Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’" (Matthew 28: 18-20)
Part 1: Whose Mission Is It, Anyway?
As Christianity enters its Third Millennium, it appears to be undergoing another great season of change. Of course, one can say that change is the constant in life, but there are eras when that change seems much more pronounced, foundational. Such is our day.
As many have prophesied for decades, the Church as institution is declining. Those who have lived a long time will recognize the myriad ways “Church” has ceased to be at the center of things. Increasingly, it is either marginalized by a secularizing culture, or has marginalized itself through scandal, malfeasance, distortion of the Gospel, or outright betrayal of its Lord. Our society no longer sees the Church as necessary; rather, it tends to see it as either an archaic holdover or a pathological block to human self-realization.
The Third Millennium of the Gospel is hardly all about decline. Indeed, this is perhaps the most explosive era of growth Christianity has ever known. Between events in Africa and Asia, we are witnessing an extraordinary time of evangelism. The Good News of Christ is reaching places and peoples not previously reached. To a great degree, “where the action” is in the Christian world has shifted – a new and difficult place for us in North America! What was once the “New World” is becoming old, and now needs refreshment from those it once evangelized.
What Christians in these newly-evangelized cultures are telling us is that our mistake was not in sharing the Gospel with them. Rather, it has been to equate the Church (and along with it our cultural assumptions, biases, preferences, &c.) with God’s Mission in Christ. The result of this equation has been that we unintentionally “take over” the mission that rightfully belongs to God alone. When we do this, terrible things happen – the dark side of “missionary” activities. Setting this right and re-ordering our life as Church in North America may end up being the major task ahead for years to come.
Christ’s “Great Commission,” as recorded in Matthew 28, gives us very clear insight into whose mission this is: it is God’s. Jesus Christ is the “Mission of God” (Missio Dei, in Latin). It is His unique work of Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, Ascension to the Father, and giving of the Holy Spirit that the Church carries out as its mission. That mission is, in short, to glorify God the Holy Trinity by “restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” as the Prayer Book Catechism puts it so simply.
Understanding the Mission of God in this way moves us from human doings to human beings. We are called to be “in Christ,” (Col. 3:3), not to do Christ’s work for him. We respond to Christ’s call; we do not initiate it. Being in Christ allows us great freedom: the freedom to listen, the freedom to follow, the freedom to learn. It saves us from the perils of jumping into the driver’s seat of a vehicle we cannot possibly pilot safely. The secular world is focused only on what we do; God, who is pure Being, seeks to share that being in love with us. That is His Mission in Christ, and God’s mission must be ours, as well.
Understanding the Missio Dei this way helps us get our priorities clear. The Church is not an “institution” set up to do its own (or its culture’s) mission; it is much more like a mid-wife, helping to bring forth the mission of its Lord. When we listen to God in humility this way, we come to see Christ as the sacrament of God, the One who saves. This, in turn, frees the Church to become what it is: the sacrament of Christ, serving humbly and responsively by the promptings of the Spirit as the Mission of God is revealed and moves towards the consummation of all things in Christ.
When we learn to live the Missio Dei, the Eucharist’s meaning is likewise deepened and enriched. No more do we look at the liturgy through the lens of consumerism (“what is there in this for me?” or “how can I fit this in to my busy day?”); now we see it as the sacrament of the Church, wherein the Church is “actualized,” made present in its fullness of purpose and meaning – the foretaste of that Kingdom of God where all people live in harmony with God and each other in Christ. The Eucharist is the supreme realization of the Church’s worship life; in it the Holy Trinity is glorified by diverse people, united by the Love of God in Christ.
Nourished in our true being, we are then sent out to live that being in our families, communities, work, and ministries. But that leads us to next month’s topic: How do live the Missio Dei out through the local church.