Sharing in Jesus' paracletic ministry

This post continues a series in The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 123456789, 1012, 131415.

Anderson notes that Jesus' mission "was not entirely completed in his death and resurrection" (p. 189). He understands that Jesus' missional activity continues as he sends the Spirit to form and gift the church to participate with him in his ongoing paracletic ministry on earth.

He Who is Without Sin by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with permission)

Back to the future

According to Anderson, Jesus' ongoing ministry has a decidedly "eschatological nature" in that it brings into the present, bit-by-bit and through the church, the future fullness of the kingdom. That is why Paul refers to the church as God's "new creation"---the out-working (or one might say the in-breaking) of what God has done to reconcile the world to himself in and through Christ and continues to do, by the Spirit, through the church's ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-18 ESV). Anderson comments:
[Paul] argued that with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ a new age had broken into the old, so that these eras now overlapped. As David Ford puts it [in his essay in On Being the Church edited by Colin Gunton and Daniel Hardy], "The new is being realized now through the Holy Spirit, so the most urgent thing is to live according to the Spirit. It certainly involves present eschatological freedom, hope beyond death and the significance of the Church in history." 
...As regards contemporary ecclesiology there are two implications that seem most important. The first is that the determinisms of history are broken by the gift of the Spirit as the down-payment of what is to come. If God is free to open history from the future then the future need not mirror the past. In the Church this combines with the message of the cross to allow for discontinuities and innovations. The criterion for something is no longer whether that is how the Church has done it in the past or even whether Jesus said it (cf. Paul on his means of subsistence) but whether it embodies the new creation and its vision of love... For Paul the content of eschatology is christological and the final reality is face to face" (p. 191).

Following the Spirit forward

This being so, what unifies the church in Anderson's view is not historical precedence and institutions, but following after the Holy Spirit who opens the future to the church as it participates with Jesus in his present and ongoing mission to the world. Unfortunately, the church has tended to overemphasize the issue of an institutionalized apostolic succession and apostolic authority. This has often paralyzed the church, keeping it backward-looking rather than forward-moving in step with the Spirit. It is Jesus, not the apostles or other church leaders, now dead, who is the "apostolic source of the church's life and mission in the world through his power and presence as Holy Spirit" (p. 193).

Though we should look with respect to the past workings of the Spirit in the church, our primary question is not What did Jesus do?, but What is Jesus, through the Spirit, now doing? The general answer to that latter question is that the Spirit is at work shaping the church not into what it once was (at some supposed ideal time, such as the apostolic age) but into what it will be at the end of the age. Anderson comments:
The church itself should seek to become the church that Christ desires to find when he comes, where distinctions of race, religion, ethnicity, economic and political status, and gender identity will no longer be found in the church and its apostolic life (p. 194)
....The church does not "push" the kingdom into the world through its own institutional and pragmatic strategies. Rather it is "pulled" into the world as it follows the praxis of the Spirit. The church is thus constantly being "re-created" through the mission of the Spirit. At the same time, it has historical and ecclesial continuity and universality through its participation in the person and mission of Christ Jesus through the Spirit. 
The ministry of the church is apostolic when it recognizes the eschatological praxis of the Spirit in the present age and interprets this in accordance with Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). The author of Hebrews reveals the priestly nature of Jesus when he argues that Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek and not Aaron (Hebrews 6-7). Melchizedek was "without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life" (Hebrews 7:3 NASB). Apostolic authority is [therefore] eschatological, not merely genealogical (p. 195).

The paracletic nature of Jesus' ministry

And so, by the Spirit, we look to Jesus, acknowledging his past activity in and through the church in its history, but with our eyes on the horizon---looking forward toward where Jesus, through the Spirit is leading. As we do, we always keep in mind that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God "is the advocate of all persons, not only those who are 'in Christ'" (p. 200). Through the Spirit, Jesus is present with all and as the Paraclete (the "Advocate" who "comes along side") he is ministering to all. Note Anderson's comment on this vital point concerning the paracletic ministry of Jesus:
Practical theology issues from the perspective of this paracletic ministry of the Spirit of Christ taking place in the world before it takes place in the church. This is to say, Christ is not first of all contained by the nature of the church, so that only when Christ is shared by the church does the world encounter him. Rather as Thomas Torrance has put it, "Christ clothed with His gospel meets with Christ clothed with the desperate needs of men... Christ is present as the advocate of the people who have not yet heard the good news" (p. 201, emphasis added). 
Thus we understand that the calling of the church is not to bring Jesus to the world, but to join with Jesus in what he now is doing in the world.  With this orientation, the church will both embrace what Jesus has done already, and walk forward in faith with him into the fullness of his kingdom.

Objective and subjective aspects of the one gospel

The church walks forward with Jesus by proclaiming the gospel, which is not a message of What could be...if, but a message of What is already (that may be personally received). Anderson comments:
[The apostle Paul] knows that forgiveness has already been accomplished from God's side and that God "does not count trespasses" against persons who are sinners. But forgiveness has not yet been accomplished until there is reconciliation from the human side toward God and toward one another (p. 202 italics added).
Anderson is here noting the objective (universal) and subjective (personal) aspects of the gospel. Objectively, God's forgiveness has been extended already to everyone. Subjectively, that forgiveness is actualized (Anderson says "accomplished") when it is personally received.

It's important to note that both the objective and subjective aspects speak to God's work of grace by his Son, through his Spirit. This is the work the church is called to share in by making the gospel known and thus accessible. A principal way the church does that is by declaring that God has forgiven sinners already (the objective or universal aspect of the gospel), along with offering the call to personal acceptance, which leads to personal transformation (the subjective or personal aspect of the gospel). To declare one aspect without the other is to offer an incomplete gospel that is in danger of becoming a false gospel. Anderson elaborates:
To give assurance of pardon and forgiveness to persons based on God's reconciliation to the world through Christ is not wrong. But... the word of absolution from sin based on the work of Christ in salvation history is premature apart from the praxis of forgiveness as the work of Christ in the hearts and lives of people through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit .
Let me say it as clearly as I can, "a vision of forgiveness and freedom comes from the burning light of Pentecost before it can be seen in the sunless shadows of the cross. This has enormous theological significance both for the proclamation of the gospel of Christ as well as for the spiritual formation of Christ in the lives of people. 
A theology that is not continually enlightened by the praxis of Christ at work in the transformation of human lives can become toxic theology. A theology that does not begin and end with grace both from God's side as well as from the human side is a theology that binds "heavy burdens" (Matthew 23:4 NASB) and sets "a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1 NASB) on those who look for freedom and forgiveness. A theology that produces such a spiritual piety poisons rather than purifies...
The theology of Pentecost humanizes and heals, for it is a theology of resurrection and life, not of death and despair... Practical theology in the mode of paraclesis is a summons and invitation for humanity to become truly human; it is an exhortation to move out of the place of sorrow and humiliation into a community of reconciliation, peace and dignity. Christopraxis as a form of the real presence of Christ is a pledge of comfort and consolation to the oppressed and broken... For the church this means that actions involving advocacy for the full humanity of persons have a priority and authority grounded in the humanity and ministry of Christ himself (pp. 202-3).
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For more on this topic from Ray Anderson, click here and here and here.

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