**Any talk of mission requires us to be honest with each other, as we should always be. To inhabit the whole house of our truth, and not just to hide in the room where we are most comfortable. The church is one in God but on the ground it consists of many. Ask another 12 people to do the same as we do this morning, and they will speak with different voices. We think different things, have different priorities, have different theologies, us Christians. The fried egg version of faith – with the yolk of truth in the centre – is out for me at least, and scrambled egg is in, and it’s more scrambled than it has ever been before.
Absolutists find that a very hard lesson to learn but for liberals like me who want people to be as realistic as I imagine myself to be, it means sharing the field with people who begin from somewhere else and are heading for another goal and use an ‘in’ language which I would regard as an unhelpful means of communication. But of the four things on this Mission Sunday I want us to think about together, I hope most mission-minders have them in common.
Essentially mission is who we are.
It goes with being a Christian. It’s not a private arrangement with God but incorporation – as an individual with your given DNA identification – into the company of disciples who are apostles as well. The Kingdom is near and you are part of it. There is an imperative in just being a Christian, a commitment to speak your truth, to share your love, to work for justice and peace and to seek the redemption of society.
For those of us who have some allegiance to the Methodist Church, our only convincing reason for existing as a separate community has been from the beginning, that we are a missionary organisation.
We mission in an environment of many faiths and in particular one very devoted one. For many Muslims – and they can be nearly as varied as are the many strands of Christianity – their faith is an evangelical cause and a way of social and political identity. In Western Europe we mission to a militantly secular temper, fuelled by aggressive atheists for whom religion of any sort is an intellectual fraud and an emotional indulgence. Moreover many Christians in the West have become critical of their faith and we feel sometimes like the anxious psalmist, that God is hiding his face from us.
But this is where we find ourselves as modern missionaries, not colonising the pagans but seeking to understand and contribute to the fascinating and dangerous world we now live in. Humbly but persistently, this is what we do. It is our vocation. So that’s the first thing – mission is who we are, an essential in any definition of what it is to be Christian.
Mission is what we say
The core of what we say is a statement about the nearness of God, about the intentions of God which are to our good made evident by the words and deeds of Jesus, and the competence of God to make a difference to who we are. Jesus found God amongst the poor, and he brought to them a new informality and generosity of spirit unknown to the guardians of religion who believed God was found then (and often since) in power and majesty. We have the responsibility to speak for the ways of Jesus but no right to do so with pride and arrogance. All this recent talk about the persuasive power of secularism and the fear that world religions are marginalised, neglects our Christian inheritance. It is USUAL for the followers of Jesus to be in the margins of society, and it from that position that we speak our truth.
We have played the game of the powerful and the privileged too often, forgetting the style of Jesus and indeed the prophecy of his mother who foretold that the mighty would be dethroned. From the days when the Emperor Constantine went to war with his vision of the cross and the words ‘Conquer with this’, a sign of the cross scratched by his soldiers across their battle shields, we have had imperial views of mission that have nothing to do with the ways of Jesus. Nothing at all. Our mission today is to approach people with humility and openness, not parroting that we know all the answers but offering to walk with others – as I shall say in a moment -who seek truth and wish to share love. We enter into a conversation about the immanence of God begun by Jesus, and do so in dialogue with anyone who may respond. Mission is what we say.
Mission is what we do
This is the evangelical bit that often gets forgotten. It’s the words but also the deeds of Jesus that are remembered. The man who went about doing good was as significant to his first hearers as the things that he was remembered as saying. Luke tells the story of the seventy who were sent out to practice living like Jesus. They were to knock on doors, eat with people who welcomed them, tell them that the kingdom was near to them and heal the sick. The message had to be articulated but acted out as well.
Every church needs projects to make manifest its beliefs, and the bits that happen in the week in a local church as well as worship on Sundays is an expression of the gospel. There is this commitment amongst the churches in Bath to meeting the needs of homeless people. Someone once said to me ‘I like your church because it looks after people’. Another person at another time said ‘We have a flourishing Playgroup but none of the mothers come to church’ And the comment of the first was nearer to understanding the church’s message than the disappointment of the second. What we do is not an unsubtle attempt at church recruitment, it is our mission to illustrate and evoke the kingdom. O.K. we must ‘name the name’ but if we do what we do for the sake of Jesus ‘- ‘blessed indeed are those who come in the name of the Lord’, the doing matters on its own terms. If I had the authority or opportunity I’d tell every Church Council to ask itself at every meeting ‘What new expression of the gospel can we set our hands to next?’.
It can get untidy. We can get involved in local issues and national and international politics. We are for the people, we are for peace and justice, we believe in civic and parliamentary accountability, we recognise the dangers of hasty legislation, our ideas of democracy are more than voting every five years and then keeping quiet until the next time. We care about the multiple disadvantages under which many people live, and we resist the argument that building a casino for the rich is a good way to help a vulnerable neighbourhood, a present subject of debate in our own city. We care for the planet and for the future of our children and their children. God made this earth and we are rapidly unmaking it. The major dark issues of our age – so many of them in this country highlighted by the de-structuring of the Welfare State by the Coalition government, parcelling it out to commercial interests -must also be, surely, a fundamental concern for Christian people. And each time we see something that offends our gospel priorities and perhaps have a good yell about it, we need to consider carefully if there is something that as part of our mission, we can do. Mission is what we do.
Mission is who we work with
Anyone who will let us work with them, and who have the betterment of life as their purpose. That’s the short answer, but there is a longer answer and it can get very complicated and is often a question of individual conscience. Once we ‘go into the world’ as Jesus told his first bearers of the gospel to do, we are no longer safe. We stand firm in the Lord as Paul requires of the Philippian church, but we are not standing on a pedestal, immune from the human traffic around us. We join the hoi polloi. We become vulnerable and can no longer practice church language in the belief that people will automatically understand it. It may be true that many people have a vague feeling that there is something out there, but no vocabulary in which to express such feelings. We may get involved in intense arguments about the existence of God but in the widespread absence of faith in an unseen God, our humanness is the basis of many enterprises we may wish to join. We take our chance but we also meet many friends we never knew we had, bringing us to dialogue with people for whom the search for peace and justice is a basic purpose of being alive.
.There is this widely respected German theologian, Jurgen Moltman, who everyone who was anyone in the theological world was once expected to have read. He wrote a book called The Theology of Hope in the late 1950’s which brought a new dimension into the theological scene. He has some lovely definitions of church – a community of the Cross, comrades of the kingdom, fellowship of the friends of Jesus. And a fellowship of service. Once we see ourselves as servants we go to wherever were we are needed and with whosoever have similar concerns. Mission is who we work with.
**If you expected on this Mission Sunday a rallying cry from the preacher to go into the streets and proclaim the mighty power of God, calling people to repentance, you clearly haven’t got it. Instead my cry is to call you to be a community of disciples open to the world, sensitive to the presence of a suffering God, and offering to all people the hope of a new way of being human. The call from God I hear is corporate but is about me, and is focussed in the words and deeds of Jesus.
We shall want to say it quietly and humbly, but the mission carries on the mission of Christ through us. Therefore it must be done as he did it. We will assume the existence of God’s kingly rule and that the King is as a parent and we love him/her, as we are loved. We will be ready to argue our case and to hear other people’s truths as we speak to our own. Committed to a world that is broader and kinder than the one we see, we will be cautious in the use of power and never forget the powerless; for it is amongst them that the integrity of our gospel was born and will prove itself again.