The Mission of God in the Real World
This long post is an edited version of a sermon I preached yesterday in Southampton. If you would like to listen to the full version, you can here my dulcet tones here.
21Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. “
God the Sender
As the Father has sent me, I am sending you
You don’t need a degree in theology to see that there is a sequence here. God sends Jesus and Jesus sends the Church. If you glance down to verse 22 you will also see that Jesus equips the church by sending the Holy Spirit. The important thing to note here is that the mission starts with God – he is the one who initiates the whole thing. He sends Jesus and Jesus sends the Church, empowered by the Spirit. All the way through the Bible we read about God reaching out to his creation. Here are a few examples.
1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
2 “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
2 Sing to the LORD, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.
3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
2 In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.
This is an important point – mission to the world is God’s idea, not the Church’s. When we are involved in mission we are involved in something which God has been doing since the very creation of the world. Mission is all about God, it is God who does it and it is done for his reasons and for his glory. The Church, you and I, are God’s agents in this. He chooses to work through us but when we think about mission we must always be careful to remember that the church – missionaries, evangelists, prayers, givers – is not the centre of what’s going on. God is. As Paul says, we are fragile creatures and the glory must go to God.
2 Corinthians 4
7But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
How Did God Send Jesus?
Jesus Came To Announce the Kingdom
But he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”
Jesus says that he was sent in order to preach the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God (or the kingdom of Heaven as Matthew calls it) is not a geographical location, rather it is every where (on earth and in heaven) where God’s will is achieved. The kingdom is already present here on the earth and it is growing and spreading as God works in the lives of his people. Jesus did not come to create or inaugurate the kingdom, he came to announce that it was already there and to call people to join it.
14After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Likewise his message to his followers was that they should announce the presence of the kingdom.
Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you.’
It is also important to note that in Jesus teaching the presence of God’s kingdom is not confined to ‘spiritual things’. God is interested in the wellbeing of his creation as we can when Jesus describes his ministry to John the Baptist in
5The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.
The heart of Jesus mission was preaching the kingdom, but he backed up that preaching with actions which clearly demonstrated the effect of God’s reign in bringing health and wholeness to the people around him. You cannot reduce God’s sending of Jesus to just a spiritual exercise.
Jesus Came In Humility
5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant being made in human likeness. 8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!
Jesus was God incarnate, God living in human flesh, but he never claimed the rights that went along with that. He was born in a stable, lived a wandering life without a place to call his own and died a horrible death after a fixed trial. He is a king who never claimed the privileges of kingship.
So, God sent Jesus out in humility. And so, Jesus also sends his people out in humility. As Paul said in the passage from Philippians 2, ‘our attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus’. It is unfortunately very easy to bring to mind examples of the church not acting with humility. I can see very little connection between the God-man who gave up all of his rights and was born in a stable and the way in which people in Latin America were forced to accept a form of Christianity at the point of a sword. Likewise, the way that the power of the British empire and some Victorian mission enterprises were carried out in Africa don’t seem to show the church being sent in the same way that Jesus was sent. I also have to question some of the militaristic and triumphalist language of much current Christian literature and songwriting. It is not our role to march, to conquer, to capture or to subdue. God is the King and our job is to announce the reign and rule which he has already ushered in.
Jesus Came to Suffer
8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
26Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This takes us on a step further from humility. Jesus didn’t just come in humility he came to serve and ultimately to suffer and die. Jesus death was not a cosmic accident, God didn’t get things wrong. The Bible makes it plain that suffering and death were the very reasons for which Jesus came to the earth in the first place. And now, here is the bad news. Jesus sends us in the same way that God sent him and suffering is an integral part of Christian mission. You can try as hard as you like, but you can’t escape it.
You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them.
If this comes as a surprise to you, look at what Peter says:
1 Peter 4:
12Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.
The Bible makes it clear that suffering for the Gospel is normal for Christians. The Roman author Tertullian summed it up clearly when he said ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’. The word martyr has been corrupted of late by the obscenity of people who see blowing themselves up and killing lots of other people as a service to God. But the Christian church has a long history – which continues until this day – of people being forced to suffer the ultimate sacrifice for their faith. ‘As the father sent me, so I sent you’.
None of us have had to suffer martyrdom for our faith – or we wouldn’t be here, but many of us have suffered different types of persecution and hardship because we are Christians. When we do, we are tempted to ask what has gone wrong. Can I turn that round? If you are not suffering hardship and persecution as a Christian, then you should be asking yourself what has gone wrong!
If, as we have seen, Christ is sending us in the same way that God sent him, then we need to briefly explore the implications of these themes for our life as a church. I’d like to draw two main lessons from what we have seen.
We should not expect to be Comfortable.
We’ve already seen that suffering and hardship were part of Jesus’ mission and we can assume that they should be part of ours to. We forget this lesson at our peril! If it is the role of the church to be involved in God’s mission then this will involve us in a degree of discomfort. Church should not be a place where we expect to be comfortable and free from challenge.
God is has been involved in a mission to draw the people of the world back himself since the very foundation of the earth. That’s what history is all about. Creation, the fall, the story of Israel, the incarnation, death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ are all part of God’s big story – God’s mission.
We Can’t Turn Our Backs on God’s Mission.
If we are part of God’s people, then we are part of this mission, this story. We have no options. Mission, announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God through word and deed is part of what it means to be a Christian. You can’t say that you are not interested in mission and evangelism and still claim to be a Christian anymore than a lion can decide to become a vegetarian. As the Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner put it, ‘The Church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning’. Mission is not something we do as Christians or as a church, it is what we are, it is part of our fundamental nature as the people of a missionary God
What does this mean in real terms?
Firstly, it means that the most important aspect of our life as a Church is not the time when we are gathered together on Sundays, but the time when we are in our different situations, meeting people and with the opportunities of telling them about the Kingdom of God. As a body our meetings, the sermons, our small groups must be encouraging us to reach out and to tell people about what God has already done for them. If our meeting together does not encourage us to be active witnesses to God’s work, then we are failing in a large slice of our responsibilities. We gather together so that we can be strengthened and encouraged when we are sent out.
Secondly, it means that we need to actively seek opportunities to deepen our involvement in God’s mission. Where are you putting your time and your energy? Do you regularly pray for the God’s mission in the world? Do you put your hand in your pocket and give sacrificially so that other people can hear what God has done through Jesus? And what about going? Short-term, long-term? Are there things you should be exploring now?
I’d just like to finish with two verses which remind us that mission is God’s idea and that God will ensure the success. Let’s remind ourselves of the amazing privilege of being involved in an enterprise where long-term success is guaranteed, whatever the short-term struggles.
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.