My previous post suggested that invitational Community should be seen as one foundational aspect of a theology of global mission. Moving on from this I want to suggest that the second leg of this theological stool should be Missio Dei and the resurrected Christ. As before, what follows are suggestive thoughts rather than a worked out theology. My excuse for offering these posts in their ‘half-baked’ state is that they are very much work in progress. The articulation of a theologically coherent account of global mission; one which takes the western tradition seriously (and by recognising its western-ness invites other non-western approaches), and which looks to set itself within the themes of ecclesiology, christology and eschatology (and ultimately within a Trinitarian theological framework) is a larger task than a few blog posts and some Christmas holiday musing.
Missio Dei has moved to the front of mission thinking over the last 100 years. Exactly what is being described by this hasn’t always been consistent but typically Missio Dei proponents suggest that mission isn’t primarily an activity of the church but an attribute of God. It is often grounded in Jesus’ words in John 20 and his post resurrection appearance to the disciples.
And perhaps here is a clue. For Matthew, Luke and John the final exhortations for ‘mission’ are spoken by the risen Christ. It is the message of the crucified and risen Lord which is to be shared; the one who has defeated sin and death. For John and Luke, in their different ways, this is also linked to the receipt of the Holy Spirit. When we think of the gospel we proclaim it is of the risen Christ, and is empowered by the Spirit. When we think of ourselves participating in the Missio Dei, we do so as people commissioned by the risen Christ, to continue in his mission. For us at least, our understanding of mission and of our place in it, should be thoroughly Christocentric.
Alan Hirsch has made much in recent years of the concept of missional, and missional church. The idea being that the church defines itself, and organises itself around its purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world. While there is validity in this argument, it is the risen Christ that should be giving definition to that mission. His teaching, his glory revealed, his call to follow in baptism. The living, crucified, resurrected Christ is central to God’s mission to the world and to how his followers should live. The Ephesians 4 gifts, which play a pivotal role in Hirsch’s thinking are the gifts of the risen Christ, to sanctify and mature God’s people, to build unity in the faith and grow us into Christ. And as these believers this maturity should be seen in ethical lives which seek to be faithful to the one who called us.
This faith and living trust in Christ is central to mission and to life. As Carl E Braaten noted, “the most telling effect of the loss of resurrection faith in the mainline churches is the collapse of the world missionary movement…….the missionary nature of the church from the beginning until now is grounded in the resurrection of the crucified Jesus…….. the content of the church’s missionary proclamation can be none other than Jesus Christ crucified and risen.” (in Christopher R Seitz ed, Nicene Christianity p117)
Understanding ourselves as sent by Jesus, continuing in the mission given him by the Father is important to mission. But, unless it is tethered to the risen Christ it can become an excuse for almost any activity that has a Christian gloss.
By linking mission so centrally to the person of Jesus, and the change that results from his life, ministry and death, we see that mission has a strongly Christocentric element. There are many good things that we can do as humans created in the image of God, called to steward the earth and creation, to declare his Lordship across the whole world. But as mission communities we need to understand these things from the perspective of the risen Christ and to live out this truth, that somehow God’s glory will be revealed.
The empowering of the Spirit is therefore best understood as enabling us to witness to Jesus, to share in God’s mission through showing and telling the world of his glory. (Such a view assumes both Babel and Pentecost as being part of God’s plan to see the declaration of his glory spread to the ends of the earth). Taking this further, we might consider what this might look like in view of Christ’s threefold ministry of prophet, priest and King. The ultimate revelation of God, who represents humanity before God and through his atoning death, and who now reigns over church and world. When, in John 15, Jesus speaks of his disciples abiding in the vine, before telling them to go and bear fruit we see how we need to be both experiencing life in relation to God (which Jesus enables through his priestly ministry) and responding to the call to go (because he is King over all) and bear fruit (because we tell of his prophetic ministry as the word of God).
Thinking about missio dei as we seek to proclaim the risen Christ is important, for it grounds our proclamation and demonstration in humility. We recognise that we are not simply entrusted with a message, which can now take on our flesh, culture and bias; we are entrusted to join in with what God is doing. When we arrive in some situation or context, we are arriving into a place where God is already at work; we don’t bring our own agenda and strategy but seek to discern what the Spirit of the Lord is doing; we join God’s people in that place as helpers and not as rulers. Additionally it locates us not just as instruments of God, but as people called and entrusted to serve him; using the gifts that we have been given to play our part in this ongoing work, set apart for service and for witness.
As mission organisations, our aim is to play our part in the Missio Dei, but we can only do so if we both abide in God (as part of his people) and bear fruit in keeping with the risen Lord’s ministry (through the message we speak, the service we bring and the way we live). Disconnected from our source and our Lord we will only be clanging gongs.
Next time I want to look at a third and final element, eschatology and reconciliation, before suggesting that a theology of mission needs to rest in the intersection of all three elements.