Eddie and Sue Arthur

Books I Have Read: Abide and Go

If you are looking for a challenging read about spirituality and mission in John’s Gospel then look no further than Abide and Go: Missional Theosis in the Gospel of John (The Didsbury Lecture Series) by Michael J. Gorman. However, if you are looking for an easy page-turner, then this is probably not for you.

The book is a medium format paperback of just over 250 pages including lots of notes and it will set you back £25 for the paperback, far more for a hardback and around £8 for the Kindle version. If you don’t have a Kindle, get your library to order you a copy. The style of this book is academic and rigorous to the point of repetition, reflecting its origin as a series of lectures. The bottom line is that it is very good and thought-provoking, but it is hard work.

The argument is developed over seven chapters.

The first chapter sets out Gorman’s thesis that John presents an approach to spirituality which involves simultaneously being drawn together in Christ and being sent out into the world; the “abide and go” of the book’s title. He terms this missional-theosis. Theosis is a term which means becoming like God and could sound rather dodgy to Protestant ears. When the Bible calls us to be loving, holy and truthful it is calling us to be like God, if someone wants to wrap a Greek term such as theosis around this, it’s fine by me. Some of the themes in Gorman’s earlier work, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission (The Gospel and Our Culture Series (GOCS)) are repeated here.

Chapters 2-5 are exegetical, examining the text of John in some detail to see how the notion of missional-theosis plays out. I found the chapters dealing with John 17 (ch. 4) and John 20 and 21 (ch. 5) to be the most enlightening. In his exegetical work, Gorman engages with a wide range of authors, including those who suggest that far from being missional in its orientation, John’s Gospel has a sectarian approach, focusing purely on the community that it serves. Suffice it to say, Gorman does not agree with this approach.

Chapter 6 takes an overview of the Gospel as a whole and develops the theme of love for our enemies. The final chapter is by way of a summary and gives a number of examples of groups which the author says are putting these principles into practice. I was less convinced by this section, it seems to me that the groups that were described were strong on theosis, but not so much on missional (at least if verbal proclamation is seen as essential to mission).

Who should read this book? If you’ve enjoyed Gorman’s earlier work, then you will find this helpful. Certainly, anyone who is considering preaching a series of sermons on John’s Gospel in the near future cannot afford to ignore this book.

As always, a selection of quotes to close.

In this book I reflect on reading the Gospel of John missionally. Specifically, I will argue that the Fourth Gospel is a missional gospel with a missional spirituality, and that these two aspects of the Gospel have profound relevance for the contemporary church.

As I have written elsewhere, the term missio Dei summarizes the conviction that the Scriptures of both Testaments bear witness to a God who, as creator and redeemer of the world, is already on a mission. Indeed, God is by nature a missional God, who is seeking not just to save “souls” to take to heaven some day, but to restore and save the created order: individuals, communities, nations, the environment, the world, the cosmos. This God calls the people of God assembled in the name of Christ—who was the incarnation of the divine mission—to participate in this missio Dei, to discern what God is up to in the world, and to join in.

Both the Gospel and 1 John suggest that being God’s children, for John, means acting in a Godlike way, which includes acting missionally like God the Father. And, as we will see momentarily, the gift of the Spirit makes such family resemblance possible for disciples in at least one concrete dimension of mission.

Such an understanding of mission does not, however, allow the community to remain focused on itself and become a kind of sectarian entity, a “holy huddle,” to use once again the colloquial term. Rather, this sense of mission understands the missio Dei to be “formational” as well as “missionary,” or (better yet) centripetal (spiraling inward) as well as centrifugal (spiraling outward). Thus, part of the mission of the church is to attend to itself even as it attends to the world.

Christian mission, then, is both centripetal and centrifugal. It means “abide and go”: abide in the community, and go into the world. This is a seamless garment of participation in a love that sweeps us into the life of God, who loves the world—and does so through disciples of Jesus, who are sent into that world just as the Son was sent.

