Monday, May 28, 2012

Gathering at God's Table -- A Patheos Book Club Review


GATHERING AT GOD'S TABLE: The Meaning of Mission in the Feast of FaithBy Katherine Jefferts Schori.  Woodstock, VT:  Skylight Paths Publishing, 2012.  Xxvi + 218 pages.

          What is the meaning of mission for Christians living in the 21st Century?   Is it something done “over there” on the mission field?  Is it centered in converting non-Christians to the Christian faith?  I once worked for the U.S. Center for World Mission (I was director of their library), and at the center of their vision was making sure the Christian message penetrated every people group.  Or, is mission seeking to bring healing to bodies and souls?  Is it defined in terms of acts of service – building schools and hospitals?  Mission has many different connotations and nuances, depending on your theology and how you view your place in the world. 

There is an effort underway to define the church as “missional.”  That is, instead of the church doing mission, mission is the church.  It’s not one emphasis among many, but it defines the nature of the church.  It involves doing, but more importantly, it is a question of our being.

It is in the context of this conversation, into which I’ve become deeply immersed, that I picked up (at the behest of the Patheos Book Club) Katherine Jefferts Schori’s book Gathering at God’s Table.    I said yes to the request in part because it spoke of mission in context of God’s Table.  As a Disciples of Christ pastor, I am especially interested in the way in which the church’s table fellowship defines our sense of mission.   Like many Episcopalians, Disciples come to the Lord’s Table to share in bread and cup each week.  Our practices and our theology of the table differ, but the Table is a defining part of our sense of identity and mission.  I was also interested in the book because I grew up Episcopalian.  Before I became a Pentecostal and then a Disciple, I was as deeply involved in the Episcopal Church as a young teen could be.  I was an acolyte at the age of eight, a lay reader by age fifteen, and to top things off – I sang in the choir. I was baptized as an infant and confirmed by the bishop when I was twelve.  So, the fact that the author of this book is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church spoke to the closet Episcopalian in me.  I wanted to hear how the first female Primate in the Anglican Communion would define mission.   And the title of the book led to an expectation that the Eucharist would define the nature of mission.

In her introduction Bishop Jefferts Schori states that her goal in writing the book is to “explore the once and future mission of the Jesus people,” using the Anglican tradition as the context for this exploration (p. xiii).  What does it mean to proclaim the gospel?   In the very beginning of her exploration of the idea, she makes it clear that mission is more than going to Africa or Asia and baptizing non-Christians.  She recognizes the need for making disciples, but is clearly uncomfortable with what she deems proselytism.  In this she shares a common sense of understanding with many if not most mainline Protestants.  Recognizing the Matthew 28 is commonly used to define mission, she suggests that our understanding can be broadened if we see this calling to make disciples in light of Matthew 25 – the judgment scene, where Jesus reminds us to serve him by serving the least of his brothers and sisters.  Thus, “mission also means caring for the vulnerable” (p. xv).  That is, “mission is primarily about how Christians are meant to live their lives, and what actions are asked of them in relation to their neighbor” (p. xvi). 

The book is organized around “Five Marks of Mission” that were developed by the Anglican Communion around a quarter century ago.   Thus, the church is to:  1) “proclaim the good news of the kingdom”; 2) “teach, baptize, and nurture new believers”; 3) “respond to human need with loving service”; 4)“seek to transform unjust structures of society”; 5) “strive to safeguard the integrity of creation.”   Under each of these five marks, Jefferts Schori offers a series of reflections that lift up that particular mark.  At the end of each of these brief, often sermonic, chapters, she places a question that is defined by the title:  “Making Your Mark.”

Although the first two marks focus on preaching and disciple making, it is quickly apparent that Jefferts Schori sees mission in terms of serving others, of doing justice for others.  It’s not charity that we are enjoined to embrace, but rather a robust commitment to social justice, both at home and abroad.  She brings stories into the conversation from the Anglican Communion, often places she’s visited – from small churches in America to partner churches in Africa.  The non-Anglican is invited along for the ride, but Jefferts Schori is speaking primarily to Episcopalians, bidding them to join her in transforming the world, so that it is a just and peaceful world. 

