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Radically centered

People that know me know that I will often count the number of times Jesus is mentioned in a sermon, article, blog post, or other written or spoken medium. I will admit that this is a bit of spiritual OCD on my part. The absence of the word “Jesus,” even in explicitly Christian contexts, does not necessarily mean that Jesus the person is absent from the mind, thoughts, or heart of the writer or speaker. But it is something I notice. If over a long period of time, I notice that mention of Jesus is absent from an author’s work, I begin to wonder just how much Jesus is a part of that person’s thinking.

I’d like to think that Jesus is my “center.” And of course he is not completely my center; but more and more – every hour, day, and year – he takes up the center of my life. How I spend my time and my money, my gifts and my talents, these things (and more) are weighed by Jesus.

This is true of my home parish. We are a community of humans, so you know how it is, but we are working at putting Jesus at the center of our common lives. Our broken humanity keeps getting in the way – we dust ourselves off and get back to Jesus as the center of our attention.

Thinking this way brings to mind the work of Paul Hiebert, an anthropologist with a heart for Christian mission. He borrowed the idea of sets from mathematics to speak of sets in a mission context. Specifically he said that a church community can be a fuzzy, bounded, or centered set. A bounded set is a set with clearly defined criteria to membership in the set. One is either “in” or “out.” A centered set eschews the language of in and out and concentrates instead on a person’s relationships with a defined center. Orientation to, and distance from, the center are what matter. A fuzzy set is just that: it has neither boundaries nor center. It is just a collection of people.

This idea of centered sets has appealed to a wide variety of people who, like Hiebert, have wrestled with how to live as a Christian community in our increasingly pluralistic world. I leave aside the question about the fact that Scripture sometimes seems to use bounded set kind of language. It is not up to us to adjudicate whether any given person has crossed over the boundary into God’s kingdom. Rather, a centered set orientation in our language, practice, and attitudes is the best way to help people approach (and cross) any boundaries that might be there.

Centered set language appeals to Anglicans, especially North American Episcopalians. A desire to be hospitable to all makes this orientation especially useful. We (and I place myself in the category) want everyone, regardless of a whole host of criteria, to join with us, to be oriented towards, and closer to, the center.

The problem comes when we ask, “What is the center?” I and others have wrestled with the question of how do our parishes – places where we seek to place Jesus as our center – relate to dioceses and a national church where it is not always clear that we have the same vision of Jesus as the center.

I have come to a provocative conclusion. While the cynic in me is tempted to say that the Episcopal Church is actually a fuzzy set with neither boundary nor center, it seems more accurate that the Episcopal Church, contrary to its self-presentation, is a bounded set. The principle of Radical Inclusion (RI) has become central, paradoxically eliminating all centers while creating a powerful (but invisible) barrier. The one thing that RI will not allow is a center (except perhaps, itself).

There is a subtle critique here: while Jesus in some ways entails RI (Jesus’ love is radically inclusive), the Episcopal Church is constantly tempted to see RI apart from Jesus. Key parts of the Jesus Story get left out – parts like Jesus’ exclusivity and his atoning sacrifice – because these parts don’t sit well with RI. The net effect is that anyone who places Jesus in the center – with these keys parts as essential – is left out.

Just using the word “Jesus” more will not solve this conundrum. We must put RI back into its proper place in our theology, affirming the radical love God offers us in Jesus while holding to the whole of who Jesus is. RI apart from Jesus will not see the urgency in the following invitations; RI apart from Jesus sees no need for a change in orientation to or distance from Jesus. But it is vitally important that we invite people to be oriented to this One who radically loves them, loves them deeply, so deeply that he has given his life for them, and in the power of his Resurrection, invite them to come ever closer to him.

The image above is Nancy Clauss, “Target” (25 June 2011).



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