John 3:1—4:54 portrays three individuals who encounter Jesus, illustrating the Son’s offer of life to all and various responses to him. The three include a Jew, the Pharisee Nicodemus (3:1–21); an unnamed Samaritan woman (4:1–42); and an unnamed “royal official” (basilikos—4:46, 49). The overall flow of the narrative in this section of the gospel—from Jew to “half-Jew” (Samaritan) to royal official—strongly suggests that this royal official should be understood as a non-Jew: a gentile, or at least a gentile sympathizer and hence functionally a gentile (4:46–54). These three figures—a Jew, a half-Jew, and a non-Jew (gentile/gentile sympathizer)—together symbolize and emphasize the universality of Jesus’ mission mentioned in 1:10–12 and the universal scope of God’s love noted in 3:16.534 Together they illustrate that Jesus is “the Savior of the world” (4:42). Moreover, the two unnamed figures also represent Israel’s enemies: the Samaritans and the Romans.

The claim that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” (4:4) on his way back to Galilee from Judea is incorrect with respect to itinerary, for there were other possible routes.538 The claim is a theological one; the necessity is related to God’s plan and Jesus’ mission.539 Jesus has to travel into Samaria, not merely because his mission is to the world, but also because God loves the world that opposes God, and this divine enemy-love is incarnate in Jesus. Furthermore, implicitly, God in Jesus is also reconciling human enemies to one another, represented by Jews and Samaritans and by their coming together to worship the one Father in (the) Spirit and the Truth, Jesus (4:23; cf. 14:6).

The central thesis of this book has been the following: Johannine spirituality fundamentally consists in the mutual indwelling of the Triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) and Jesus’ disciples such that disciples participate in the divine love and life, and therefore in the life-giving mission of God, thereby both demonstrating their likeness to God as God’s children and becoming more and more like God as they become like his Son by the work of the Spirit. This spirituality can be summarized in the phrase “abide and go,” based on John 15.

 

 

Throwback: Christmas, Why the Big Fuss?

Continuing my theme of reposting articles about Christmas, this one is from 2015.

Well, Christmas is almost upon us. It’s time for the various last-minute panics about food shopping, present buying and card sending that make this such a wonderful reflective time of the year.

Of course, it is important to celebrate Christmas because it is one of the key cultural festivals of our society and more importantly (for this blog) it’s a Christian event. But just how central is the Christmas story to the Bible? You don’t have to spend too long looking at the Gospels to realise that the Christmas story is not really centre stage. Let’s list some of the key events that form the narrative of Christmas as it is usually told:

  • The angel announces Jesus birth to Mary: Luke
  • The angel announces Jesus birth to Joseph: Matthew
  • John the Baptist’s birth: Luke
  • The census: Luke
  • The journey to Bethlehem: Luke, Matthew (by implication)
  • No room in the inn: Luke
  • The manger: Luke
  • The shepherds: Luke
  • The Star: Matthew
  • The wise men: Matthew

So, of the four Gospels, two of them don’t mention the Christmas story at all and, apart from the place of Jesus birth and the fact that he was born during the reign of Herod, the other two Gospels don’t include the same details. The fact that Matthew and Luke don’t include the same events isn’t a problem, they each have their particular focus and probably used different sources for their information; this is what happens when two people write about the same event (it is fair to point out that details such as the name of Jesus’ parents are common to both Luke and Matthew).

Two of the Gospels more or less ignore the Christmas story altogether and the other two only tell half the story. Not only that, but we are so distanced from the original events in time and space that we tend to misread the familiar words anyway.

So where am I going with all this?

Firstly, I don’t think that we can justify the attention that we pay to this time of the year from Scripture. There are many other events which are more central to the four Gospels than the Christmas story.

However, as I said above, this is a key cultural event for our society and because of that, it provides a wonderful opportunity to talk about Jesus and to get the Christian faith on the national agenda. However, I think we need to think of this in missional terms; how do we use the opportunities of this season to present the reality of the Christian faith to a world that is busy buying presents and cooking turkeys?

