[Former Director of ECC, Whitefield]

Can these bones live?
In a recent publication under the title “Whither Ecumenism in India?” [An interpretive report of a Consultation on the decline and fall of Ecumenical Organizations in India organized by Dr. Mathai Zechariah], the editor Usha Jesudasan raises a few “Deep Concerns” on the being of the Church-related institutions in India Today magazene. To quote, “Over the past fifty years, the moral decline of the churches and several ecumenical organizations have been of great concern to many ordinary Christians. We began to hear of violence among members of the congregations during Church elections, missing money (particularly tsunami money), lazy, ineffective Church leaders and Church committees. As we heard of cases of corruption, nepotism, bad leadership, violence, a complete disregard to democratic values and terrible moral choices made by those in charge, many of us asked, “What is happening in our Churches and Christian organizations?”……It seemed as if the Church in India was doomed.

"The Church we know, is both holy and sinful, and it seemed as if sinful part had taken over the holy one.” (p.3). What does it mean? Ezekiel, the priest-prophet asks us from the valley of Dry Bones, “Can these bones live?” Yes! “In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” (George Orwell). The voice crying in the wilderness reverberates in time and space, and the word that goes out for the divine cause will never return empty but shall accomplish its purpose and succeed in the thing for which it was sent’ (Isaiah 55: 11)

The credibility of the Church has become very low because it has lost its “being” and thereby it projects a blurred image of mission in the world. The centrifugal and the centripetal character of mission have lost its dynamism. The faithful are called “to celebrate the festival of life, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1Cor.5.8). The Church of today does not seem to stand around the Manger and the Cross. For her, the Manger is a place of rags and the Cross is a symbol of powerlessness. This is the context of mission today.

We need to remind ourselves again and again what St.Paul wrote to us in Romans 12.1-2, “Dare to be different”. ‘Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of mind so as to prove what is the will of God.’ The, particle, “oun” is significant, as it makes a link between Theology and Ethics”. The Pauline indicatives such as “you are the aroma of Christ” (2 Cor.3.3), “you are a letter of Christ.” (2 Cor. 2.15), and the identity of the disciples in the Sermon on the Mount as “salt” and “light” (Matt.5.13; 14) speak of the “being” of the Church and it makes the Church conscious of its identity rooted in the values of the Kingdom of God. The opening sentence of the book, Turn Around-Called to Witness together amidst Asian Plurality (CCA, 1994) is worth recalling: “Turn around, turn around all our thought, all our mind to the will and the way of Christ Jesus who has come grasping no glory, craving no crown, pawn in no market, a voice for the poor, throwing our values all upside down” (Taken from the Seoul Conference theme song, ‘Mind-set of Christ’)

To live in conformity to the world simply means our unwillingness to face and grasp the realities of suffering and conflict and our inability to respond to them in faith and hope. God calls the Church in each generation to interpret the message of the Kingdom with challenging relevance. Thus the Gospel, peace on earth, under the power of the Holy Sprit must become good news to its hearers in each group and in each place. The gospel- ethics of the Church ought to be the ethics of the Kingdom of God .It always stands for a counter culture, which takes seriously into account conflictive situations (cf. The message of the Magnificat). The uncritical acceptance of the immediate speaks of moving with the currents of the times. The so called “prosperity theology”, “insurance theology” (Samuel Amirtham) and “crusading mission” have eroded the overall perspective of mission in God’s economy of Salvation.

The words of Arch Bishop William Temple are worth quoting: “If you have a false idea of God, the more religious you are; the worse it is for you: it is better for you to be an atheist”. An ‘unbiblical theology’ - a theology unrelated to the world (John. 3:16) can do a lot of harm to the life and mission of the Church. It should be the message of the Church that God’s promise will be with us in and through all the joys and sorrows of life. (Rom.8.38-39). As Raymond Fung wrote, we should make an effort to say boldly that ‘Gospel is not for sale; not because it is not worth anything, but because it is too precious that it cannot be bought or sold’. It can only be shared freely. It is the kenosis of the Church and of its ministers brings about transformation in the community as Jesus said in John.12: 24. In order to restore its credibility, she should bear in mind that “its spirituality rests with the outbreak of truth” (Swami Agnivesh). What St. Paul wrote in 2 Cor.13:8, ”For we can not do anything against the truth, but only for the truth”, ought to be the basic logo of Christian mission and ministry.

Transcending boundaries:
“How is the Christian identity and being the Church related to each other? What are the essential elements of an Indian ecclesiology taking into account the injustices of caste system and economic disparity?” This is indeed a heart-searching question as it speaks of the crisis of values in personal and societal life. The great temptation of the Church today is to adore package rather than product, imported rather than indigenous, more rather than less, ruling rather than serving, getting rather than giving. In our evaluation of Christian ministry, erosion of Christian values is quite visible in public life. The divine call is “to bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). In the new humanity of Christ, there is a call to transcend the borders of ‘the walls of separation’. This happens through a genuine search for the parameters of mission in Christ’s way. The New humanity in Christ is God’s gift to the world. It is not the gift of the Church or of a charismatic leader to the world. As Mar Chrystostom puts it, the biggest heresy of the Syrian Church is that they have possessed Christ as if their own private property and they have even monopolized God!

