I would like to distinguish between two ways we can understand how Jesus engaged the people he encountered throughout his earthly ministry. I am speaking of the difference between a transactional relationship and a transformational one. Because of the fundamentally legal ethos of the post-reformation Church, many Catholics still tend to understand Jesus’ work of redemption primarily in terms of a legal exchange. A transactional interpretation of Jesus’ redemption runs something like this: by his death on the cross, Jesus satisfied the debt of justice we owe to God for sin and solves our sin problem. He died for us so that we might receive everlasting life. Through the sacraments, he forgives our sin and gives us grace. Through grace, we can get to heaven. In other words, we tend to interpret Jesus’ ministry, as well as the sacramental ministry of the Church, as inducing a transaction of grace. While our theology might not reflect this understanding of redemption, even when the Church is clear to avoid the shortcomings of a purely substitutionary view of justification, many of our people continue to see salvation as a transactional relationship.
Through a transactional understanding of redemption, God removes sin and gives us grace. Understandably, Paul’s theology of justification seems to push us in this direction, since Paul’s basic framework for describing salvation is covenantal. At the heart of the Old covenant was the Law of Moses. Nevertheless, the philosophy of law originating in the Counter Reformation sharpened Paul’s framework to a point of excess. By saying this, I am not suggesting that the legal significance of our redemption is inaccurate. Nor would I deny the transactional dimension of salvation. Nevertheless, the problem is that a transactional interpretation does not help us grasp adequately the developmental and relational nature of discipleship and the work of evangelization. With such focus on the legal context for justification, we have not given adequate attention pastorally to how Jesus evangelized, that is, how he moved people to radically shift the axis of their lives and follow him. In other words, our theologies of redemption have tended to overlook how Jesus managed to change people’s lives. We seem content just knowing that he did and that he continues to do so. The upshot for us today, insofar as we try, is that our attempts, to “convert people” come off as quite forced, awkward, and pretentious. Our tactics, be they forward, apologetical, or scripted, look anything but unassuming.
Yet perhaps if we see the work of redemption as a transformational process, we arrive at a deeper grasp of Jesus’ method of disciple-making. A better way to understand our redemption is by focusing on how Jesus restores the human person to his or her fundamental dignity. The difference between transactional and transformational engagement is the difference between handing something over and creating the conditions for something new to emerge within the person. Disciple making is primarily a metamorphosis from fallen nature to eternal glory. Discipleship is a transformative experience or process of growth that takes place within the soul. It is more fundamentally spiritual than litigious in nature. Besides this, the modern conceptualization of law renders our theologies of justification just that much more transactional.
Consider St. Paul’s words to this effect in Galatians: “Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian (pedagogue in Greek) until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (3:24-27 emphasis mine). In the following chapter, as St. Paul expresses his concern that the Galatians are forfeiting what they have gained in Christ, he says, “My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!” (4:19). Paul is speaking tenderly and directly to the transformational nature of the Christian experience. Baptism into Christ is not merely a transactional reality but a transformational one.
While both sin and the limits of fallen human nature leave us in a state of unrealized potential, Christ’s mission was to enter the human experience for the sake of actualizing the moral and spiritual possibilities God intends for the human family. Christ came to transform us from what we have made of ourselves through sin, into what the Father intended us to be. Consider another passage from St. Paul: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:3-6, emphasis mine). God has created every human being with the possibility of union with himself. While sin inhibits this possibility, Christ brings to fruition the transformation that needs to occur for that union to occur.
Therefore, the mission of the Church is to invest in helping people undergo a personal transformation that happens only through a relationship with Jesus. We have always called this process conversion, which indicates a radical reorientation of a person’s life toward God. Every person is to mature into the fullness of Christ, so that in Christ each person might realize his or her call to holiness. The work of redemption is thus primarily a ministry of interior healing and renewal in Christ, not simply a transaction of grace. This suggests that the Church evangelizes and forms people only when the community draws people into a personal relationship with Christ and helps them grow in holiness. If this is not happening as it ought, it means we are not imitating Jesus’ own method. Our demographic indicators suggest just how insufficient it is to confect only a transaction of grace through “sacramentalization” without leading our people through a transformative process, as Jesus did with his followers.
If this is the mission of the Church, as we know clearly from Matthew’s Gospels—go and make disciples—how did Jesus get people to follow him? How did he then effect a transformation of a person’s life? To answer this question, I would reference a framework Alan Hirsch presents in his book, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating Apostolic Movements. In it, he discusses six key principles of incarnational mission (six P’s, which Jesus’s models for his disciples. The key to understanding Jesus’ method of evangelization is to understand the significance of the Incarnation as a mission into the lived reality of human experience. The Son of God did not save us from afar or at a distance from the context of the human condition. The entire logic of the Incarnation is that Jesus entered our experience and saved us from inside the historical, cultural and personal dimensions of the human reality.
The image St. John uses in the prologue of his Gospel is he “pitched his tent among us.” As Hirsch states, “When God came into the world in and through Jesus, the Eternal moved into the neighborhood and took up residence among us. The central thrust of the incarnation . . . is that by becoming one of us, God was able to achieve redemption for the human race. But the incarnation, and Christ’s work flowing from it, achieved more than our salvation; it was an act of profound affinity, a radical identification with all that it means to be human—an act that unleashes all kinds of potential in the one being identified with. Beyond identification, it is revelation: by taking on himself all aspects of humanity, Jesus is for us, quite literally, the human image of God. If we wish to know what God is like, we need look no further than Jesus. We can understand him, because he is one of us. He knows us and can show us the way.”