Too often, the Christian response is to insist that we have to put “Christ back into Christmas”. Pointing us back to some mythical time in the past when the celebration revolved around Jesus. If that time ever existed (and I’m far from convinced it did), it was in a society very different to our own and the solutions from those days are not the right ones for today.

I’m not sure what the answers are, but I have a sneaking feeling that the Gospels have got it right. They spend hardly any time talking about “the baby Jesus”. Somehow, we have to move from the sentimentality of the traditional Christmas story to the gritty reality of God become man and challenging our fundamental way of life.

What Luke Doesn’t Tell Us

It is often pointed out that the book that we call The Acts of the Apostles might be better titled the Acts of the Holy Spirit or the Acts of the Risen Christ. Whatever you think of these suggestions, the normal title is slightly strange because for over half of the book’s length it does not tell us about the Apostles, but about one Apostle; Paul.

From chapter 13 onward, Luke focuses his gaze on Paul and his travels around the Eastern Mediterranean and from then on in, Peter, James, John and the other disciples hardly get a look in. There are a couple of good reasons for this, firstly the text is inspired and this is what God wanted us to know and secondly, Luke was a good researcher and reported on things that he knew about (he travelled with Paul, for some of the time). However, this does mean that there is an awful lot about the very early history of the Church that we do not know. Did Thomas really go to India as tradition suggests? What did John (and was it actually the Apostle John?) do to end up in exile on Patmos? Did Peter get to Rome? What about all of the other followers of Jesus who are mentioned in the Gospels but not in Acts?

Obviously, it is not essential that we know these things otherwise they would have been included in the inspired text. However, as we read the second half of Acts, it is important to remember that we are not hearing the whole story, even if we don’t know what the whole story is.

It is commonly said that Paul is the “greatest missionary”. Leaving aside the archaism involved in using a modern term to describe what Paul did, this may or may not be true. Paul certainly was remarkable, but if Thomas planted churches as far afield as India and Mark (as some traditions suggest) reached Armenia, then Paul has serious rivals for the top-missionary spot.

We know what Paul was up to, but we don’t know much about how the tens, hundreds or even thousands of other Christians were spreading the gospel around the world. Where did the Christians in Rome who welcomed Paul come from? Who shared the good news with them before Paul arrived? Commentators make more or less educated guesses, but we simply don’t know.

There is a point to this. Over two thousand years, Christian writers and chroniclers have talked about the spread of the Christian faith, focusing in on well-known people. Patrick, Boniface, Francis, Carey, Hudson-Taylor and so on. But, just as in Paul’s day, there are hosts of unnamed believers who have spread the gospel around the world whose names don’t appear in the history books. These famous missionaries acted as catalysts, but it is the labours of multitudes of every-day Christians that has led to the spread of the gospel around the world. The growth of the church globally has never been about professional, full-time missionaries – whatever the biographies/hagiographies tell us.

Because we focus on Paul and on the great names in history we forget the role of the vast majority of missionaries whose names are found in the book of life, if not in church history books. Not only that, be we feel that we can safely sub-contract mission to the professionals, forgetting (or perhaps never realising) that is and always has been the domain of the everyday Christian.

Unity and Mission in John 17

I’ve long thought that John 17 is one of the most important passages about mission in Scripture, though it is rarely explored in that light. These comments from Abide and Go: Missional Theosis in the Gospel of John (The Didsbury Lecture Series) strike me as particularly apposite. 

According to John 17, the deepest desire of Jesus is to create a community of disciples who participate in and manifest the unity of God, who continue the mission of God, and who will one day know the full glory of God. More specifically, we can say:

