH...
  • It is the will of YHWH that the servant is used in this way. It was part of YHWH's large intention to deploy such an effective sufferer.
  • The process was one of ultimate sacrifice.
  • We see two themes: It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.....and then at the end of the verse through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
  • This is another key insight: God wants the servant to prosper.
  • God wants the servant who had given all to now receive all.
  • In v.11 the servant is declared to be the servant of God (my servant). The servant is not abandoned.
  • Verses 11-12 are on the lips of God. The servant qualifies the others to receive the benefits due to a responsible keeper of the law, so that those who should be harshly judged are now declared to be innocent.
  • Brueggemann puts it this way: That is indeed humiliating work - to extend self in the service and interest of unwarranted vindication for the underserving. The people be helped were undeserving, they did not warrant vindication.
  • The therefore of verse 12 introduces the consequence. Humiliation is the ground of God's exaltation.
  • The one who was in the company of transgressors, who appeared as one of them, who prayed for them, who cast his lot as their advocate, who stood deeply in solidarity now receives the "therefore" of YHWH. God is therefore giving to the servant a portion with the great and the strong. It is a whole new world where the weak are on the same footing with the great and the strong.
  • What this actually means is unclear in its details. They are unclear for what is central is this movement of God from guilt to healing. BUT THIS MOVE is made through a human agent as it must be.... Humans sinned humans must make restitution.

The key to understanding what is happening is that this servant is living for others. This was countercultural at the time as it has been countercultural ever since. Today this model of discipleship stands in contrast to the kind of living that has grown out of philosophies like that of Nietzsche's superman. He put forward the idea that the servant theology was a weak, timid, cowardly failure in the world. But this has only left a legacy of death. The alternative is no easy way. It is a daring proposal that requires enormous amounts of courage for it breaks the cycle of violence and it is what makes life possible.

Sometimes in discussions on the meaning of the Church it can appear that the Church exists for itself. That the Church is the focus of all that it does and how it lives. Nothing could be further from the truth for the focus of the Church must be always the Kingdom of God a focus that manifests itself with a focus on the needs of others. The Church must have as its focus the needs of the world in which it lives, which it is called to serve, particularly in its needs for justice, reconciliation, unity and peace. The Church is nothing if it is not a Servant (diakonia) Church.

Service is not just one of the things that the Church "does" - it is of the very essence of what the Church "is".

All ministry in the Church is then essentially diaconal ministry - the ongoing servant ministry of all ministry in the Church (ordained and non-ordained) which is a share in the ongoing servant ministry of Jesus Christ. But as one theologian described it (Walter Kasper) servant ministry is a downwardly mobile ministry as described in the Letter to the Philippians (2:6-11). This famous hymn presents the fundamental virtue of the Christian as being that of humility and a willingness to serve. It is in this humble service of all that communion with God is seen to be possible. 

During a sermon in St Peter's Basilica Rome, at the close of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul V1 declared:

We stress that the teaching of the Council is channelled in one direction, the service of humankind, of every condition, in every weakness and need. The Church has declared herself a servant of humanity at the very time when her teaching role and her pastoral government have, by reason for this Church solemnity, assumed greater splendour and vigour. However, the idea of service has been central.

What the Pope was declaring in this sermon was that the older visions of the Church needed to be renewed so that its servant ministry takes priority over all else. It is not unlike the teaching of Jesus on the necessity of putting new wine into new wineskins. Without this happening you end up losing both the wine and the wineskins (Luke 5:37).

This teaching is important because it places every kind of ministry, every kind of Christian activity and planning within the context of the Church-as-Servant. The starting point must always be the Church and its ministry and its calling. One Church document Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons speaks of the Church as being a mystery of Trinitarian communion in missionary tension. That is quite a mouthful - but it is worth spending some time in trying to work out what the document is saying. The argument goes like this:

  • When we are baptised into the paschal mystery of Jesus, we are immersed into God. But this God is not a God who is revealed as being a God living in loneliness. We are baptized into a Godin- trinity. This God is a God-in-communion.
  • In this communion there is absolute oneness and at the same time an absolute unique personhood - the three persons are distinct. Uniqueness within communion.
  • It is here that human beings have their call to be fully themselves and yet one with others. The This divine Trinity offers both the goal towards which all men and women strive as well as being the source of strength for that striving.
  • Life as a disciple then means that there is a need to affirm the importance of the individual person but to so do in ways that affirm the communion that we all share with others. It is a personhood that is outward directed, that is, missionary.

