Galilean Neighbor On My Mind
Defining missions without some concrete neighbor in mind helps no one. All mission talk should claim some neighbor. The Ablaze!® movement often spoke of the “unreached” and the “uncommitted.” The most common biblical designation, of popular use among preachers and laity, is the “lost.” But who exactly are the “lost”? Christ goes after sinners who repent. Period. Those are the lost. There is, in a sense, no distinction here between “unbelievers” and “believers.” For sinners come both from within the house of Israel and from without. So I guess the more contemporary terms “uncommitted” and “unreached” might cover the bases.
Besides saying that everyone is a sinner in need of repentance, which is of course true, a more recent, creative, and biblical attempt at defining more clearly who the “lost” neighbor might be in our North American context is CNH District President Robert Newton’s churched-unchurched paradigm for missions. He reminds us that we no longer live in Jerusalem, or in a churched society that assumes Christian values like in the good old days–if there was ever such a golden era. Instead, we live in Babylon, or in an unchurched society that assumes no Christian values and is often hostile to the Gospel. So goes the argument.
There is some truth to the Jerusalem-Babylon paradigm. Under this paradigm, it is not uncommon for Lutherans to think of Jerusalem as the church, the ones “found,” the insiders, as it were. Babylonians are typically thought as the unchurched, the ones “lost,” the outsiders. Babylon (or we might say, Rome) in our day and age is often thought of as atheist, agnostic, secularist, relativist, or some other label that could describe in broad strokes who the lost are supposed to be in a North American context.
Yet this paradigm has its limits. It sees Jerusalem or the churched in rather romantic terms. Here one is reminded, as was said before, that the “lost” in Scripture includes those of the house of Israel, the insiders in dire need of repentance. Jerusalem often has to be called to repentance. Hmmmm.
Now, insofar as Babylon or Rome is hostile to the church, one is indeed reminded of John’s depiction of the “world,” the sphere of Satan’s activity, the prince of this world. But here the world also includes the unfaithful leaders of the house of Israel. Once again, insiders! Hmmmm
On the Babylonian side, the paradigm can help us to some degree to identify who the lost neighbor might be in a North American or even North Atlantic context. There is indeed much hostility to the Christian faith in the U.S. coming from some of those groups already mentioned.
But we must also be aware that some neighbors or sets of neighbors always end up falling through the cracks of our mission paradigms. And so the neighbor brings into question our use of familiar categories. For Scripture also speaks of people who do not seem to easily fit into our categories.
These are the neighbors on the margins, as it were. Mexican American theologian Virgilio Elizondo has spoken eloquently of such borderlands people as the Galilean neighbor. As one who comes from the U.S.-Mexico border, Elizondo reflects on what it means to be neither here nor there and in two places at once. Mexican Americans, for instance, are neither American enough for the North Americans nor Mexican enough for the Mexicans. Both at the same time, and neither one. A marginalized group. Not Catholic enough for the Mexicans, not Protestant enough for the North Americans. Not mestizo enough for the Mexicans, not White enough for the North Americans. Not Spanish-speaking enough for the Mexicans, not English-speaking enough for the North Americans. Not good enough for either side, a mixed breed of sorts.
The experience of Mexican-Americans is, in a sense, the experience of Jesus, the man from Galilee, a border town where nothing good comes from, a place that is neither here nor there, neither pagan like Rome (Babylon) nor as pure in religious terms as Jerusalem Jews would like. The Messiah cannot come from such a messed up place! In both places at the same time, but accepted in neither. Jesus came to save sinners in both places, and yet both Rome and Jerusalem killed him.
Mission clue no. 1: Borderlands people, those on the margins, are seen with a fair amount of suspicion by Jerusalem and Rome. Are they like us or not? Are they “in” or “out”?