  1. The unity of disciples is both a parallel to and a participation in the divine unity of Father and Son.
  2. Mutual indwelling, unity, and mission are inextricably interrelated; there cannot be one without the other. The relationship of the disciples to the Father and Son, this “sharing in the life of the triune God . . . spawns the mission.”The disciples’ love for one another “is shaped by and participates in the relationship of love between Jesus and the Father.”
  3. Unity is the prerequisite for mission and mission the natural fruit of unity.
  4. The disciples’ similarity to Jesus consists of “other-worldly” belongingness and holiness combined with “this-worldly” sentness and mission, meaning—above all—love.
  5. The missional shape of this participatory communal holiness, unity, and love is cruciform.
  6. The purpose, or perhaps even the content, of sanctification/holiness is covenantal loyalty to and intimacy with God in community, loving unity with one another in God, and joyful participation in the missio Dei.
According to John 17, the deepest desire of Jesus is to create a community of disciples who participate in and manifest the unity of God, who continue the mission of God, and who will one day know the full glory of God. Click To Tweet

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

I don’t know if you have noticed, but there will be a general election in the UK in the next few days.

I think that for many Brits, their reaction is captured by this wonderful video of “Brenda from Bristol” which was filmed when the last election was announced.

However, not everyone is as despairing as Brenda and there are those who are highly motivated politically and see the election as an opportunity to advance their agenda. This is all well and good, it’s what elections are for, after all. The problem is, that British politics is becoming increasingly nasty. Let me give a few examples:

A huge amount of political rhetoric is negative. Parties hardly longer try and sell their own vision of the future, they simply send out dire warnings of what would happen if we voted for the other lot. This election is all about stopping Corbyn or getting rid of the Tories. I realise that negative campaigning has always happened, but it has reached unprecedented levels. Multiplied by the echo chamber that is social media, the election is getting increasingly nasty and the country becoming more divided. Without even delving into the murky waters of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, the levels of invective and hatred are quite staggering at times.

I suspect that once the election is over, things will calm down and we’ll sort of muddle along as a society until something else (another election?) happens to blow things up again at which point the anger will come back to the surface with increased ferocity. To be honest, I fear that we are caught in a rather unpleasant spiral as opinions become more polarised and less nuanced. Complex, negotiated solutions to our problems are rejected in favour of easy sound bites which breed cynicism, distrust and division and it’s only going to get worse. I’m not sure where it will all end, but it may not be pretty.

Christians cannot stand aloof from these things. Those of us who have strong political opinions have to learn to express them without belittling or insulting those who see things differently. We have a deeper loyalty than our party convictions and next Sunday we will have to break bread with people of very different opinions. It’s hard to do that honestly if we’ve been insulting them for their political views this week. Those of us who are floating voters cannot afford to ignore the election either. The government is important and we are commanded to pray for it – at this point, this means praying for the British electorate that we will make wise choices.

Christians have a deeper loyalty than politics. We break bread with people of very different opinions. It's hard to do that if we've been insulting them for their political views this week. Click To Tweet

The New Testament presents the church as a united multi-lingual, multi-cultural entity, but that unity was hard-won and difficult to maintain. In the same sense, the church is a place where Labour Conservative, Lib-Dem, Green, SNP and Plaid should be able to meet and break bread together. It’s not easy, but we are called to make peace and to model peace for a broken world. Simply ignoring our divisions and pretending they don’t exist is probably the easiest way forward, but it doesn’t do anyone any favours. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus broke down all of the barriers that divide us and that includes political ones. The gospel is incredibly radical and it is the only hope for a divided nation – but we have to be prepared to model that hope.

The Vine and The Branches

I am thoroughly enjoying reading Abide and Go: Missional Theosis in the Gospel of John (The Didsbury Lecture Series) which is much more enjoyable than the title would appear to suggest. I love this comment on the vine and branches discourse in John 15 (the emphasis is mine)

Jesus is not the vine apart from the disciples. This is not in any way to detract from the person or role of Jesus, but it is to think through the metaphor: there is no such thing as a fruit-bearing vine without branches. In that sense, the vine, Jesus, depends on the branches, the disciples—us. To be related to Christ is to be part of someone who exists in this world only by including within his identity a community of people related to him, to one another (the other branches), and to the world in which the community exists and to which it offers its fruit. This does not mean that the branches have caused the vine to exist or give it life; precisely the opposite is clearly the case.  And the fruit that is produced is always due to the vine, the source of the branches’ life and thus of their bounty. But the vine metaphor does mean that Jesus has chosen to convey his life to the world by means of the branches.