This kind of thinking was famously picked up by the Bishop of Los Angeles - Roger Mahony who said that it is not so much that the Church has a mission; it is more that the mission has a Church. He then went on to ask (the break up into divisions is mine):

What is this mission? It is none other than that of Jesus, Christ, the Word, and of the Holy Spirit, the gift of God's love dwelling in our hearts.

Jesus' mission is to announce the time of God's favour, the coming of the reign of God. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God as the fulfilment of God's hope, desire and intention for the world now and to come. In God's reign, truth, holiness, justice, love and peace will hold sway forever.

Jesus established the Church to continue and further this mission...This mission is so central to the word and work of Jesus that .....mission defines the Church. The Church in every dimension of its life and practice exists for mission: to proclaim in word and deed the reign of God to people in every culture, time and place.

The way of Kenosis: Self-emptying of one's own will and becoming receptive:

One of the great mysteries of faith is the self-emptying of God in the incarnation of his Son. Nothing expresses the love of God for men and women than this gift of the kenosis of God. This is made clear in the great Philippians hymn (2:6-11) where we sing about how Christ emptied taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness even accepting death, death on a cross. The high point of the exaltation of Christ came at the highest point of this self-emptying - his death on the cross. This makes no sense by any human measurement, it is counter cultural and counterintuitive but it marks out the way of the disciple. It is this way of kenosis that is set out for us.

The kenosis of Christ is a part of the life of every believer and is central to the life of the faith community. We have been formed by the Spirit into the Body of Christ which is the Church and it is as the Body of Christ that we are called upon to live this way of kenosis. This way of life is to be based on the love that God has shown to us in his Son, a love we are called upon to share with the world, dying to our own will and being receptive and open to those who struggle in any way. This kenosis that is our vocation is a kenosis of love.

While Bishops, priests and deacons are ordained with the power of their orders all who are baptized are called to live in a kenosis of power which is a grace or a strength that enables them to empty themselves in the service of all. A clear example of this is to be found in the account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. This was an action that was normally done by a servant. Through it Jesus was offering his disciples an interpretation of the events that were about to unfold. The Passion and Death of Jesus was to be understood as an act of divine love by which all men and women are freed from their sins.

Kenosis: The word as found in Philippians 2:6 is much debated. It's literal meaning is he emptied himself. Paul is quoting a pre-Pauline hymn to make his point about how Christians should be living. They are to b unselfish, humble and reaching out in their relationships with others. In all things they should have the mind of Christ (and this is the measure of faithfulness - how much of the mind of Christ can be seen in my life and in my actions? In using this kind of language Paul is arguing against some of the Greek pagan cults and movements, particularly the way the Gnostics speak of their messiah. Paul sees a Christ who existed before creation began. It was this divine Christ who freely exchanged his divine mode of existence for a common, human, earthly existence. Jesus chose not to selfishly exploit his divine form and divine powers (see the temptations in Matthew and Luke). By his own decision he emptied himself of this power and privilege, or laid it to one side by taking the form of a man. 2 Corinthians 8:9 is probably a good commentary on this: ...though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. When Jesus carries out the washing of the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper and commanded them to do what he was doing, it was this kenosis that he had in mind.

Jesus washes the feet of his disciples:

