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God's Mission in a Time of Globalization and Crisis
By Ian T. Douglas
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2002 editors and contributors
All rights reserved.
From Creation to New Creation
The Mission of God in the Biblical Story
The topic of mission and the Bible is vast. I want to begin by asking a rather obvious question: where does one start such a discussion?
Encountering the Bible in Mission
One possible place to begin talking about Bible and mission is with the intersection between the biblical text and the reader who encounters this text in new ways in the context of missionary activity. The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer spoke of all interpretation as having two horizons—the horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader. Meaning and understanding, he said, takes place at the intersection of these two realities. This came home to me a few years ago with some force when I realized that the traditional date of the Feast of the Transfiguration and the date of the bombing of Hiroshima were the same—August 6. From then on I have not been able to separate the two in my mind. The contrast between the blinding death light of the atomic bomb and the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus is too strong a contrast for me to be able ever to dissociate the two.
Likewise I recall my first Christmas in Africa. It was 1987. My wife, Wendy, and our baby boy David had been in Kenya, and I for about a year. Chara, our daughter, had been born in November. We were supposed to have gone to teach in a small theological College in Mundri Sudan, but the Anglican Church of Canada wisely discerned that the war in the Sudan was heating up and we were diverted to Kenya. A few months after we arrived in Kenya, four of our would-be colleagues in Sudan were kidnapped by the Sudanese Peoples' Liberation Army and disappeared for almost two months in the Sudanese bush. After his release, one of the hostages, the Rev. Marc Nikkel, a mission partner of the Episcopal Church serving in the Sudan, returned to Africa. Unable to return to Sudan, he taught with us in Kenya for almost a year. We had maintained a strong interest in things Sudanese, so it was a joy to have Marc living next door. A few days before Christmas he gave me a report prepared by some Mennonites who had surveyed the situation in a particular area of Sudan around the town of Rumbek, an area of the Southern Sudan which had recently been devastated by the war. The authors of the report detailed atrocities beyond description. One of the most striking details, however, was the fact that in a vast area of hundreds of square miles they had found no living children: they had been killed, succumbed to starvation, fled as refugees, or carried off as slaves. A few days after reading this report, I opened my Bible to read the lesson for the daily office: it was December 28 and this was the lesson:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt have I called my son." Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more." (Mt 2:13–18)
As with the Transfiguration and Hiroshima, the stories of Sudan and the massacre of the innocents under Herod are now somehow fused in my mind. Sometimes reading the Bible in a new situation, or with new eyes, reading the Bible in a "mission" context, will confront the reader, perhaps even assault the reader, with its message. To speak of the Bible and mission may lead us to reflect on Scripture in ways that we had not previously dreamed. I went to Africa ostensibly to teach the Bible to theological college students—I ended up being taught the Bible in remarkable ways.
The task here is less to open up stories of my own existential engagement with biblical texts than to reflect on what the Bible says about mission. And surely this is a difficult enough task. I realize that every attempt to interpret the Bible is done from a particular context. No doubt my experiences and beliefs will color my understanding of Scripture, either illuminating or distorting the message. Since the Bible is such a foundational text for Christians, however, we are not at liberty to shy away from a task simply because it may be difficult.
Every thoughtful Christian who thinks about mission has some desire to root their theology of mission in Scripture. However, there appear at present to be two quite different starting places of biblical reflection on the theme of mission. I would like to examine briefly two sets of biblical texts that frequently come up in "Bible and mission" discussion, and notice what at first appear to be divergent themes that emerge from these texts. I would like then to examine the biblical story a bit more comprehensively, looking at the beginning and the end of Scripture, to see if the biblical story as a whole can help us to put these two apparently diverging texts and themes into a more fruitful canonical context.
The Great Commission (Mt 28:16–20)
As a faculty member at a theological education institution that from time to time has spoken of its identity as "a great commission seminary" one might expect the Matthean version of Jesus' command to his disciples to go out into the world (Mt 28:16–20) to appear somewhere in this discussion. Of course the danger of beginning with this text is that such a starting point may tempt us to think of mission exclusively in terms of "evangelism" or "disciple making." I have no desire to downplay these crucial activities—far from it! Unfortunately, however, these words tend to be heard either individualistically (evangelism being popularly understood as being about "personal decision") or ecclesially (disciples being understood as being about "church growth" or "church planting"). Please do not misunderstand me: I believe that people everywhere should hear the message of God's love in Christ, should be invited to make him their Savior, and encouraged to join the fellowship of the church for mutual edification and service. To put these themes in the central place in our theology of mission, however, may (and sometimes does) imply that mission is primarily about "us": about our reaching out, about our growth, as individuals and as a church. But as we shall see, I hope, when the Bible talks about mission, it is first of all talking about God.
Of course the Matthean version of Jesus' mission command to his disciples is not the only text of its kind. Luke has two such commissions—one in the gospel and one in Acts. John also has a unique version of the great commission. We will look at each in turn, beginning with the two Lukan passages:
Then he said to them, "These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high." (Lk 24:44–49)
"But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:8)
Notice the themes: the disciples are to proclaim forgiveness of sins to the nations; they are to do this in the name of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit. Although the message is given to them to proclaim, the foundation of the proclamation is the action of God—seen in the story of Israel and fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The mission proclamation, according to Luke, does not have its origins with the disciples but in the action of God. The gospel of John also has its own version of the "great commission":
Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (Jn 20:21–23)
Although John's witness is distinct (in so many ways), some similarities with other versions of the "great commission" are apparent: forgiveness of sins is central again; the power and presence of the Spirit is considered to be necessary for the mission to take place.
