Missional theology is a notoriously slippery thing to get a handle on. If you are looking to understand what being a missional church is about, try this on for size. A missional church makes itself known in the way it handles and distributes power. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan.
In Luke 10: 25-37 a Lawyer is trying to make himself look good to Jesus and asks a question. It’s a good question. There’s no faulting him for that: “Who is my neighbour?” (v. 29) What he meant by it was, “I know, Jesus, that I need to be merciful and kind to others, but who exactly am I obligated to be kind to? By what criteria do I judge them eligible for assistance?”
The Lawyer, and most of the listeners, would have understood the command to “love your neighbour as yourself.” They would have taken that to mean, “love the people in the community. ” People like you and like me. Maybe even Gentiles we know, but definitely people with similar values, people who vote the same, dress alike, that sort of thing.
Most of us know the story Jesus tells in response to the question. A Jewish man is attacked by robbers and left for dead. A fellow Jew who is a minister and another person who works at the church left him there to rot, but a most unlikely hero steps up and saves the man: a Samaritan.
Samaritans were despised by Jews and would be the last person a Jew would expect to help them out. After the story Jesus asks, “Who was a neighbour to the man?” and the Lawyer replies, “the one who showed pity.” He couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan!” Jesus then says, go and do likewise … but wait a minute. Go and do what? Before you rush to the conclusion, think for a second about what prompted the story.
The story was supposed to answer the question “Who is my neighbour?” The answer? Everyone! You are obligated to to treat everyone the way you would like to be treated (See Matt 7:12 for another frame to the same teaching). Who is eligible for this kind of assistance? Everyone. This story is not primarily about helping others. Does Jesus teach that we should help others? Yes (Matt 25:31-46). But think for a second, who in this story would the listeners identify with? Who do you picture yourself as in this story?
Most of us have a form of spiritual dyslexia. We take a teaching and completely reverse it in order to be a little more palatable. When I hear this story I picture myself as the Samaritan. For me the meaning is “go and do likewise.” Go and serve people who are different than you. That’s all well and good but that is not what the listeners of this story were getting.
Who would they identify with? They would certainly see themselves as the beaten man. No self respecting Jew could see himself as a Samaritan. The Jewish listening audience heard a very different story than I hear. They heard Jesus saying, “receive the hospitality of the stranger.” That was outrageous! To help a Samaritan was inconceivable, but to receive the help of one! That was even worse. Before you and I get too judgmental, we must recognize that we are just the same.
Being a servant, especially serving those who are different than us is hard, but maybe the reason we have difficulty serving someone different is because we have even more trouble imagining ourselves as being in a position of weakness. What if we were the broken, and beaten one?
This is one of the neglected messages of Luke 10. We are being called to practice something harder than being a Good Samaritan. Jesus is calling us to understand ourselves, individually and as a church community, as being rescued by strangers and foreigners, rescued by the wrong kind of people. We need to see ourselves as beaten, hungry, hurting, and lost at the side of the road. Jesus is asking us to receive love from people who we don’t know and have no reason to trust.
That is the call of the missional church. You can’t really serve someone until you can receive help from them too. When we come as the ones with power. The ones with it all together. We are benevolent imperialists; the “more fortunate” ones who are giving a hand-out to those “less fortunate.” You can’t give people a hand up until you stand with them and you receive as well as give.
The missional church doesn’t look for safe convenient ways to deliver our benevolence on the poor. The missional church keeps it’s eyes open to the work of the Holy Spirit and seeks to stand in solidarity with the poor; to give as well as receive.
The missional church doesn’t seek ways to maintain control. It looks for ways to give control up. I’ve got lots to say about that, but it can wait for another day.