God's Mission and Our Mission

A reflection on the sermon preached by John Franke on August 27, 2006. You may listen to the sermon here. If you would like to read my theological engagement with the sermon, click here.

What is the purpose of life? What are we supposed to be doing here and now? How should we live if the gospel is true? These are the kinds of questions that ensure our faith is never abstract and ethereal but always concrete and this-worldly. To be sure, it is not like we 21st-century Christians are discovering what it means to live out God's mission for the first time. What has changed in recent years is the definition of that particular mission. In American religious history, individual conversion was once the goal of the church—and still is for many people. But such a mission views individuals as created for individuality, and the church is simply the voluntary, inessential gathering of these individuals for the purpose of teaching and edification.

While this definition of mission has been dominant, there are other options. Franke defined mission out of the following axioms: (1) God is triune, and thus social not solitary; (2) God is love from all eternity; (3) God has a mission to reconcile the world to Godself; (4) God made humankind in God's image; and (5) the church is the community that is called to participate in this divine mission by acting as agents of reconciliation. While each of these points demands much attention, for now we will reflect on the nature of God's mission and our mission in light of 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, which states:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

As Paul makes clear in his letter to the Corinthian church, God's mission was global—"reconciling the world to himself"—and our mission is communal—"entrusting the message of reconciliation to us." The entire world is included in God's mission to make all things new, not just some section of humanity. This means that if we rejoice that God came to rescue "me," we must also rejoice that God came to rescue our enemies, those we don't like, or with whom we disagree, or even those who have wronged us in serious ways. God did not just come for me. God was the reconciling the whole world to Godself.

Furthermore, we are not agents of reconciliation by ourselves. There is no such thing as an agent of reconciliation; there are only agents, in the plural. When Jesus sent out his disciples, they went out in pairs and never alone. As the church, we are sent out as the "body of Christ," not as individuals. The idea of the individual belongs to the old order which has passed away; the new order, established in Christ, is one of unity and peace, not division and violence. If, as Paul declares, the church is part of the "new creation," then we are called to embody in our ecclesial practices the vision of the new heavens and new earth: "I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. ... The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. ... People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations" (Rev. 21:22, 24, 26).

The passage from Paul's letter to the Corinthians is confusing, however, in the way it speaks of reconciliation. On one hand, he speaks as if reconciliation is a past event—"God ... reconciled us to himself through Christ"—and on the other hand, he speaks as if it is a present and future event—"be reconciled to God." So which is it? The answer, of course, is both. Our work as agents of reconciliation in the present depends entirely on the fact that God already reconciled the world to Godself in Jesus Christ. And both the past event of reconciliation in Jesus and our present message of reconciliation look forward to the future event in which God will establish God's kingdom and the New Jerusalem will become reality. In other words, the future is the completion of what happened in the past; the present looks forward to the future on the basis of the past; and the past is the basis for both the present and the future. Without Christ, all is lost. With Christ, "there is a new creation."

It is important, then, to keep in mind that our work as agents of reconciliation is a gift granted to us by God. We are not completing something which God could not complete on God's own. Rather, God has granted to us the privilege and responsibility of being God's agents and ambassadors. How great is this privilege? "God is making his appeal through us"—this is quite an honor! But we must remember that all reconciliation begins and ends with Jesus Christ. We are not adding on to the reconciliation accomplished in Christ. Rather we are witnessing to what God already effected in Christ and will one day complete. We are witnesses to the gospel. In our very lives, we should be embodying the reality that "everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" When this is true, then we may efficaciously exhort others: "Be reconciled to God."

Finally, if we communicate the gospel clearly, that Christ has indeed already reconciled us to God, then no one will feel coerced into reconciliation, but rather they will feel utterly and joyfully free. For the gospel is not one of fear but of freedom. We are set free by Christ to live as those reconciled to God. We do not have to worry about reconciling ourselves to God, because that burden—an impossible burden to bear!—has already been borne for us by Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. It is in light of this truth that we should approach the world. This is what Paul means when he states, "From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view." The "human point of view" sees each person in terms of the good or bad things that he or she has done. Now, however, we regard people from God's point of view, a view that is entirely conditioned by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our mission takes its shape from God's mission. Since "God was reconciling the world to himself" in Christ, we can now approach the world with joy and freedom. We can proclaim gladly: "Be reconciled to God!"

In conclusion, we can say the following: God is a triune being of love, and we are called to be creatures who participate in this communion of love as God's covenant partners in the mission to reconcile the world. This is the gospel. We are created to live with others and with God, not as solitary individuals. We are called to do God's work, not our own. We are called to be stewards of this planet, not its exploiters. We are called to be agents of reconciliation by bringing love in the midst of hate, peace in the midst of violence, hope in the midst of despair, truth in the midst of falsehood, and life in the midst of death. We can only do this because, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are the message-bearers of the gospel that God will indeed accomplish all of this and so much more. To the glory of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Comments

Halden said…
I think we're reaching some sort of rapproachment on our views about divine action, ecclesial practices and participation in God. Excellent, excellent post. A hearty amen on that one!
byron said…
Thanks for this post. I agreed with so much of it. I particularly liked your comments about reconciliation as God's achievement, as past gift, which evokes present participation while we await future hope. And that this brings liberty because our present action is dependent upon God's prior and future acts. Also loved your point about the global scope of reconciliation - that it includes my enemies!

A couple of thoughts:
1) I wondered whether you thought there was scope in commenting on this passage to discuss the how of reconciliation. In particular, what do you make of verse 21?

2) The idea of the individual belongs to the old order which has passed away; the new order, established in Christ, is one of unity and peace, not division and violence.
Do you see an ongoing place for the personal, even if the (atomised) individual is put to death? Is this distinction possible? As I see it, affirming the necessity (and gift!) of inter-relationality doesn't necessarily imply collectivism. Thoughts?