To this, I would add a further insight attributed to Pope St. John Paul II from Vatican II: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear [emphasis mine]. Thus, Jesus reveals who we are to ourselves, who God is in himself, and how God disciples us to become fully human after Jesus’ image and likeness.
Based on the logic of the Incarnation, Hirsch thus recommends six principles that frame Jesus’ model of incarnational mission. He speaks about Jesus’ presence as God in the flesh, and not simply as a representative of God. Jesus entered people’s experience. By proximity, Jesus approached people in accessible ways. Another theological phrase for this is divine accommodation, whereby God draws near to humanity in a manner to which we can easily relate. Jesus also worked preveniently, insofar as he pre-disposed God’s people through the Old Covenant prior to proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom. Jesus came to us as a servant in a condition of powerlessness, humility and vulnerability. He also engaged people from his passion, that is, his deep compassion and mercy for the human condition. He did not come as a judge but as a loving bridegroom who was willing to pour himself out in suffering agony for his bride. Jesus also came proclaiming the Kingdom of God, a reign of mercy that calls people to repentance and faith. These six marks of Jesus’s mode of evangelization created a mystique around his ministry that drew thousands of people. Quite simply, Jesus’ approach opened hearts and brought people to faith in him. These marks of spiritual maturity should also characterize how a disciple evangelizes.
The six “p’s” of Jesus’ method for making disciples express how Jesus showed up on the scene, in what modality he brought the good news of the Kingdom. Once he had followers, he began to form them. Jesus’ pedagogical method in forming his disciples was quite different from the way we think of learning today. In Forgotten Ways, Hirsch distinguishes between what he calls the “Hellenistic” model of learning and the “Hebraic” model. He argues that the Hellenistic model deals mostly with handing on knowledge, as well as concepts of nature and being. Catholics would attribute this to “speculative” modes of theology. The Hebraic model, however, “is primarily concerned with concrete existence, obedience, life-oriented wisdom, and the interrelationship of all things under God.” He describes this approach as a “life-on-life phenomenon that facilitated the transfer of information and ideas into concrete historical situations.”
He contrasts this with our methods of formation today, especially seminary formation, whereby we remove people from their ordinary context, and socialize them “out of ordinary life.” He goes on to state, “It’s as if in order to learn about ministry and theology, we leave our places of habitation and take flight into a wonderful world of abstraction, fly around there for a long time, and then wonder why we have trouble landing the plane.” I think the same applies to our CCD and faith formation programs. We educate our people into abstractions and propositions that do not land for them in the real contexts of their day-to-day lives. Hirsch summarizes Jesus’ approach to disciple making as follows:
Disciple making operates best with the Hebraic understanding of knowledge in mind. In other words, we need to take a whole person into account in seeking to transform that person. We also need to understand that we must educate these whole people in the context of life and for life. The way we do this, indeed the way Jesus did it, is to act our way into a new way of thinking. This is clearly how Jesus formed his disciples. They not only lived with him and observed him in every possible circumstance but also ministered with him and made mistakes and were corrected by him, all in the context of everyday life . . . this being so, we tend to process things as we go.
Ideas and information are important, but they are generally needed to guide action and are best assimilated and understood in the context of life application. The assumption is that we bring all these dynamic thinking processes with us into our actions. Context—and not just content—is of primary importance. We do not, as is supposed by the Hellenistic model, leave our thinking behind when we are doing our actions. We think while we are acting and act while we are thinking. In fact, this is precisely the way that all of us learned to walk, talk, socialize, and rationalize in the first place.
Christian discipleship is called “The Way” for these reasons. It is not merely that we engage in a life of practical activity. Rather, we learn to be like Jesus by living into Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom, “on the way” as the Gospel of Mark so aptly reminds us (Mark 8:22-10:52). In other words, orthodoxy and orthopraxis must be integrated within the context of a life lived following Jesus Christ. To learn the truth of doctrine does not necessarily change behavior or lifestyle in conformity with the pattern of Jesus’ life or mode of being human or being our Master.
Let us now look, in some detail, at the function certain evangelical strategies play in Jesus’ ministry of evangelization. How do they help us see how Jesus lived out the six “P’s” of incarnational mission and his Hebraic approach to teaching? Throughout the entire time of Jesus’ public ministry, he manifested the six marks of spiritual maturity. One could say that this was Jesus’ missional ethos. He also employed a distinct pedagogy for forming his apostles. He modeled a patterned approach to manifesting the Kingdom of God that clearly moved his followers from disinterest to apostolic zeal over a three-year time period. How he proceeded to build the Kingdom is of paramount importance to the success of his mission, and it ought to inform us today as to how we should carry out the ministry of disciple-making in the context of New Evangelization.
The incorporation of these strategies into his ministry of evangelization began with the appearance of Jesus’ charismatic authority and power over evil. After calling people to follow him, they entered a period of formation and apprenticeship, which centered on conformity to the law of charity. Jesus’ approach then developed further through the invitation to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist as the consummate fulfillment of Israel’s liturgical tradition. He presents the Eucharist as the source from which a disciple is to live his or her life on mission. After the Garden of Gethsemane and the crucifixion, their formation deepens as the disciples attain the reintegration of their inner life, while gaining a clearer identity in Christ after they abandoned him under the pressures of his Passion. Jesus’ work of redemption then culminates in his sending the disciples forth in the power of the Spirit to liberate the world from sin, after the same pattern that he modeled in the three years his disciples accompanied him. The Gospels present Peter and the Apostles’ journey of discipleship as the exemplar of a disciple’s growth toward maturity and mission.