By The Rt Revd Simon Chiwanga
The task of renewing our vision for mission leads us to focussing of the cross of Jesus Christ. On the cross Jesus grappled with the issues confronting all human beings, and the societies. It remains relevant today all over the world. When we engage ourselves fully in mission led by the Spirit, we become committed with Christ to grappling with the task of redeeming humanity. We become people profoundly grasped by a divinely sharpened yet wounded love that is fully in the world but never of it.
What is the fire that ignites us to share the good news of our faith with others? What is it that propels us to do that? Is it a search for wholeness? Yes, but it is experienced in the fullest, most complete sense through a communal rediscovery of an original wholeness that we have lost. This wholeness is seen supremely in victorious figure of Christ. And as we participate in his death and resurrection we are enabled to gain this wholeness. In this we share together with those who have gone before us, the experience of suffering and persecution and identification with Christ.
This quest drives us to seek to continually renew our vision for mission. To make sure our passion for mission is not driven simply by human motives. This quest can be the fire that drives us to participate in the mission of God in God’s world, which is, as you know, reconciliation and restoration of all people and the world to himself.
The early church started with a clear vision and the fire burning when they met the risen Christ. But as it grew and became established it lost the central vision. As the late David Bosch the eminent South African missiologist has observed, its white-hot convictions poured into the hands of the first generation of Christians, cooled down and became crystallised. It became glorified institutions and was petrified dogmas. The prophet became a priest of the establishment. Charisma became office and love became routine. The horizon was no longer the world but the boundaries of their local church, or local parish. The impetuous missionary torrent of earlier years was pained into a steel-flowing rivulet and eventually into a stationary pond.
Bosch rightly reminds us, however, that ‘institution’ and ‘movement’ need not be mutually be exclusive categories. Neither for that matter should ‘church’ and ‘mission’. Something the spark that ignites the fire and rekindles that driving force is still there. It can be grasped as we engage in those cherished instruments and vehicles of renewing our vision.
Biblical and theological reflection, worship and prayer: all these are dynamic interactive means to explore, renew and test our vision for mission. They are a means by which we may express our participation in the mission of God. Our doing God’s mission is our response to the practice of these activities.
Any reading and study of the Bible will challenge us on how we live our faith. Every aspect of our lives can be understood theologically: we believe we are part of a greater pattern of existence. On biblical reflection, the words of Scripture are both set in an historical time and culture, and are also communicators of eternal truth. When we refer to the Scriptures we meet our maker-God who is working with a missionary purpose, working in us and in the world.
Our own development and understanding tells us that these truths may have a different impact at different times for different people. So the eternal enters or affirms our experiences if we are live to the possibility of this type of revelation. Do not be surprised or insensitive when this happens.
The experience of eternal God’s incarnation into our time-bound existence as revealed in the Bible prompts us, encourages us, affirms us and challenges us to take our developing faith back into the world we live in. At the same time it will encourage us to bring our experiences into our Bible study so that we grow in understanding of God’s will for us as revealed in the Bible. It is, in other words, a continuous and circular process.
If, then, the Bible is our vision, what do we do with our differences in interpretation? Do we celebrate differences and interpretation or do we lament and call each other’s heretics? One of the things that came out of the 1998 Lambeth Conference was a feeling that more work was needed on the matter of biblical interpretation. There were people who thought that our problem, especially of the African Bishops, was ignorance or lack of knowledge of Biblical interpretation.
I remember a professor saying to me this, as I walked out of the corridors of Lambeth after the debate on Resolution 1.10 on human sexuality, that part of the struggle was to find a correct interpretation, but according to who’s hermeneutics? Will it be according to Cambridge or the Church of England or according to the African context?
So there is great need for us to be confronted by the text of the Bible, and be faithful to the reading, especially the text in our context, without necessarily emulating what others have discovered to be the reading of the Bible in their own context.
What tradition, therefore, regarding the reading of the word of God should we be handing-over? As we pass on that tradition generation to generation we will know transformation will also be an on-going experience of the church. I believe the Collect for the second Sunday in Advent sums up beautifully what we should be handing-over from generation to generation:
“Blessed Lord, who called all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning, help us to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that through patience and the comfort of Your Holy Word we may embrace and forever hold fast the hope of everlasting life which You have given us in our Saviour, Jesus Christ.” We say, Amen.
Let me share something that I have wrestled with in my diocese for the last twelve years. My cross has been this: how do I help congregations and individual Christians to continue with the tradition of hearing, reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting Scriptures? I know this can be achieved partly through Biblical study that is done corporately, with the leader up the front, who perhaps is the only one holding the Bible in his hand while others are listeners. Or it can partly be achieved through sitting in church and hearing read from the church bulleting in the pews the passages set for the particular day: the Old Testament passage, the Epistle of the day, or the set Gospel. After the service some leave the bulletin on the pews.
Yes, we can achieve it through preaching, through Bible study practice, we can grasp something of what this particular passage says. But is that enough? Will that do? And especially if you have preachers like me in Tanzania who can lift one text, one passage of Scripture, and then run away with it, moralising a whole range of lifestyles, without looking at it in its context.
Will that be enough to help me properly digest this Holy Book and make it mine? I believe the best tradition is the hand-over of Scriptures to every believer, making the Bible, like common prayer, a common Bible. Every believer should possess this authority and be helped to read, learn, mark and inwardly digest it so that it can help them grow and also judge their leaders and interpreters.
As recently as 1962, in my own diocese when I was confirmed, to be presented to the Bishop for confirmation you needed to own a Bible, a prayer book and a hymnbook. I’ve tried hard to insist on this in my twelve years or so as a bishop, but without much success. I’m asking this conference to weigh this seriously. Am I wrong? Am I pushing something that is outdated? Should I be spending my energies on more productively than what I am doing now – as I do pushing people to buy their own Bibles, their own prayer books which is a commentary to the Bible?
Mission Organisations Conference
Cyprus February 2003