The 21st century is an era of convergence and comprehension. The period of consolidation is over. The time has come for people to speak more of renewal and reconciliation at the grass roots level and to seek for all the available spiritual resources for unity and social harmony. The need of the hour warrants us to say together in a spirit of manava mythri (love and brotherhood for humanity). The attempt to pool all the God-given resources for the establishment of Peace on Earth is a bold inititative towards the realization of God’s Eternal plan in Chris-to sum up all things in Christ. The theme of the 9th Assembly of the WCC, “God in your Grace, transform the world”is indeed an interfaith prayer urging people of all nations to live in humility, sincerity and concern. There are bold initiatives for building up bridges of peace and reconciliation as the manifestation of the Kingdom in our midst. The protagonists of Church Growth quote St. Matthew 28:19 to prove their thesis.

In his S.J. Samartha memorial lecture, Justice K.T. Thomas said, “The Christians appear to believe that they can afford to ignore or disobey the rest of the teachings and commandments of Jesus Christ relating to social justice, but they implicitly follow the mandate of conversion because it would result in the strength of the Christian population.” I believe that the manadate is about a divine commission to the Church to speak and practise the meaning of discipleship as agents of change and channels of grace. The oft quoted text, … “to make all nations my disciples” could also be interpreted in the light of the Greek text, matheusate, exhorting all the nations to accept the discipleship of Jesus “Following Jesus” is the gospel mandate.

If we think of the mission of the Church in terms of the transformation of the world, the message of the Kingdom comes alive. In an article entitled, “Values for Ecumenism in Asia” (Living in Oikoumene, CCA, 2003, Pages 78-86)), Fr. K.M. George raises an important issue. To quote, “In the Gospels there are already more than one models. The model of Christ’s sending the disciples two by two to towns and villages and instructing them to reply on the hospitality of the people for the peaceful announcing of the gospel are completely ignored by the Western Churches. They took up the other model of ‘going out to all nations and baptizing people’ as the only model, because it suited very well the western quest since the Crusades….”. He writes again, “We have already in Asia the old celebrated peaceful missionary model of Buddhism which spread mainly through the power of compassion (karuna) and dispossession, not of armed might, conquest and expansion.” I agree with Fr. George when he asks us to review the western notion of mission by seeking Christian methods of hospitality, compassion and dispossession coupled with constant search for justice, equality, freedom and human dignity and ecological harmony.

In the New humanity of Christ, there is no religious, cultural or gender divides. M.M. Thomas writes, “The nature of koinonia in Christ is that it transcends all human communities defined by nature, culture and even ideology and religion. One has to remember the truth of the Kingdom preached by Jesus that it was not addressed to any religion, but to human beings. The boundary of the Gospel is not between religions, but between love and hate, justice and injustice, truth and falsehood. When we address God as Father in the Lord’s Prayer, we affirm with one voice that He is the Father of all. If Jesus Christ is the New Adam, all people on earth have a place in God’s salvific plan and act of grace. Christian mission and ministry should always be geared to the manifestation of the Kingdom of God in human affairs.

The Kingdom in our midst:
The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom without frontiers, where diversities are reconciled, where identities are preserved, where justice and peace kiss each other, where faith, hope and love make way to the entry of the Eternal into the ordinary, where the splendour of the nations of the world is treasured with jubilation. The Kingdom in our midst is without violence, where people live without manipulation, domination and even exploitation. It is without discrimination, without cultural or lingustic fanticisim, where Pentecostal values give way to Babel values,. The Kingdom in our midst is without any hoarding of earthly goods for selfish ends, without the suppression or oppression of human rights, without any feeling of raping the Mother Earth, without blocking the falling of the dews from Hermon on Zion, and without losing the appetite for righteousness in relationships. To settle for anything less in the mission and the ministry of the Church is an eclipse of the Kingdom on earth. To strive for them through programmes and projects is the celebration of God’s Kingdom in mission and ministry.

New mission paradigms:
A theological understanding of the people of God in the midst of other peoples of God help us to seek draw lessons for weaving communities of hope in the world. Mission in Christ’s way ought to be the standard for the believing community. In an age of pluralism, the imperative is to search for the buckle that binds and to affirm that plurality is integral to reality. There is now a wide recognition of the mystery of Truth in the revelations of God. How we celebrate diversity in the order of Creation? The chord that connects the one and the many is indeed an expression of the Trinity - the Three in one and One in Three. It is a call to celebrate love in relationship. There are quite a few examples around us to affirm the glory of plurality in our midst. The sea that surrounds the earth is the abode of diverse life. But the taste of the seawater is the same. The rainbow is made of seven colours, but they reflect only one colour. The musical notes of an orchestra are different, but its beauty comes out of its plurality. As Sri Ramakrishna Parama Hamsa said, “The sun light is one, and the same wherever it falls, but only bright surfaces like water, morrors and polished metals can reflect it. So is the divine light. It falls equally and impartially on all hearts, but only the pure and clean hearts of the good and holy can reflect."

Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” In the mission of the Church today, the glory of love is to be translated INTO HISTORICAL HAPPENINGS. The Ministry of the Church should be geared to the affirmation of the core of the gospel, which is love. St. Paul asks us “to put on love which binds everything”. Church as a reconciling community, has a significant role to play as makers of peace. Living in a global village, we interact with each other. In ‘pedagogy of encounter’ our identities are meant to assume larger identities. In a dialogical existence (not co-existence) we need to uphold mutual appreciation. The message of St.Paul in Rom.15:7 requires the Churches I to remain in frankness and openness. “Accept and welcome one another as God has accepted us in Christ”. In 1 Peter 3:15-16, St. Peter asks the Christians to give an account of their hope in gentleness and reverance (other renderings, gentleness and respect, courtesy and respect) Peace-building, peace making and peace keeping are the noble tasks of Christian ministry. For this one has” to pursue the things that make for peace” as St.Paul writes in Rom.14: 19.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are God’s agenda of mission as God is primarily concerned with the healing of human brokenness and the scandal of disunity in the body of Christ. In wider ecumenism, the concerns of the Churches, fellowship of faiths, the renewal of humankind and a caring attitude to nature are all addressed. In order to overcome the barriers of religious and caste divide, we need to manifest the power of love. Swami Agnivesh, while delivering the 14th M.A.Thomas Memorial Lecture at ECC, Bangalore (2007), said that the very religious faith to which we belong could create stumbling blocks in our vision and mission. To quote, “As a religious tradition gets increasingly institutionalized, the priestly begins to dominate and eventually outlaw the prophetic elements in the outlook and culture. The priest, especially when he rejects the prophetic breadth of vision, tends to be a fierce proponent and custodian of the interest of the religious establishment with which his own class interest are deemed identical.”

Focusing on the ministry of transformation:
The prophetic message of Micah (6:8) should be regarded as the focus of mission in the contemporary society. This is probably the best commentary on the Nazareth sermon of Jesus in Luke 4:18-19 and the vision of New humanity in the Magnificat. The poor are denied of participation in the decision making process in the community. Violence against the poor takes different forms. Violence against nature is also violence against the poor. The marginalized groups of the community are integrally related to the earth: - the Dalits to the land, the tribals to the forests, the fisher folks to the sea and the indigenous people to the land. The Market paradigms are hostile to the poor and the weak. How can the Church be “eyes to the blind and legs to the lame?” Our diaconal task is on three levels:

  1. Charitable diakonia
  2. Social diakonia
  3. Revolutionary diakonia
Several people all over the world represent all these Models. The Church, being a community of charity and grace, has to serve the people at their bleeding points. The imagery of the good shepherd in Jn.10 is relevant in contexts of violence and marginalization. The gospel imperative today as we read in Mark16:.15-18 demands us to take on “not only the tasks of the towel and the basin, but also the toils of the revolutionary” (Mathai Zechariah).

The task before us could be stated as:

  1. Death dealing forces have to be identified, named and exorcised.
  2. The barriers of communication have to be broken by humanizing strategies.
  3. All the negative forces representing the culture of violence have to be defeated by the standards of Christ.
  4. The spirit of wholeness has to be brought into the areas of human brokenness.
The Church being the prophetic sign of the Kingdom in history has the responsibility to prepare its members for fulfilling its God-given task. As the Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed, the ministry should have a holistic dimension with three component elements. They are commitment to God, compassion form people and passion for justice. This is beautifully stated in the defence of Job in 29.14-15: “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy and I championed the cause of the stranger. I broke the fangs of the unrighteous, and made them drop their prey from their teeth”. What a great liberative style!

The Eco-vision of the Earth community:
In recent times, the mission and the ministry of the Church has assumed an ecological dimension. Ecology has become a matter of faith. The call to live with ecological sensitivity is a divine mandate. In order to affirm life for all, we need to take seriously into account the meaning of inter-relatedness. As an ecological future is integrally related to the destiny of all, an attitude of humility and gratitude in our understanding of creation makes better sense in our search for social amity. The Church has to pioneer an ecological mission paradigm in its ministry towards the unity and renewal of humankind. In this respect, defending the earth is not a project, but a way of life. The recent communiqué of the Vatican without negating the “the seven deadly sins” drawn up by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th Century (sloth, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, warth and pride), the place of ecological sins has been given importance in Christian ethics as it speaks of “individual and social resonance”. In a holistic eco-vision of the Earth Community, justice, peace and integrity of creation are integrally related.. “We shall not be able to achieve social justice without justice for natural environment; we shall not be able to achieve justice for nature without social justice.” (Jurgan Moltmann)

Paper presented at the Seminar organized by the Ecumenical Christian Academy on May 20-21, 2008 at Bethel Ashram, Tiruvalla

[Rev. Dr. M. J. Joseph is the ex-director of ECC, Bangalore and former Principal of Marthoma Theological College, Kottayam. Achen puts tremendous efforts for the propagation of Eco-Meditation and Eco-Spirituality as the Convener of the Environmental Commission of Marthoma Church.]
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