Thursday, July 6, 2017

Missionary Discipleship: What Protestants and Catholics Are Learning from Each Other

It was perhaps a curious coincidence that I was reading James Smith’s recent work on discipleship, You Are What You Love, as I participated in the Convocation of Catholic Leaders last week in Orlando. I scratched my head to find Smith, a Protestant theologian from Calvin College, talking about liturgy, ritual and sacrament as the transformative framework for discipleship while I was in the middle of a Catholic gathering where “going out”, “meeting people where they’re at”, and “building authentic relationships” were the catch phrases of the day. The crossfire of foreign tongues made me feel part of a new and entirely ecumenical Pentecost.

Two words really capture the essence of the convocation in Florida: missionary discipleship. Pope Francis used these words to describe the vision of Catholic evangelization in the world today. We need to be true disciples of the Lord, authentic followers of Jesus who then go out and engage the world with the overflowing joy of Christ. “[We] should never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” Pope Francis jests. Missionary disciples rejoice always in the Lord and bridge the distances which separate people from the mercy of God. Missionary disciples “take on the smell of the sheep” and happily accompany people on their journey to Christ. It was both sensational and strange to hear a room full of Catholics talking like Evangelicals!

Then I read Smith who reminds us that the first question Jesus ever asked is not “What do you believe?” but “What do you want” (Jn 1:38). It is our heart’s desires and not our mind’s convictions that constitute real discipleship. We are not what we think, Smith says, a remnant of our overly Cartesian (“I think, therefore I am”) mentality. We are what we love. We are what we desire. We are what we long for. In other words, Jesus is not a lecturer-in-chief. To be a disciple of Jesus is to enroll in a veritable school of love. We are more defined by what we desire than what we believe. And, scary thought, “We might not love what we think.”

It is entirely possible, Smith notes, to believe in all the right things but be habitually carried away by “secular liturgies.” After all, we don’t think our way into consumerism, gluttony, objectification and individualism. Nobody convinced us with a compelling argument about how donuts and distraction will make us happy. But we find our desires taking us in those directions because we virtually bathe in cultural practices that calibrate our heart’s desires toward these rival kingdoms. And whether we’re hooked on Minecraft or microbrews, heroin or high fructose corn syrup, Parks and Rec or pornography, our tangible and repeated practices leave a powerful (albeit unconscious) mark on the kind of story our hearts are living into. “We are what we love,” it turns out.

Smith’s remedy is surprising coming from a Protestant scholar. Interestingly, he advocates a return to ancient Christian practices that aim to recalibrate the heart ostensibly through the body. “Our loves need to be reordered by embodied, communal practices that are ‘loaded’ with the gospel and indexed to God and his kingdom,” Smith says.[1] Far from the novelties of contemporary Protestant worship, Smith beckons us back to the “catholic” wisdom accumulated by the body of Christ through the centuries – liturgy and lectionary, ritual and repetition, confession and the Book of Common Prayer. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Smith opines. The Church’s sacraments and sacred liturgies have the power to rehabituate our hearts for heavenly desires. Once again, strangely sensational to hear a Protestant speaking like a Catholic!

This experience leaves my heart strangely warmed (to borrow a Wesleyan phrase) by what Protestants and Catholics are learning from one another today. We are seeing the wider Church in all of her diversity embracing the many parts as members of one whole. Boston College theologian Peter Kreeft describes the mutual stoking of heavenly fires when Protestants and Catholics come together as one Body of Christ:

Catholics discover the fire, and Protestants discover the fireplace. Catholics discover the essence of Evangelical Protestantism; a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Protestants discover the essence of Catholicism; Christ own visible, tangible Body. . . In this meeting, both parties change by addition, not by subtraction. No one gives up anything. Both recover what they used to have together.[2]

Let us continue to learn from one another and may the fire of the Holy Spirit burn!

[1] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 58.
[2] Peter Kreeft, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 29-30