Exegesis of John 13:1-17 - Jesus washes the feet of his disciples

  • This action is set in the context of the "hour of Jesus" having come, this is the hour when the one sent by the Father will return to the Father.
  • The story begins with the statement that Jesus loves his own and loves them to the end. This expression has two meanings: his love for them will continue till until his death but more importantly his love for them surpasses all other love. Both of these meanings come together in this expression.
  • Verse 1 is a most significant text because it declares that Jesus understood that the hour had come for his death and that out of love for the Father and for the disciples he was giving himself into the hands of his enemies.
  • As the same time that Jesus is accepting his death we are shown how Satan has other designs on Jesus and continues his work of attempting to disrupt the plan of God.
  • Against this background, Jesus (who knows both his origin and his destiny) proceeds to engage with his disciples.
  • The guiding verse is: Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper.....(v.4-5).
  • Peter refuses to have his feet washed which means that Peter is presented here as rejecting the plan of God. John is showing that Peter misunderstood the meaning of what is happening and its significance. He is not open to the revelation of God coming in ways that he cannot understand.
  • Jesus tells Peter that he does not understand "now" but he will understand the meaning of what is happening "later". What happens between the "now" and the "later" is the death of Jesus and thus Jesus links the foot washing to his crucifixion.
  • Peter is told that he will have no part in me (v.8b). This is a term used in the early Church to talk of the relationship baptism created between Jesus and the person baptized. To have part with Jesus through washing was to be part of the self-giving love that will bring Jesus' life to an end and this is what is symbolized in the washing of the feet.
  • From John's perspective this is a powerful passage. He presents a Jesus who fully understands what is happening; a Jesus surrounded by ignorance, misunderstanding and the threat of betrayal by one of his own who proceeds in his love to wash the feet of his own. The emphasis here is on the love of Jesus (even to Judas who is still here).
  • The disciples do not understand what has just happened and without further instruction they will not understand what it means to have this kind of love impinge on their lives.
  • Jesus commands them to repeat in their own lives, what he has done for them.
  • What they are to repeat is his gift of love that is symbolized in the foot washing.
  • Behind the theme of death is the Greek word example (hypodeigma). This word is found only here in the New Testament and it refers to his exemplary death.
  • This is not meant to be a moral exhortation. It is a call to imitate this self gift of death.
  • Thus the norm of life and conduct for the believing community is summed up in the meaning of this foot washing.
  • It is a command to lose oneself in loving self-giving, even to the point of death, is what is ritualized in baptism and it offers an insight into the meaning of baptism.
  • The disciples are commanded to maintain their position as servants and the community of disciples as a community of service.
  • Foot washing is not an end in itself but an instruction that the Master is giving to his servants, the one who is now sending them out into the world to the ones being sent. They are to maintain their place as servants of all.
  • If they know what Jesus has done and in their turn go out and do the same thing, then they will be blessed: If you know these things blessed you are if you do these things. Knowing and doing are inseparable in terms of this divine blessing.

By acting out this message Jesus links his death with the future ministry of those disciples and through them the Church of all time. To have part with Jesus through washing means to be part of the self-giving love that will bring Jesus' life to an end, symbolically anticipated by the foot washing (Francis Moloney on St John). All those who seek to follow Jesus as disciples are to be identified by their own self sacrificing love in imitation of the kenosis of Christ.

What is behind the meaning of the word for "an example" (hypodeigma)? The example that Jesus has in mind is his passion and death. That word is found only here in the New Testament and it is linked to the exemplary death. Jesus does not have in mind some moral imperative but an imitation of his own self giving. The idea of a servant only carries weight in the act of serving. Without dying to self there can be no following of the example of Jesus. Anyone who accepts the invitation to baptism and takes up their vocation as a disciple takes up a commitment to love, even if it leads to death.

This means that the foundational relationship in the life of every believer must be their relationship with Christ. It is out of this that love of self, love of family and love of strangers grows, guiding it, strengthening it, shaping it and empowering it to bear lasting fruit. The model is Christ, who took on the condition of a slave out of love for the Father and love for others. The life of a disciple is to be modelled on the life an ministry of Christ the Servant.

The Servant Church:

In 1966 Richard Cushing (The Servant Church) wrote that

Jesus came not only to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom, he came also to give himself for its realization. He came to serve, to heal, to reconcile, to bind up wounds. Jesus, we may say, is in an exceptional way the Good Samaritan. He is the one who comes alongside us in our need and in our sorrow, he extends himself for our sake. He truly dies that we might live and he ministers to us that we might be healed.

The logic behind this is that the Church truly must be the Body of Christ and so the Servant Church (as Christ was the Suffering Servant). As Jesus was a man for others, so the Church must be the Community for others.

Bonhoeffer picked up this understanding in his Letters and Papers from Prison:

The Church is only the Church when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations or possibly engage in some secular calling. The Church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving.

But this is not the same as saying that the Church should be some kind of organization whose primary focus is social work. The Church must not look on itself as a humanitarian social agency, or a group of like-minded individuals sharing a common perspective and moving here and there, wherever the action is (Richard MCBrien). If this is what the Church is, then there really is no reason for it to continue on in history. The Church is the universal sacrament of salvation, the Body of Christ in the world and it is for this reason that it is a servant church. It is this Christ-centered modelling that necessarily leads to serving the world.

The Church must offer itself as one of the principal agents whereby the human community is made to stand under the judgment of the enduring values of the Gospel of Jesus: freedom, justice, peace, charity, compassion, reconciliation (McBrien) 

In this model of the Church, the primary beneficiaries of the Church's actions are not the members of the Church but all men and women in the world who hear from the Church a word of comfort, encouragement, enlightenment, guidance, healing or experience the Church reaching out in their time of need. The purpose of the Servant Church is not to gain new members but to serve people where ever they may be and in whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves.