Essay / Theology

“We’re on a mission from God.”

In the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers, Dan Akroyd deadpans: “We’re on a mission from God.” He and his partner are in the process of putting their band back together and are enlisting an old bandmate, and Akroyd’s character flatly insists that the divine origin of their project is sufficient warrant for the man to rejoin the band. Missions from God worry us, of course; they remind us of loose cannons and power mongers whose purportedly divine missions always seem to reveal a more diabolical than divine origin. To speak of the missio Dei, though, is to make a small, but significant, change in the language. This is not a mission from God but the mission of God. Where the first emphasizes divine sponsorship of our program and suggests its unassailable character (who, after all, can challenge the credentials of a prophet?), the second emphasizes a divine program in which we graciously have been included.

But that is to get ahead of ourselves. We said a moment ago that to call mission the mother of the church is to assert an agent of mission other than the church that births the church in and through mission. Trinitarian theology speaks of the sending of the Son and Spirit in terms of the trinitarian missions. Corresponding to the eternal processions of the Son from the Father and the Spirit from the Father and the Son in God are temporal missions in which the Son and Spirit are sent into the world. So, in the familiar words of John’s gospel: “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) Or, as John puts it in his first epistle: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins…. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.” (1 John 4:10, 14)

The Father sends the Son into the world to save it. We will have more to say later about the character of this salvation; certainly it is a salvation from sin, condemnation and death and for eternal life with God and his people in the new creation. Note that here we are speaking of the Trinity’s mission, divinely initiated and divinely accomplished, a mission whose end is the salvation of the world. (The Spirit is not absent, Jesus having been conceived by the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit and raised by the Spirit.) The church’s mission takes its cues from and finds its place in God’s mission. Jesus commissioned his disciples to continue his work, and he explicitly connected his mission to theirs: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18) There is an analogy between the two; even more, the mission of the disciples is included in the mission of the Son. We must say this carefully. Clearly, there is one sense in which the church cannot, does not and must not presume to continue Christ’s work. For one, he and he alone is the sacrifice for sins (see the passage from 1 John 4 above). He has ascended to the right hand of the Father, where he reigns as King and intercedes as Priest on our behalf. Nevertheless, Jesus expected his disciples to be about his work. “I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:12-13)

These greater works are not autonomously produced, of course; in fact, they are done by Jesus himself in response to our requests in his name. But then again, it is also we who do them. What are we to make of this confusing sense of double agency? It will help to consider a passage later in John, the Pentecostal moment of the gospel. After his resurrection, “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22) Again we have the repetition of mission. As the Father sends his Son, so the Son sends his disciples. As a sign and empowerment for this mission, Jesus breathes the Spirit onto them. This is the Spirit who, as Jesus told his disciples just before he died, “will teach you everything, and will remind you of all that I have said to you.” Furthermore, “the Father will send [him] in my name” (John 14:26). The same Spirit who accompanied and empowered Jesus accompanies and empowers his people. Barth points out that “‘sending’ means to be invested with doxa [glory], to participate in the dignity, authority and power given to the one commissioned to go to a third party for the discharge of his mission.” The mission of the Son is extended, then, in the mission of the Spirit and the church. As Vatican II put it: “The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature, since it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she draws her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father.”

Not that the mission of the Son and Spirit was an entirely new thing. Jesus is the dénouement of God’s mission, not its beginning. He is the “climax of the covenant” that God established with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But he is its climax, the point at which God’s missional ways with the world and his people are integrated and brought to fulfillment. Whether we consider mission creationally (beginning with God’s establishment of Adam and Eve in Eden and command to serve as a kingdom of priests throughout the earth) or soteriologically (beginning with God’s seeking and finding the scantily clad – but clad, because ashamed – Adam and Eve after they had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), God’s mission of making a home for himself in his creation among his people can be traced to the opening chapters of Scripture. As G. K. Beale has argued at length, “God created the cosmos to be his temple, in which he rested after his creative work. His special revelatory presence, nevertheless, did not yet fill the entire earth because his human vice-regent was to achieve this purpose. God had installed this vice-regent in the garden sanctuary to extend the boundaries of God’s presence there worldwide.” The rest of the Bible narrates humanity’s repeated failures to do just that, and God’s various missions – his sending of Noah and Abraham, of Moses and David, of Israel among the nations and, finally, of his only Son (and, in him, many sons and daughters) as a light to the world. God’s mission in the world has a long history in only part of which the church is present.

An important implication follows from this rediscovery of the missio Dei. God is a missionary God. This means that mission is first God’s project, not ours. Furthermore, mission antedates the church. In short, an attention to the mission of God suggests a shift from an ecclesiocentric to a theocentric model of mission. Rather than speaking of the mission of the church, we speak of the church”s participation in the mission of God. This does not suggest an eclipse of the church but, rather, its placement in the broader horizon of God’s ways with the world. The church”s existence is not oriented to itself but to God’s reign. As such, it is the vanguard of the kingdom.

For more on this, see the forthcoming book written with David Wilhite, The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2010).

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