As an invitation to a mission defined by social justice, Jefferts Schori’s book will be a boon to our conversation.  She reminds us that the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation is full of examples and exhortations to love our neighbors, even as we love God.  It is an invitation to embody God’s realm in the world – with words if necessary, but surely with deeds.

This is a good book, one worth reading, even if you aren’t Episcopalian.  It’s thoughtful, at times provocative and prophetic at others, and it explores the biblical call to serving and loving one’s neighbor with thoroughness.   Having said this, I must confess some sense of disappointment with the book.  The fault may be mine, not the bishop’s, but it still haunts the way he received the book.   I was blessed by much that I read, agree with most of what Bishop Jefferts Schori wrote, but I always sensed that something was missing.

What I sensed as missing from the book stems from how I read the title of the book.  That may not be fair to the author, but it’s the title that grabs me, not the fact that the author is the titular head of the Episcopal Church in the United States.  I was hoping that the book’s subtitle would give definition to the direction the book would take.  What is “The Meaning of Mission in the Feast of Faith”?   I was hoping that she would draw out the missional implications of the Eucharist.  Now, she does talk about the sacraments, but she really doesn’t use the Eucharist to frame her understanding of mission.   The Episcopal Church has a rich theology of the Eucharist, especially the more high church and catholic centered portions of the church that celebrate weekly communion.   It is a reminder that the Christian faith is truly an embodied one – we share in the body and blood of Christ, experiencing his continuing presence in the sacrament.  Of course, the sacramental understandings of the Episcopal Church can prove as divisive as they can be unitive.  The need for episcopally ordained clergy to consecrate the Eucharist is a stumbling block to the table being a truly ecumenical place for mission to begin.  Jefferts Schori seems to recognize this problem in discussing the difficulty in reconciling ministries with AME, AME Zion, and CME churches (all black Methodist Episcopal Churches).  She writes that after years of discussion, the representatives of the Episcopal Church discerned a “clear sense” that “we think our historic episcopate is better or fuller than theirs, and that coming together in full communion would require some recognition that theirs was deficient.  Any liturgical celebration of that full communion would require that the Episcopal bishops lay hands on the Methodist Episcopal bishops to convey the fullness of the historic episcopate.  I think it’s fair to say that that was perceived as racism dressed up as theology” (pp. 170-171).

So here’s the question that emerges from my reading Bishop Jefferts Schori’s well-written and thoughtful book:  How does the church’s table fellowship define our understanding of mission?  If the way we envision the Lord’s Table or the Eucharist excludes rather than includes, because some members of the body of Christ consider the sacraments of other members of the body to be deficient, then how can we truly reach out to the world in a way that is just and that brings healing and wholeness?  If our Table fellowship is broken, as we gather at that Table that God sets before us, how do we find meaning for our mission?  




3 comments:

Jeff said...

I have never been a fan of the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. I do believe in Christ's radical hospitality and the priesthood of believers as the sanctifying channels through which the Spirit consecrates the Eucharistic meal (You alluded to the Eastern Orthodox churches in your sermon on Sunday, I believe [although some Eastern Rite Catholic churches also have the part with the Spirit consecrating -I don't know about the Oriental Orthodox though]). I am somewhat agnostic on the effect -or, in what manner is Christ present in the elements, but I find myself moving away from Zwingli and towards the Lutheran consubstantiation as time goes by.

George said...

The table I sit at with Jesus serving has a Samaritan, tax collector and a wide array of sinners,. Thanks for asking the question. A lot changd after Ceasar founded Christiandom. I do admire the position of a closed table as it holds out for truth, holiness and authority. I had ministers in my doctoral group that gave passionate beauty to the position. Both can be done with great love. Let's keep talking and inviting!

keithwatkinshistorian said...

It is disappointing to read your comment that the book, despite its title, fails to use the Eucharist as the shaping element in the discussion of Christian mission. Your review reminds me of themes in my current studies in the history of COCU. This venture was convinced that the church exists for mission. My preliminary conclusion is that the failure of COCU came about, in part, because this thesis comes close to being false despite all that the World Council of Churches has said. COCU also failed because the churches could not agree on the character of the office of bishop. Episcopalians and Methodists (both white and black) held views that were close to being contradictory, and neither side would budge. There were race-based issues for COCU, but the debates about bishops were motivated even more by matters of power.