LIFE AS MISSIONARY PILGRIMAGE

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My father-in-law, Mark Maxey, referred to himself as a plodder. “Mission,” he explained, “is carried out by the plodders.” Ambition and the need for acclaim preclude becoming a missionary. You do not begin the pilgrimage of mission because you want to go places. For more than 40 years he plodded along in rural Japan and he is buried there in Kanoya.

I am suspicious he would have found “Vertical,” the theme of the recent International Conference on Mission (ICOM) too steeply unidirectional in its emphasis. Can we really “go vertical,” apart from the up-hill grade of the plodding, horizontal axis? Is the horizontal mission subsequent to the vertical quest for God? Isn’t the pilgrimage of mission the road upon which the redeemer meets us? Missio Dei is not simply a quest God sends us on but is a description of God himself: He is a God on mission, a God of pilgrimage. Prayer apart from pilgrimage, quest apart from forward motion are equally contradictory.

Luke, who gives us the travel narrative of the mission of the Church in Acts, locates the resurrected Jesus on a walk. Likewise, the first Gentile convert and the appearance of Christ to the Apostle to the Gentiles occur on the road. Luke records that the very name given to the Church, “the Way,” describes a Theologia Viatorum – a Truth gained in transit.

The two leaving Jerusalem are temporarily halted in their tracks when the stranger asks them what they are walking along and talking about. “They stood still, looking sad” (Luke 24:17b). Maybe we must be temporarily halted, frozen in our tracks by the sad recognition that the foundations of our world are crumbling. But standing, gazing at the ground or into the sky, as at the ascension (going vertical in either direction) halts the truth of the way. Here is the halted mystery of the apophatic (the Hindu, the Buddhist, and the pole sitting Christian) but this should not compete with the unfolding mystery of walking with Christ.

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The stranger’s questions set them to walking again. As they walk he unfolds their Scripture in a peripatetic hermeneutic that drives them forward as further mysteries unfold. Walking and talking constitute the form and content of the divine exegete. The geography of the journey will take them to their point of departure, but one world displaces another in this departure and return.

The departure from Jerusalem is at once literal and metaphorical: “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They are departing from a life-time of learning and expectations; they are departing from the structures of the world as they have known it. The departure is from one mode of perception to another. Every pilgrim departs and every missionary journey is a process of cleansing perception. The pilgrim exists in a liminal condition: having departed, not having arrived, but attempting to get beyond or transcend life as he has known it.

The Lord has come to his Temple, he has made the once and for all sacrifice, he has redeemed Israel, the Old Testament promises to Abraham, Moses, and David, are fulfilled, and yet they cannot apprehend any of these things as they do not recognize Jesus. “But their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him” (Luke 24:16). The thing that blocks their sight seems to be their Scriptures and the interpretive frame of their “religion.”

The one they perceive as ignorant (“Are you the only one ignorant of these events” (Luke 24:18)) is about to dispel their ignorance and induct them into a very different sort of mystery. “‘Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’” Christ does not go vertical apart from suffering the horizontal. We too must plod along toward Jerusalem, taking up the cross – and only there do we go vertical.

Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:26-27). The story ends in a Eucharistic like revealing of Christ as they recognize the suffering, resurrected Christ in the breaking of bread. Luke informs us elsewhere as to how the exegesis on the way probably proceeded. Philip, on the road with the Ethiopian, explains how Jesus is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. The story concludes with the Eunuch being joined to Christ in the death and resurrection of baptism. Stephen explains how Christ fulfills the travel narrative of Israel. The story concludes with Stephen being joined with Christ in martyrdom. The travels of Paul embody the fulfillment of Abraham’s journey – to the ends of the earth. The story continues in the mission of the Church.

At his memorial service Makoto Yoshii, the son of the first preacher of the first Church started in Kanoya, described the experience when he was a child of trying on Mark Maxey’s shoes. He could fit both feet into one big shoe. He imagined what it would be like to fill those shoes. In reality, they were only the scuffed brown shoes of an ordinary plodder.

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