In the first section on the topic of mission we addressed the central mission of the Church and noted how the Church has always sought to incarnate its mission within the real-life experiences and needs of the people it serves. Here we reflect a little on the role that God plays in the task that the Church, and by association, each of us, has.
It is reasonably straightforward: the origin of the mission is God, the call to the mission is from God, and the grace to carry out the mission is given by God. Without God there is no mission.
In fact, there is a real sense in which it can be said that God is “mission.” By this we mean that, because God is love (1 John 4) God cannot help but share Godself with that which God loves. Love is active and creative. Love seeks out and goes in search of that which it loves. Love longs to help, to heal, and spend time with the one it loves.
This love is at the heart of all we know about God, and is the measure by which we distinguish the truth about God from the distortions and misunderstandings. In another section on this website, we introduce some preliminary thoughts on the way God is depicted in the Old Testament. There we see that God’s mission is to bring all creation into being and then to seek to form a nation to act as living witnesses to his desire that all people may enter into life with him.
In the New Testament, the mission of God takes on further depth and meaning. In God’s desire to communicate with us more clearly, God becomes one of us and takes on the ups and downs of human life. This is so that we might know who God really is, and also to know that God is not divorced from human experience. In Jesus, God is put to death to reveal for all time that sin and death cannot defeat love. Love is redemptive and healing.
Then after the ascension of Jesus, God’s mission takes another turn. The Holy Spirit is sent as the culmination of God’s mission to bring all peoples to himself. God’s mission is no longer limited to the people of Israel (Old Testament) or to those within reach of Jesus (Gospels) but, through the power of the Holy Spirit, empowers the followers of Jesus to go to the ends of the earth. This is not something they are asked to do on their own. It is the mission of the Holy Spirit, towards which Jesus’ disciples are invited to contribute as a constitutive part of our baptism.
Here we conclude by offering some reflections to aid your understanding further.
Being and Doing
We begin by noting that we misunderstand the way God’s mission is to be contributed to by us, if we imagine that we can assist with it while remaining unchanged ourselves. God does not give us ‘jobs to do’ or ‘tasks to be accomplished’. God calls us into a loving relationship with him, and to express that relationship with everything we are and do. We cannot imagine that we are contributing anything of any significance to God’s mission (and thus to the mission of the Church) if we have any other approach. The mission of God, if embraced by us, fundamentally changes who we are.
The problem is that our instinct is to compartmentalise the different elements of our faith and, as a consequence, to think about those elements in an arbitrary way or the wrong order. What do we mean by this? Many of us think about God as being ‘out there’ and assume that believing in God is enough. The problem is that this represents a complete misreading of the way the experience of faith is to be organised and understood. In fact, at the centre of our faith is mission. We are to be the presence of Jesus Christ in the world. When people encounter us, they are to encounter Jesus. This is the reality into which God has invited us, and into which we have been baptised. The Eucharist is given to us to heal, teach and sustain us in our mission to bring Christ to the world. Prayer is given to us to allow us to get to know the one we are revealing and to provide us with the spiritual guidance we need. The sacrament of reconciliation is there to help us deal with our inevitable failures as we seek to live the mission into which we have been baptised and confirmed. Marriage and holy orders are provided as sacramentally blessed ways to live out that mission.
In all this, God is not a presence ‘out there’ that we may or may not believe in. God sits at the centre of our hearts, calling us forward every step of the way, as we participate in his plan to bring all things together in Christ.
Information or Experience?
Mission is not about giving people information. It is about an experience: The experience of being in love with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is our faith from the inside out. The heart of our faith is not primarily about arguing the rights and wrongs of different aspects of what we believe (although there is a place for that). It begins with an encounter with Jesus Christ. That relationship is the tree upon which the fruit (the different aspects of our faith) grow and live.
However, leading someone to this experience can seem too difficult for us. It can be time-consuming and we can be put off by the fact that we are not in control of it (God is). We’re also not confident that if we invite them into our faith community Christ is what they will experience there. Will they even be made to feel welcome?
As a result, we are tempted to avoid offering this experience altogether. Rather than say to someone ‘let’s start with what’s important – come and meet Jesus Christ’, we jump to the endpoint – ‘this is what you need to believe, this is how you need to live’ – and discover again and again that this approach has limited success. In fact, it often just confuses and annoys people!
Take any teaching of the Church (theological, moral, social, or spiritual), and you’ll find that the same thing applies: for those whose relationship with God is not strong, the things the Church asks can be daunting and burdensome – and even incomprehensible. Only those who sit very close to God have any real hope. Our faith is intended to be lived from the inside out. The question is: are we prepared to think about, pray over, and discuss what that might mean for us as individuals and as communities? Attending to this remains the single biggest challenge to the life and mission of the Church in this country today.
All or Nothing
Timothy Radcliffe reflects on the relevance of Christianity in the contemporary context. The fundamental insight that he writes about in What is the Point of Being a Christian? is that the society in which we live is in search of meaning and purpose – ultimately a frustrating search unless it leads us to the One who alone can satisfy the deepest longings that we feel. The contemporary context provides a fantastic opportunity for Christians to speak of the hope that they find in Jesus Christ, to a world that seems to be increasingly short of hope.
So often we can wonder where we are to start as we seek to live our mission. At the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter 12, Paul gives us a pretty good idea. Paul instructs us to give ourselves entirely over to God – no excuses (see Romans 12:1 – 2). He says that unless we do this we will not know what God is asking of us, much less be able to do what God is asking of us. The reason is that God can only communicate with individuals who have taken the leap and learned to place their confidence in God alone. Until we do that, we keep getting in the way, and God’s word to us becomes distorted.
Part of our problem is that we want to have our cake and eat it too. That is to say, we want to live a life of faith while not wanting to take it too seriously. We cannot imagine that God wants to work in and through us as he reaches out to everyone with whom we come in contact. We are content to play around in the shallow end of the pool, imagining that it is not our place to take our feet off the bottom of that pool and swim into the deep. The problem is that playing around in the shallow end of the ‘spiritual’ pool is not going to satisfy most adults. We have to go deep – where it is challenging, a little dangerous, but ultimately much more satisfying. If we do not, our spiritual lives are in danger of withering up and dying.
But how do we do this? Paul describes it perfectly in Romans 12. On the surface of it, it is so simple. Paul is saying “give yourself completely to God…do not compromise…if you do this, God will transform you and your life.” So simple and yet, where do we start? I invite you to try it today and see how you get on. Typically, you will form all sorts of good intentions and then find yourself stumbling at almost every hurdle. Years of failure can wear you down. You start to wonder whether what Paul is describing is possible, or even desirable. You relax, you compromise, and you go back to the shallow end of the pool.
This is a crucial moment. It is the moment when we realise that without grace there is nothing we can do. Left to our own devices we can achieve very little when it comes to the life God is offering us. In fact, without grace we can achieve nothing. But that is all right. The life of faith has very little to do with our achievement.
On the contrary, all we can do is believe that God wishes to fill our lives to the brim with his love and his presence, and then ask him to bring this about in us. The people in the deep end of the pool (the saints) are not heroic, strong people in their own right. They are simply people who said ‘yes’ and allowed God to lead them into the deep.
The proclamation of the Gospel to all people all of the time can be an overwhelming prospect until we recall that all we are being asked to do is to trust God to lead us. The rest is up to God.
Original text by Shane Dwyer
Photo of man in car by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash
Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019
30 October 2019