The implications of this for the church and its role in the world are huge.

However, just in case it makes you feel slightly uncomfortable…

Second, however, and simultaneously, Jesus is distinct from and greater than the disciples. He is the chooser, the sender (15:16); the disciples are the chosen, the sent. Participation in Christ does not blur the distinction between him and his disciples.

I’ll have a fuller review sometime in the not too distant future. For the record, I think this is essential reading for anyone interested in Johannine literature or in a missional hermeneutic.

Throwback: The Real Meaning of Christmas

On Thursdays in December, I’ll be reposting a few old articles about Christmas that cover various themes. I had been contemplating writing a new post along the lines of this one until I remembered that I’d already written this. 

As usual, at this time of year, there has been a lot said about the need to get back to the real meaning of Christmas and I have a bit of a problem with that. Who gets to define what the real meaning is?

Let me explain.

Take the word “nice”, which today is a simple, rather meaningless adjective which means vaguely pleasant. At school, we were told not to use it in essays because there was always a better, more exact word which could be used. However, in the 13c the word actually meant foolish. It went through a whole series of evolutions in meaning before it came to have its current sense (read more). So what is the real meaning of nice? You can’t define the sense of a word today by its etymology (something that critics of Bible translations would do well to remember). The meanings of words change over time.

By analogy, I would argue that the meaning of celebrations and festivals changes, too.

Christmas does not mean, today, what it meant fifty, one hundred or a thousand years ago. During that time our society has changed massively and so has the significance of Christmas (and all sorts of other festivals).

However, for argument’s sake, let’s say we should get back to the original meaning of Christmas. Where does that leave us? Firstly, we have to deal with the issue that many of our Christmas traditions are not much over 150 years old – what do we do about them?. Then there is the rather inconvenient fact that the early church didn’t celebrate Christmas at all (it was first celebrated in the third century). Presumably, if we want to be really authentic, we would drop Christmas altogether. Then again, in these Northern climes, Christmas celebrations (and some older traditions) piggy-backed onto older pagan celebrations which occurred at the same time of year. If we really want to get back to the origins of the festival, we should consider getting uproariously drunk in front of a blazing fire and celebrating the return of the sun.

Today, Christmas means different things to different people; going home to see the family, watching the Queen on the telly, giving lots of gifts, receiving lots of gifts and so on. It strikes me as rather arrogant for religious people (like me) to turn round and tell them that they’ve got it all wrong and that these things aren’t really Christmas.

So what’s the point in all this?

Firstly, I don’t think that Jesus needs Christmas. He is not diminished if people consider December 25 as a day to eat too much and to lie bloated in front of the TV rather than celebrating it as his birthday (which it almost certainly isn’t, anyway). If you want to get excited about Jesus and the calendar, remember that Sunday is our traditional rest day because it is the day of his resurrection and there are more Sundays than Christmas days in the year. In fact, the whole basis of our calendar (BC/AD or BCE/CE) revolves around his life. Jesus is far bigger than Christmas.

Secondly, people need Jesus, they don’t need better Christmas celebrations. This is simple, but it is very profound. It is an encounter with the living Christ that transforms people and it is our job to point people to him, not to try and make them follow Christian cultural norms. Expecting people who don’t follow Jesus to centre their Christmas around him is doomed to failure.

I fully realise that Christmas offers excellent evangelistic opportunities and I’m all for Churches making the best of it. However, our job is to point people to Jesus, not to try and change the way they celebrate the holiday.

Our evangelism has to start off with a realistic view of the society we are living in and to present the message of Jesus within that culture.

Jesus doesn't need Christmas. He is not diminished if people consider Dec 25 as a day to eat too much and to lie bloated in front of the TV rather than celebrating it as his birthday. Click To Tweet People need Jesus, they don’t need better Christmas celebrations Click To Tweet

 

Books I Have Read: The 3D Gospel

Thirty years or so ago, I wrote a short article that explored the way in which Kouya people responded to the gospel. They didn’t repent of their sins and trust in divine grace for forgiveness in the way that I assumed was necessary. In fact, according to the way in which I had been taught and understood Christianity, they didn’t seem to have become believers at all. But, they made a clear shift in allegiance from darkness to light. In a society such as theirs, to burn all of their charms, and to trust in Jesus alone to protect them was a demonstration of faith that would put most western conservative evangelicals to shame.

