To the Ends of the Earth

By Felicia Howell Laboy, Assistant Professor of Evangelization in the Heisel Chair, United Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Acts 1:8 has had a profound impact on how I consider the nature of the work to which I have been called, first as pastor and now as a professor of evangelization. In times past, I have mostly considered this verse in terms of the mandate to evangelize the world beginning with those closest to me. Of late, however, I’ve been considering what this verse might be saying to me personally and to each of us as God calls us to move beyond familiar territory (i.e., our own “Jerusalems” and “Judeas”) and to go to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Specifically, I’ve been pondering what this means in terms of moving beyond my comfort zone to those that I may, and if I am honest, probably do, hold contempt for (i.e., Samaritans and Gentiles).  More importantly, of late this verse has been challenging me to consider what it means not only to invite, but to live in close fellowship with those not of my “group,” especially those not of my socio-economic class and those whom I have considered enemies together as the Body of Christ.

I think about this even more as I consider all of the divisions in our church and as I consider Wesley’s insistence that the people called Methodist grow in love of God and love of neighbor – especially when the neighbor is radically different than I am. Simply put, I believe that if my growth in holiness is determined not only by my growth in my relationship to the triune God, but also in my love for my neighbor, then the question is not “What must I do?” but rather “How must I do these things?” First and foremost, I think it means that my neighbor is not meant to be a nameless “project” that I work on/fix to get “brownie points” with God or my colleagues. Unfortunately, this is commonly how we act in our dealings with “the poor” and “the marginalized.” Often we engage with the poor in one-way relationships, never taking the time to make real and lasting friendships with them – friendships that may cause us to question and challenge our own values and beliefs.   Furthermore, from a Wesleyan perspective true friendship with the poor and marginalized is not optional. In his extended correspondence with Miss J.C. March, John Wesley is adamant that she will not grow in holiness by only focusing on works of piety. Rather, he contends that she will only experience lower levels of holiness if she does not engage in friendship with the poor that is beyond mere charity. This is most evidently seen when she finally admits that her unwillingness to befriend the poor is because she is a woman of high stature and because she is sure that they are “unrefined and unkempt.” Wesley responds:

I have found some of the uneducated poor who have exquisite taste and sentiment; and many, very many, of the rich who have scarcely any at all. But I do not speak of this: I want you to converse more, abundantly more, with the poorest of the people, who, if they have not taste, have souls, which you may forward in their way to heaven. And they have (many of them) faith and the love of God in a larger measure than any persons I know. Creep in among these in spite of dirt and an hundred disgusting circumstances, and thus put off the gentlewoman. Do not confine your conversation to genteel and elegant people. I should like this as well as you do; but I cannot discover a precedent for it in the life of our Lord or any of His Apostles.[1]

Even more challenging is that the evangelical task may be not only to those for whom (if I am honest) I have contempt, but to those whom I believe to be enemies. As Howard Thurman, in his Jesus and the Disinherited, reminds us, there are varying degrees of enemies. The first are those enemies with whom I have personal contact, and because of whom I have endured some level of offense. Then there are those enemies who, by their very acts, bring shame and humiliation on me and people like me, even though we are thought to be communally connected. Finally, there are enemies who benefit by social structures which oppress others, especially those with whom I share the greatest affiliation.   Hatred of enemies can run deep, especially when enemies are persons with whom I may have close physical contact but no real fellowship. In fact, one could argue that the very reason we are enemies is that I am sure that “I know them” – I know how they act, how they think and given a particular situation what they will do. The problem with this line of thinking is that I create caricatures of people, objectifying them rather than getting to know them and allowing them to know me – not superficially, but authentically.

The challenge and the call to be witnesses even to the “ends of the earth” must extend not only to those who may be the subject of our pity, but also to those who, if I am honest, I call “enemies.” Furthermore, our witness must call for authentic, accountable relationships in which we are seeking to be reconciled into one — the Body of Christ. Our collective witness should be one that displays diversity in unity which does not privilege one cultural norm over the other or that is merely a contractual armistice of individuals who only associate as long as it is beneficial.

The renewal movement begun by John and Charles Wesley to which we are heirs was both highly evangelistic and Eucharistic. The Eucharist leads us into a communion that goes beyond our contempt and our pity. We must therefore move beyond inviting others, especially those we hold in contempt, to assimilate, to “join our side.”   This is to make proselytes and not converts. Nor are we to jettison the core of our faith – Christ and Him crucified. This is to be relativistic. Perhaps, a more excellent way is to begin to see each other as people, created in the image of God and to begin holy conferencing in ways that invite intellectual virtue, not intellectual vice. Let us engage in holy conferencing that calls us to listen first so that we might understand where the other is coming from before formulating our arguments to tear them down. And even if and when we disagree, we can do so without dehumanizing our enemies or ourselves. In this way, we might truly move onto perfection. Nonetheless, we will grow in our love of God and of our neighbor. And in a world where many outside the church want nothing to do with it because they see us as argumentative, judgmental, and dogmatic, with no room for questions or doubts, they might be encouraged to come and wrestle with us through the questions.

[1] Letter to Miss March (7 February 1776), Letters (Telford) 6:206–7.

 

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