Mission clue no. 2: Galileans also see both Jerusalem and Rome, churched and unchurched societies, with great suspicion. Unchurched society may want Galileans for their cheap labor. Churched society may not let them use the kitchen or might even suggest to them that they should be like them a little more and speak like them to be considered full members of the body of Christ.
Analogies only take us so far. But I wonder: Should we speak of missions not only in Jerusalem and Babylon, but also in Galilee? That move would help us see sets of neighbors currently unaccounted for in our mission paradigms. Galileans are, broadly speaking, people in the margins. There are many of them. They live both in Jerusalem and in Babylon, in churched and unchurched societies, and in the places in between. They are borderlands people not exclusively in economic terms (say, the poor), but often in social and ecclesial terms too. The neighbor is flexible enough to warn against stiff categories.
I think, for instance, of the odd, neither here nor there, strangers in the borderlands that Philip reached out to in Acts. As a deacon, he serves poor Greek-speaking Jewish widows who were being marginalized in the Jerusalem church by the Hebrew-speaking ones. We have those today too. The poor with the weird accents and customs. Are they “in”?
As an evangelist, Philip brings Jesus to the Samaritans, though from a Jerusalem perspective these odd fellows are not pure enough to be insiders. God even has to wait for Peter and John to confirm that the Samaritans were “in” by withholding from these Samaritans the gift of the Spirit. And this after they had already believed in Jesus and were baptized! An odd thing to do, but a necessary one for the sake of the Gospel. Not for the Samaritans for sure, but to teach Jerusalem that the Gospel is also for people in fuzzy religious categories. We have Samaritans around too. The mixed breed people. And those for whom the problem is not secularism, but perhaps too much religion. Are they “in”?
And then we have the Ethiopian eunuch. Is he churched or unchurched? Yes! A God-fearer Gentile. He is “in.” But also a eunuch, unable to enter the temple. He is “out.” Neither here nor there. Churched-unchurched categories appear to be insufficient. A man on the margins. We have people like that today too.
But Philip does not ask questions about who belongs and who does not. He simply proclaims Jesus to the Ethiopian in catechesis and then baptizes him in the name of Jesus. Done!
Missions in Galilee is missions among people in fuzzy categories. They include marginalized people like the “poor,” the “religious,” and the “uncommitted” both in or around Jerusalem and Babylon, or in between both.
Rejected by Jerusalem and Babylon, Jesus, a Galilean, on the cross, stretches his hands beyond our mission categories to neighbors everywhere, bringing odd, marginalized characters into his Father’s kingdom.
Galilean neighbor on my mind.
Perhaps our church needs to stop thinking of herself romantically as some pure Jerusalem. So called insiders are sinners in need of repentance too. Check.
Babylon will always be there, of course. Let the hostile atheist, agnostic, secularist, and relativist of the North Atlantic get at least some of the church’s attention.
But do not forget the Galileans in our midst. Or the Greek-speaking Jewish widows, Samaritans, and Ethiopian eunuchs of our day. Like Philip, the church is called to go out of her comfort zones and centers of power towards the loveless and forgotten margins, without deciding in advance who belongs and who does not.
Where is the Synod’s satellite office–or dare we say, central office–for mission and mercy affairs in forgotten rural areas where churches seem to be dying, urban areas with a mixed bag of poor and religious people, or the marginalized U.S.-Mexico border Elizondo speaks about in both geographic and social terms? Hmmmm
Perhaps that is, at least partly, what it means to be a confessional and missionary Lutheran church, namely, a daily dying to self in order to make room for neighbor, especially those at the margins of Jerusalem and Babylon. Jesus died for those who crucified him, for Jerusalem and Babylon, and everyone else in between. We follow in the footsteps of the Galilean and his Galilean disciples.
A church that dies to self in order to make room for those Galilean neighbors on the margins will draw criticism from both Jerusalem and Babylon. She will either be criticized for not being “confessional” enough or for not being “missional” enough. She will share in the sufferings of the Galileans of today and in doing so will also share in her Lord’s sufferings.