Most importantly, John tells us that mission does not begin with us, but with God: "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." Mission is not a program of the church, or a great new idea thought up by Victorian Christians as the religious arm of colonialism (much as it is tempting to read nineteenth-century church history in this way). Neither is "mission" a way of getting new members into the "club" so that we can collect more "dues" (tithes) to maintain our building programs and salaries. Mission is not about our projects, but about God's. To put it somewhat anachronistically, mission has its source in the life of the Trinity. The Father sends the Son, the Son sends the church, equipped in the power of the Spirit.
Matthew's most oft-quoted version of the "great commission" shares some of these themes, but presents them to us in a rather different way:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then 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." (Mt 28:16–20)
Once again themes familiar to the Lukan and Johannine commissions are also found here: the disciples of Jesus are commissioned to bring a message to the nations, to the gentiles. Although forgiveness is not mentioned explicitly, I believe that we can safely assume that the message of forgiveness is implicit in the mention of baptism in this passage.
It is crucial to focus our attention on God's part in this process. Certainly the Trinitarian theme, which we saw implicit in the Lukan and especially the Johannine texts, is made explicit here in the baptismal formula. Often missed in most explications of this text, however, is the end of the passage. I have often heard this passage read or quoted only up to the end of v.19 or sometimes only to the halfway point of v.20. The end of the passage, however, is crucial: here we find the promise of Jesus' continued presence with the church in the mission task. What is not often noticed is that this promise is the climax of a theme which Matthew began at the beginning of the gospel. In the first chapter of the gospel, Matthew tells us (and only Matthew mentions this) that Jesus is to be called "Emmanuel: which means God with us" (Mt 1:23). The mention of Jesus as God's presence in the world and the promise of Jesus' continued presence in the church-in-mission form an "inclusio" bracketing the whole gospel.
In the middle of the gospel we find another remarkable text:
"Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." (Mt 18:19–20)
This text is remarkable not only because it echoes the beginning and the end of the gospel with the promise of Jesus' presence, but because of the interesting Jewish context of this verse. When Israel found itself in exile in Babylon and estranged from the presence of God in the temple, a system of worship was formulated which placed the Torah in the central position. According to the Mishnaic tractate Pirke Abot (3.2),
R. Hananiah b. Teradion said: If two sit together and no words of the Law [are spoken] between them, there is the seat of the scornful, as it is written: Nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. [see Psalm 1] But if two sit together and the words of the Law [are spoken] between them, the Divine Presence [Shekinah] rests between them....
Just as the Jews in Babylon, bereft of God's presence in the temple and its rituals, replaced the temple with the Torah, so the early Christian community is promised that the physical absence of Jesus does not leave them comfortless. Jesus, the very divine presence, according to this passage, will be with us. And according to the end of Matthew's gospel, he will be with us especially as we participate in God's mission to "all nations."
Mission, we see from these texts, is about God: about God's love and forgiveness proclaimed, about God sending Jesus, about the promise of the spirit's presence as the task is continued by the church. Mission is not first and foremost about a human program or about human technique. Mission has its origins, and its continuing, and its fulfillment, in the life of the Trinity. Evangelism, disciple making and church planting are necessary and vital aspects of our life, because they are a part of God's own reaching out to the nations.
Liberation from Oppression (Exodus 3)
A second possible starting point, and one with which I also have great sympathy, is the Exodus story. Much so-called Third World theology begins in Exodus because here we have a story about slavery and oppression and about political deliverance. The Exodus story has in fact become somewhat paradigmatic for many theologians seeking to understand the vocation of the Christian and of the church in situations of institutionalized racism, systemic oppression, state-sponsored violence, and unjust international structures. Theologians and biblical scholars from Latin America, from the African American community, from South Africa, from Korea, and from many other communities have turned to the book of Exodus and found a message that appears to stand against the evil realities of social injustice. Here are the people of Israel, who are suffering in slavery under the unfair yoke of an oppressive dictatorship, who find liberation, freedom from bondage, and deliverance into a new land and a new way of life. The similarity between Israel's suffering under the taskmasters of Egypt and the suffering of so many around the world today is too obvious a parallel for most Third World theologians to ignore.
Most striking for me, once again, is what this narrative says about God:
Then the Lord said, "I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them...." (Ex 3:7–8)
In v. 10 God sends Moses to Pharaoh. God uses a human mediator in his work of liberation, but Moses is not the deliverer. It is God who is the missionary in this situation—"I have seen"; "I know"; "I have come down to deliver." God is the one who does the mission; God's servants simply share in the mission that belongs to God.
And notice that the goal of liberation is not the "self-determination" of the people of Israel. The destination of the Exodus is Mount Sinai. God tells Moses that when Israel is delivered from Pharaoh the result will be a doxological one:
[God said to Moses], "But I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain." (Ex 3:12)
Excerpted from Waging Reconciliation by Ian T. Douglas. Copyright © 2002 editors and contributors. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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