Living in the Story: The Mission of the Church
Luke 24:46-49; Acts 26:16-18
We continue following our theme of Living in the Story, and today we’re going to pick up much of the rest of the story of the NT.
Jesus was crucified; he was resurrected; he ascended to heaven and sent his Spirit so that the church can now continue his work in the world. What does that look like? What is the mission of the church?
(The following is adapted from NT Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, Chapter 14.)
What is the Mission of the Church?
Our understanding of the mission of the church is shaped by our understanding of the gospel itself.
Going to Heaven
If the summary of the gospel is that Jesus died for my sins so that I can go to heaven, then the point of mission is to talk to as many people as possible in order to get them over the line and also guaranteed a place in heaven. Let me tell you two stories.
I recall from my Whyalla days a team of singers coming on mission from the US. As part of what they did they put on a concert at one of the high schools, at the end of which they made an appeal. They came back and reported to the church all excited because 20 or 30 of the kids put their hands up to say they wanted to receive Christ. As I reflect back now, my feeling is that they saw their mission as getting kids over the line and as such they’d done their job. All power to them I say, but I’d also have to say I felt somewhat uneasy with their claim—not that I thought they were lying or doubted their sincerity—I simply wondered what it really meant (if anything) that those kids had put up their hands. It also seemed to me to strike a loud note of artificiality.
In the 1970s I had connections with a church that was bursting at the seams and was very evangelistic. I recall being at an evening service one Sunday when a team had come back from witnessing in Rundle Mall. It was very proudly stated at the time that so many (I can’t remember how many) had made a decision for Christ. All power to them, but even back then I remember having a little question mark raise its head, wondering what it was really all about. Presumably the underlying thinking was getting people over the line, and it was almost about notches on the Bible.
What is our Mission?
If that’s not our mission, what then is it? Simply put, it is implementing and living in the victory Jesus won on the cross. It’s living out—both corporately and individually—a complete new way of being human in the world.
Sin, Exile and Forgiveness
Let’s go back to a few parts of the story we’ve already considered and draw them into this part.
We saw that human beings sinned and their relationship with God was broken. The essence of the sin was the desire to rule like God instead of ruling for God (McKnight). People tried to set up a centre of functioning outside of God, and instead of function and order they actually produced chaos. In essence, the issue wasn’t so much one of personal sin (as we often see it), but idolatry. With that also came the dark forces of evil, the principalities and powers. Humanity failed in its vocation to subdue and serve the world.
Trimming the story very short, God’s answer was to make a covenant with Abraham, his purpose being that the subsequent nation of Israel would be the means through which all the nations of the world would be blessed. We know that Israel failed miserably in that calling, because they themselves became part of the problem. They failed to the extent of coming under God’s judgement and were exiled to Babylon. The only way that situation could be reversed was through forgiveness. The only way the situation of the whole human race could be reversed was through the possibility of forgiveness.
Here’s where it all ties in. Here’s some of the last words Jesus said to his followers:
Luke 24:46-49 (NRSV) 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.
Just for a moment put aside our usual way of reading this: Jesus died for my sin so that I can be forgiven. That’s quite true, but the picture is too small. This is Jesus’ call to his followers to go out into the world in the power of the Spirit, to announce that a new reality has come, a new reality called forgiveness, and that it is attained through turning from idolatry.
Forgiveness itself is the new reality
It’s now the way the new creation is, and that new creation can be entered through turning from sin and idolatry.
To say yes to Jesus’ resurrection is….to say yes to the new world of forgiveness that was won on the cross, the world that was launched into heaven and earth reality on Easter morning. Resurrection and forgiveness are not strange things that might perhaps happen in the old creation. They are the hallmarks, the tell-tale signs, the characteristic marks of the new creation. Tom Wright, Revolution, 385.
Here’s the message the church is given to take to the world: a new way of being human has been launched that begins and continues with forgiveness. In the cross Satan’s power has been broken, Jesus reigns, and forgiveness and membership of a new family and life of a whole new order is open to all.
Acts 26:16-18 (NRSV) 16 But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. 17 I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
Living in Forgiveness
Here’s the thing: if forgiveness itself is the new reality, what message are we sending about the now order that’s arrived through the cross and resurrection if we neither receive or offer forgiveness? Do we know we’re forgiven? I don’t mean know in the sense of having a handle on the theology, I mean in the sense of knowing it to the core of our being—that even though we fail and so often fall short of the mark, God still forgives us and we are the apple of his eye. Over the years I’ve seen so many in the church beating themselves up over something that had happened in the past over which they’d not forgiven themselves. Knowing we’re forgiven doesn’t take away what happened, but it brings a whole new freedom in God’s grace.
Do we offer forgiveness? It can be quite a hard thing to do if we’ve been hurt, but if we hang on to things that have happened, how does that match with forgiveness being the new reality? I remember in a previous church preaching on forgiveness, and someone speaking to me afterwards and telling me of something he’d been hanging onto for years—and still wouldn’t let go. It seems to me that if we know God’s forgiveness toward us and live in that reality, how could we not forgive others?
The Cross and Mission
One last thing: the message of the cross and forgiveness also reflects the way of the cross.
Romans 8:22-23 (NRSV) 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Jesus won the victory over Satan and the dark forces of this world, but it was through the power of suffering, not through force. The church, as the people of Jesus and his kingdom, will also suffer in the present because we too share the life of Jesus. The victory is not won over suffering, but through suffering. That’s not a very appealing thought, but it’s the way of the kingdom.
If I wanted to make a summary statement of what I’ve just said, it would be something like this: the mission of the church is to live in, and live out, the new reality that has come into being through Jesus’ cross and resurrection. It’s not about notches on the Bible, but in essence it is to live an authentic faith.