To be as Christ Jesus
Elsewhere on this website we have introduced some ideas concerning Mission and God’s role in that. Taking those ideas as read, here we address the question of the Church’s mission.
It is impossible to discuss this without acknowledging the Church’s central purpose for being. Without its mission, the Church is nothing.
This can be surprising to some, for we can form the perception that the Church is a collection of people, organised in a particular way, who are involved in certain things, and have these buildings called ‘churches.’ While this misapprehension is understandable, all these things are secondary to its mission.
That said, the Church has to function in the real world. It needs leadership, structure, rules, property and all the things that go with any sensibly organised institution. Be that as it may, we must be alert to the tendency to focus on these necessary but peripheral things as if they are the only things that matter. They are only of significance to the degree that they serve the Church’s primary mission: to reveal Jesus Christ and to proclaim his message. The degree to which the Church does that well and authentically is the degree to which it fulfils its primary vocation. The degree to which the Church fails in this is the degree to which it is not worthy to be called the Body of Christ. This links us back to Paul’s instruction on the need for us to ‘be as Christ Jesus’. In reality, what does this mean?
Firstly, to be as Christ Jesus, we must expect that the pattern of his life will be ours. That is to say: like him, we are to be intimately connected to the Father, and our relationship with God is to be at the centre of all we say and do. This degree of connection with God is something that was planted in you at baptism, and continues to be your vocation – for God does not renege on his promises. In Christ Jesus you are God’s son or daughter.
Then, like Jesus, we are to speak the truth of the Father’s love through every word and deed. On the surface of it, this sounds nice. However, as Jesus experienced, truth and love shine a light into the crevices of society and the very hearts of people, and that degree of clarity is not always appreciated. As a result, like Christ, we can expect to be misunderstood, falsely accused, and (in one way or another) put to death. You must be the same as Christ Jesus.
Being the Body of Christ is not a comfortable experience. The extent to which we are satisfied is the extent to which we may be failing to live up to our vocation. To understand this we must understand what the life of faith means.
The Life of Faith
Walking in faith entails responding to the God who is most often hidden from our eyes. We hear his voice, we feel his gentle touch, and we sense deep within ourselves the call to respond. Although we cannot often see the end of the road we are called to walk, we set out anyway, trusting in the one who holds us in being and who calls us forward. Faith does bring with it a type of certainty, but the certainty does not derive from our ability to work out logically what we are to do next. The certainty derives from our trust in God and in the fact that he will not let us fall.
In many ways, each of us is like a tightrope walker crossing a deep and dangerous chasm. It often seems like we are in the dark or thick fog, not sure (from a human perspective) where the next step is going to lead, but utterly confident that it will be alright – for our help is in the Lord who holds all things in being. We are not the ones in control. The moment we believe that we are in control is the moment we have lost sight of what it means to be the same as Christ Jesus. Even Jesus experienced loss of control. The passion and death of Jesus can be understood as his experience of being utterly dependent on the God that even he could not see: ‘my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’
The Church’s mission in the contemporary world
Even though we cannot always easily see the way forward, we are to hold to our mission: to reveal Jesus Christ to the world. This is not easy in a world that does not recognise God in us. The stereotypical view of Catholicism is that it is more about sin and guilt than it is about mercy and compassion. This is a dreadful misunderstanding – made all the worse by the fact that it is a misconception that we often have of ourselves. So let’s be very clear – we are not primarily interested in promoting guilt! Instead, our faith has at its heart freedom and the promise of being free from negative experiences like weakness, guilt and sin (see information on sacrament of reconciliation).
Compassion and mercy
For this reason, all Christians are called to be people of compassion and mercy. It is God who shows us that this is the way to respond. God’s self-revelation as a compassionate and merciful God culminates in the incarnation. “God’s love for us was revealed when God sent into the world his only Son that we could have life through him” (1 John 4:9). In the incarnation, we witness the depth of God’s eternal and endless mercy. All the subsequent words and actions of Jesus are the unfolding of what he is, in person. Not only does Jesus speak of it (God’s mercy) and explain it with the aid of comparisons and parables, but, above all, he embodies and personifies it. He is, in a sense, the mercy of God. Those who look for and find this quality in us, therefore, have God made visible to them in a particular way. God has given us the task to continue his mission: to reveal in our turn the mercy of God to the world. We have to make visible, time and time again, in each new human culture, the love and the mercy of God. Of course, being compassionate does not absolve the Church from speaking the truth. A reflection on truth can be found elsewhere on this site (link to Scripture as Truth).
Compassion and mercy drive us to mission. We are to become mindful that being missionary is, in fact, central to the Christian life. A person without a sense of mission cannot be described as fully Christian. Our call to mission means we are more focused on the needs of those to whom we are sent than we are on preserving our ways of doing things. Pope Francis puts it this way:
“I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation”. (Evangelii Gaudium 27)
Rather than be daunted by the challenge to be missionary, Pope Francis often returns to the idea that the more truly missionary we are, the more joyful we will be.
“By living out our faith in both word and deed, Pope Francis promises us deep and profound joy, ‘With Christ joy is constantly reborn anew’ (Evangelii Gaudium 1).
The mission we are on is going to call us out of our comfort zones. A complacent attitude and the Christian faith do not go well together. This is going to require us to think differently about our priorities individually and collectively (link Renewal and Reform).
Original text by Shane Dwyer
Photo of man driving car by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash
Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019
30 October 2019