The poly-centric christ: tracing a line between vision and values

The poly-centric christ: tracing a line between vision and values

A perspective on Manningham Uniting Churches Vision and Values:

The Vision of Manningham UC is:

Inspired by God
and seeking to emulate the life of Jesus
we will identify and reflect God’s love
by creating, participating in and walking with communities locally, nationally and globally.

And the core values are:

Christ-centred, Relational, Risk Taking and Hospitable

MUC’s Vision commits us to, “identify and reflect God’s love … locally, nationally, and globally.” Implicit in this vision is the idea that God’s love and action in the world is dispersed throughout various communities both nearby and at a distance. In seeking to identify God’s love we are not necessarily committed to the Church being the primary means through which God is active in the world. Our participation in communities formed by God’s love in the wider world is what we call ‘mission.’ At the same time, one of the values of MUC is that we are, ‘Christ centred.’ The easy assumptions about the Church as Christ’s body suggest that this value implies that our focus should be on holding onto the core of who we are as Christians: Christ at the centre of the Church. Here we might notice a slight tension: in order to be “missional” we need to turn our attention outward, to fulfil our vision of identifying and reflecting God’s love in the world; and yet, as a “Christ centred” community we must constantly return inward to focus on our core. In other words, to go out in mission is to depart from our centre, and to focus on our centre is to cease the outward movement of mission. How might we resolve this tension theologically?

The word ‘mission’ enters the Christian theological vocabulary primarily from Trinitarian theology. In Latin missio means ‘sending’ — the Latin translation of the Greek ἀποστελλω (apostellō), from which we get the term ‘apostle’ (literally: ‘one who is sent’). Within Trinitarian theology missio is the technical term for the relationship between the Father and the Son within God’s divine life: the Father sends the Son (so too the Spirit proceeds from the Father). The missio Dei or ‘Mission of God’ then, is not first and foremost a task for human beings, but rather a claim about who God is and what God does. The missio Dei, the sending God, is the one whose very nature is defined by self-sending movement out beyond God’s self. In other words, mission is what we see most clearly in God sending Jesus into the world as part of God’s ongoing project of liberation and love.

Just as God moved beyond eternal self-isolation in the act of creation,
Just as God called Abraham out of his homeland,
Just as God liberated the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt, and
Just as God relentlessly sent prophets to call God’s people out from their idolatry and sin:
So Jesus is sent into the world to embrace all people with God’s love.

The point here is not to quibble about the exact details, or historical veracity of these deep stories. Rather, the point is to recognise that whatever else we might say about the mystery that is God, our tradition teaches us that God reflects this nature of self-sending out into the world. This relentless movement out into the world seeks to make the world one in which liberation and love are visible and tangible: that the world we yearn for is the world we experience.

If we understand mission as first and foremost a claim about God, a claim that finds its centre in the sending of Jesus, then we can begin to overcome the possible tension between MUC’s vision and values. Because the sending of Jesus cannot be separated from the full scope of God’s work in creation. This is the insight of the opening of John’s Gospel, and the opening chapter of the letter to the Colossians:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17)

The point of these passages is not to suggest first and foremost that a first century Rabbi set off the nuclear fusion at the centre of stars. Rather, the point is that we cannot tell the story of Jesus without telling the whole story of how the world is filled with wonder, and love, and joy, and freedom. And we cannot tell the whole story of creation without telling the story of Jesus who meets us in concrete, vulnerable, and embodied ways in order to make tangible the wonder, and love, and joy, and freedom of the world. It is this coalescence of the cosmic and the concrete in Christ which confronts and overturns all the indifference, hatred, sorrow, and oppression of the world. So it is that we remain Christ-centred only when we are caught up in the divine movement of God which carries God’s project of liberation and love deeper into the world in concrete, vulnerable, and embodied ways. (This, incidentally, is what we mark in baptism, as our acknowledgement and commitment to entering into the self-sending divine life of the Trinity, of which Jesus is the true sign.)

Here the tension between mission and Christ-centred-ness melts away. To be Christ-centred must mean to be caught up in the divine movement deeper, and deeper into the world. And to move deeper, and deeper into the world, confronting hatred with love, and oppression with liberation, is to discover the poly-centric Christ already ahead of us in those who are hungry and homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). As we continue on this journey, caught up in God’s divine yearning for the world, we carry with us the stories of our tradition, which recall us to the task of journeying deeper into the world. We carry and tell these stories not with the confidence that with them we have all the answers, but because they point us onward to a fresh discovery of the Christ whose centre is plural and diverse and beyond us.

“… the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.” (Basis of Union, para. 3)

May we seek the poly-centric Christ, who is sent beyond us in mission to the world. Matt