March 2012
Death and Resurrection

Answering God's Call

When a congregation makes a paradigm shift from an attractional model of ministry to a missional model, how will the shift influence its understanding and practice of worship?

Since in this article I have to be brief, I’ll focus on one aspect of the answer – God’s use of symbols in the liturgy as a way of transforming our lives. More specifically, I’ll show how, by converting the meaning of traditional biblical symbols used in ritual actions, Jesus expressed his power to change the servant people of God from an attractional to a missional community. This process was not limited to the early Church; it’s alive and well today. In fact, I’m going to introduce you to a method whereby you can serve God and his mission by involving yourself in this process!

I’ll introduce you to this method by selecting a number of Gospel lessons used on Sunday mornings during Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter and asking five questions about them:

  1. For each Gospel, what is its central symbol
  2. In biblical tradition before the coming of Christ, what was the common interpretation of this symbol? 
  3. By changing from an attractional to a missional interpretation, how did Jesus transform the meaning of the symbol? 
  4. How can the power of God’s love working in the liturgy through that symbol empower us in our daily life today to share with God in his mission of love and justice in the world that he created and is still creating? 
  5. How can that symbol be employed more transformatively in the worship life of your congregation?

The Gospels

The baptism of Jesus – Mark 1:9-11

  1. Central symbol– Baptism 
  2. Traditional biblical interpretation – Traditionally, Baptism was regarded as the way for converts to cleanse themselves from their Gentile uncleanness before entering into the Community of the Covenant. Baptism was the attractional way for them to enter into the Jewish life of faith. 
  3. Jesus’ transformation of the meaning of Baptism – For Jesus, Baptism was not an act of entering in but of sending out. Through Baptism, his Heavenly Father commissioned him as his Messiah and sent him out to proclaim the Good News of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Through Christ, Baptism became profoundly missional
  4. Liturgical empowerment for us today for Christ’s mission – Baptism is the way we are attracted into Christ’s Body. But it is also the way Christ commissions us to share in his mission in “all the world”. Through the Baptismal Covenant, we take vows that engage us to serve God in all we do in every area of our daily lives. 
  5. Becoming aware of the transforming power of this symbolic action - The primary means is through baptismal catechesis both before and after Baptism, particularly with parents and godparents. But all of us are involved in baptismal living. In the rite, when we vow to support those being baptized through renewing our own baptismal covenant, what could be more important than this act, individually and communally? But how do we, as a congregation, fulfill this vow? Does it not mean that we need to find ways to inspire, guide, and support each other in our service to Christ in our daily life missions? Where will we get the resources to fulfill this vow in our congregation?

Mount of Transfiguration – Mark 9:2-9

  1. Central symbol – Holy Places shaping holy rituals 
  2. Traditional interpretation – In Jewish tradition, three mountain sites were their holiest places – Mount Sinai, Mounts Ebal-Gerizim, and Mount Sinai. All three were attractional in meaning. The rites used on them were intended to separate the Jews out from the people surrounding them. Even Mount Zion was seen as a place where the nations of the world would be drawn to. 
  3. Jesus’ transformation of this symbol – When Peter witnessed the sacred vision, he responded by wanting to erect three tabernacles to enshrine this wonderful vision. Jesus’ response was the opposite. He led his disciples down the mountain to heal an epileptic boy. 
  4. Liturgical implications – How can we make our holy places, not an enshrinement of the Sunday morning experience, but a location to renew our baptismal vows, sharing our lives with God in his mission in all we do, Monday through Sunday? 
  5. Growing in awareness of the missional power of our places of worship - All the elements of our liturgies – sermons, prayers, hymns, readings, visible symbols, etc. – can be used to make congregations aware that when they participate in worship, they’re not isolating themselves from their Monday-through-Saturday lives; they’re preparing themselves for serving God through mission in their daily life experiences. From time to time, the congregation can be instructed in the structure of the Eucharist as being basically missional.

Now that you have two models of how to use this process, I’m going to ask you use it yourself in ways that fit your congregation. To help you get started, I’m going to suggest some other Gospel texts that you might use and give you some hints at how to answer three of the five questions. The other two, you will have to work out yourself in the context of your congregation. Go on to select other Gospel texts and find out how they transform the liturgy in missional ways.

Caesarea Philippi – Mark 8:27-38
1. Central symbol – The Messiah
2. Traditional interpretation – A triumphal figure
3. Jesus’ transformation – The suffering servant and the way of the cross

Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem – Matthew 21:1-11
1. Central symbol – The animal Jesus rode on
2. Traditional interpretation – a warhorse
3. Jesus’ transformation – a donkey, a humble work animal, used in peace

The Last Supper – Matthew 26:17-25
1. Central symbol – The sacred meal
2. Traditional interpretation – Liberation from Egypt to become the People of the Covenant
3. Jesus’ transformation – The New Covenant, Foretaste of the Messianic Banquet

Peyton Craighill served as a missionary, primarily in theological education, in Taiwan for 21 years. After returning to the USA, he served in a number of different ministries in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. In retirement, he lives in Lexington, Virginia and serves as editor for Baptismal Mission Forum, the Good Newsletter for Episcopalians on Baptismal Mission.

This article is part of the March 2012 Vestry Papers issue on Death and Resurrection