The problem, though I didn’t know it at the time was that I lacked a biblical understanding of the breadth of the gospel and the theological language to describe a culture very different from my own. If only, I’d read The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures at the time. I’d have had a much better idea of what was going on.

This is a short paperback of 80 pages which will cost you about five pounds and much less for the Kindle version (though as it has lots of tables, I’d be tempted to go for paper). It is pitched at a popular audience and it is absolutely excellent.

The central thesis of the book is that there are three lenses through which people tend to approach the human condition; guilt-innocence, shame-honour and fear-power.

(1) Guilt-innocence cultures are individualistic societies (mostly Western), where people who break the laws are guilty and seek justice or forgiveness to rectify a wrong,(2) shame-honour cultures describe collectivist cultures (common in the East), where people are shamed for fulfilling group expectations seek to restore their honour before the community, and (3) fear-power cultures refers to animalistic contexts, where people afraid of evil and harm pursue power over the spirit world through magical rituals.

Each of these tends to condition the way in which people relate in society and crucially how they tend to approach the gospel. In the West, we have lived in a guilt-innocence culture and this shapes the way in which we understand and present the Christian message. We focus on the guilt due to sin and the fact that we can be forgiven because Jesus was punished in our place on the cross. Coming from where we come from, with our understanding of human nature, this is the gospel. The problem is that this message (true as it is), does not resonate with people from shame-honour or fear-power cultures. Nor, does this position do full justice to the record of Scripture. In the opening chapter, the book shows the way in which Ephesians addresses each type of culture:

Guilt-Innocence: “In him, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins”

Shame-Honour: “In love, he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ”

Fear-Power:  “That power is like the working of his mighty strength which he exerted in Christ…”

The book is more nuanced than this summary would indicate. The different types of culture are points on a continuum and no people group is one hundred per cent one or the other. However, the guidelines work well.   The book is chock full of tables and comparisons which show how the different cultures work and outlining different Bible themes and stories which are applicable in each situation.

This is a short book and it doesn’t cover anything in detail but as an introduction to a subject which is foreign (quite literally) to most British Christians, it is a great place to start. Who should read it? Anyone who is seeking to minister cross-culturally and who has not studied this subject previously should think about reading it. If you are going to minister in, say, Africa or Asia, you will want to read more detailed works, too, but this is a great starting point. Given that there is evidence that post-Christian Britain is moving away from a guilt-innocence framework, towards a shame-honour one, I would also suggest that anyone who is concerned for evangelising the UK might want to give it a go, too.

The point is, the gospel is richer and more all-encompassing than our social frameworks, but most of us are not able to think outside of the mind-set that we grew up with. This book will help you do just that.

 

 

The Crowd and the Finishing Line

Like many runners, I was transfixed recently when Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon distance in under two hours. I know it wasn’t a race and it doesn’t count as a world record, but it was still impressive. When he broke away from his pace makers and sprinted to the line, I was in bits. Frankly, I could run half a mile at the pace he managed, much less a marathon.

Of course, this was his second attempt at a sub-two hour marathon. His first try at the target was on Monza race course and he missed his goal by a very narrow margin. One of the things that he identified as a problem at Monza was that he was too far from the cheering crowd, so in Vienna the route was chosen so that people could be close to him and cheer him on his way. Crowds do help. Even running in a small, local half-marathon, it gives you a little spring in your step when kids hold up their hands for a high-five as you go past.

The writer to the Hebrews understood this and after giving a list of some heroes of the faith in Chapter 11, he goes on to write:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross,scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

It’s as if Abraham, Sarah and the rest are in the stands, cheering us on as we run. There is something about knowing that we are the inheritors of a long history of believers who have lived through good times and bad and held on to the faith which is an immense encouragement. If people could put up with being sawn in two, then we can surely run our race.

