Wednesday, September 7, 2016

the great and radical co-mission of Jesus

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Mission. The word conjures up all types of images in my mind. I went to a Bible college which emphasized missions. We had missions prayer groups, missions conferences, ex-missionaries who taught us, and traveling missionaries who spoke in chapel. Many of my fellow classmates went on to what was called the mission field, to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in another culture in a far away land.

The word mission is also used in the corporate world to refer to the overall purpose of a company. A well-written mission statement accurately reflects what the company spends its energies on. Can you guess whose mission statement this is? "To be the Earth's most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online." That's Amazon. How about this one? "To make the world more open and connected." Yes, that's Faceboook. One more: "Saving people money so they can live better." If you guessed Walmart, you got it right.

A mission is like an arrow. Because it has a specific focus, it points us in a certain direction and sets us on a certain trajectory. Its specificity makes it easier to make decisions as we go along (is this in line with our mission or not?) and helps us evaluate if we have gone off-track.

When Christians speak about mission, Matthew 28:18-20 is often cited. Here, the resurrected Jesus is talking to his disciples. "I am here speaking with all the authority of God, [who has commanded Me to give you this commission]: Go out and make disciples in all the nations. Ceremonially wash them through baptism in the name of the [triune] God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then disciple them. [Form them in the practices and postures that] I have taught you and show them how to follow the commands I have laid down for you. And I will be with you, day after day, to the end of the age." (The Voice, bracketed words added by translators).

There are two things I would like to mention concerning this passage. The first has to do with the radical, upside-down nature of Jesus's words, and to see this we have to look at the beginning of the book. The first chapter of Matthew contains the genealogy of Jesus, no surprise there. What is of particular interest is the mention of exile as an important marker: "So all generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations. Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way..." (Matthew 1:17-18, NRSV). The writer is setting up a particular way of introducing Jesus, and it has to do with God's promise to Abraham (a chosen nation with their own land) and God's promise to David (the establishment of a kingdom and a godly king), and the end of living in exile. [1]

When Jesus comes on the scene, Israel is in a type of exile (under foreign rule), and they expect a Davidic messiah to correct the problem, to restore Israel by reclaiming their land and liberating them from their oppressors. Peter Enns notes: "Matthew's genealogy is creatively and carefully crafted to present Jesus as Israel's long-awaited deliverer - descended from David, who will bring an end to the exile and restore the land promised long ago to Abraham." [2] However, as the story unfolds, Jesus makes it clear that he is not here for a political revolution, not here to reclaim land and overthrow evil despots. This is jarring to Jewish ears. For generations the people of Israel have envisioned messiah as a political liberator. Surprisingly, the kingdom of which Jesus speaks is not the Davidic empire, but one where the poor, the meek, and the persecuted are star citizens.

The closest ones to Jesus, his disciples (who were supposed to be learning his ways), found this shift almost impossible to grasp. In Matthew 20, Jesus tells them he is going to die, and their response is to fight about who will sit next to him when he sets up his rule (or rather, to get their mother to broach the sensitive topic). Peter Enns observes that the disciples are not talking loftily about heaven here, but showing that they are still stuck on a political messiah, a here and now kingdom set up in Jerusalem. Jesus responds to the request by correcting the disciples' presuppositions, re-framing what it means to rule by stating that the messiah did not come to be served but to serve.

And then comes the book's surprise ending: instead of restoring Israel's land and kingdom, instead of ending the exile once and for all, Jesus turns exile into mission. "This is how Israel's exile comes to an end for Matthew - not by restoring Israel's kingdom as in the days of David. Rather, Jerusalem and the land of Israel are no longer God's focal point. The disciples are to leave their land and make disciples from all nations, teaching them to follow Jesus and what he ... commanded, spreading the word of a different kind of kingdom and a different kind of king." [3] This calls for a radical change of mindset. Instead of focusing on a cozy, comfortable, homogeneous nation state, Jesus tells his disciples to turn their focus outward, to the world beyond their own borders. Jesus redefines pretty much everything the Jews thought they knew about kingdom, messiah, salvation, and mission.

Second, I want to draw attention to the verbs in Matthew 28:18-20. Though many like to emphasize the word, "Go," in this passage, it is actually a participle (poreuthentes), and the main verb is "make disciples." In the New Testament, poreuthentes is often used together with other verbs: go and report, go and show, go and search, go and learn, go and do, go and buy. Go implies movement in order to accomplish a certain task. I like the phrase which the translators of The Voice have added in order to expound on the idea of making disciples: "Form them in the practices and postures that I have taught you." To pinpoint the practices that Jesus exemplified, I turn to another familiar passage. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." (John 3:16-17, NRSV) Again, notice the verbs here. What does God do? He loves. He gives. He does not condemn but saves and helps. And these are the practices and postures we teach when we make disciples of Jesus: we love, we give, we do not condemn, but help.

In short, a mission can be thought of as the words which come after the phrase "so that..." In God's covenant with Abram, God promises to bless him and make him a great nation SO THAT all the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12). In John 3, Jesus tell us that God loves and gives SO THAT everyone may be rescued and participate in the life of God. This is where the arrow of God's mission points: to the loving, generous redemption of the whole of creation.

May we set aside our self-centred presuppositions and expectations of what it means for God to bless us and save us, and let us be true disciples of Jesus by joining him in loving, giving, and helping the world instead of condemning it. That is our mission, should we choose to accept it.

[1] Credit to Peter Enns for this observation.
[2] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So...: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 208.
[3] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 209.