However, as I’ve recently been meditating on this passage, I’m particularly struck by one thing. The writer doesn’t tell us to fix our eyes on the crowd, on the examples from the Old Testament (or indeed from church history), but on Jesus.

Changing the running analogy, somewhat, it is fascinating to watch sprinters in action. They are obviously aware of the crowds; high on adrenaline, they might clown around before they get on their blocks and after they cross the line. However, when they are running, they are focused on the finish; eyes bulging they stare at the line and strain hard to get to it.

We can learn from the Old Testament, from church history and from contemporary Christians, but ultimately our goal is Jesus and we need to fix our eyes on him. He has run the race before us (taking a much more difficult route than we have to) and he is the one we have to follow.

Just a thought.

Throwback: The Manner of Mission – The Cross

This post is eleven years old, but I have returned to this theme numerous times over the years.

As Christians, we can get very hung up on activities; on doing stuff. There are literally hundreds of plans for world evangelisation and strategies to reach all of the nations for Christ. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that doing stuff and making plans is wrong, but the way in which we do things can often be far more important than the actual thing we do. You can sweep a floor to the glory of God and you can preach a sermon to your own glorification: it all depends on your attitude.

This is why I believe that John 20:21 needs to be taken as the key text for mission at our point in history.

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. (NLT)

This verse doesn’t tell us what Jesus is sending us to do (make disciples, bear witness to him), but it does tell us how he is sending us. He is sending us in the same way that the Father sent him. Obviously, there is far more in this simple phrase than can be covered in a short blog post, but I’d like to highlight three (related) ways in which the Father sent Jesus and in which Jesus sends us.

Humility: the Son of God, who was intimately involved in every aspect of creation, came to earth as a baby and was laid in a manger. He lived the life of a wandering teacher without wealth or status and was eventually executed as a common criminal. He befriended outcasts and the marginalised and was routinely shunned by people in authority and influence. Even in his teaching he did not push his own agenda but spoke the words given to him by his Father.

And this is how Jesus sends us out into the world: as humble servants, not as rulers and conquerors. We are not sent to build Empires or to extend the reach of our denominations or our personal projects – we are sent to serve and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus. It is a sad fact that the message of Jesus has been distorted around the globe because missionaries have tended to come from the rich and powerful Western nations. This means that the message of the humble, suffering servant has come tied up with the trappings of economic and political power. We need to find ways to decouple the Gospel of Jesus from the cultural baggage that so often comes attached to it and we need to learn to be servants as Jesus was.

Sacrifice: Jesus was sent to give himself for us. The whole of his life, culminating in his appalling death, was a demonstration of his love and sacrifice for us. He did not retain the comfort, the majesty, the position or ultimately the life which was rightly his: he gave them all up freely for us.

Mission is a call to sacrifice ourselves for Jesus. It involves giving up comfort, status, time, money – everything. Whether we are called as church-planting missionaries to Timbuctoo or as school teachers in Tottenham, God calls us to lay our lives on the line for him. There are times of great joy as we follow God which make all the sacrifices worthwhile. But there are times when it is hard, tough and seems to lead nowhere – but our call is to stick with it and to continue to follow.

Triumph: Jesus came in triumph, but it was a strange upside-down sort of triumph. His cry on the cross “it is finished” John 19:30 had an element of triumph and victory – the sense of a difficult job accomplished against all the odds.

There is a triumph in mission too, but it isn’t found in the spectacular pronouncements of the TV preachers or the building of ecclesiastic or mission empires. Mission triumph is found in Henry Martyn burning out for God in Central Asia bringing the Scriptures to Muslim peoples. Christian triumph is seen in the quiet life of Liang, a Chinese believer who helped plant a Church among the Li people on the Chinese island of Hunan, despite the fact that the Li had martyred her husband just a few weeks earlier. Jesus sends us out in the same way that he was sent out and victory is only won at a price.

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