Mission in the four Gospels
Ordinary Sunday 32: 10 November, 2013
Fr Samuel Dow
Assistant Curate, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
This week we continue on in our considerations of the biblical foundations for being a missional church. Last week, Bishop Graeme explored something of the Old Testament foundations for God's mission with all creation. This week we will consider mission through the gospels and what this might mean for us as the people of God in this time and in this place.
Let me first begin by saying, it certainly isn't possible for us to cover mission in the Gospels at a complex depth in just one sermon! There is so much contained within the four gospel books conveying to us much about God's mission in his world and how we are to continue on in this mission. But I want to concentrate this morning on what I think are some of the key areas to consider.
The first question that often comes to mind when tackling mission in the gospels, and specifically as the gospels center upon the life and work of Jesus Christ, is: is this a new mission of God in the sending of his son, or is this still a part of God's plan and salvation for all creation? Perhaps you may have heard it said before that 'as Christian we are New Testament people, we don't need the old testament'! These heretical sayings, which do seem to be a rather popular position at times, greatly overlook what is clearly something which Jesus affirms in his own life and ministry — and that is that Jesus is the continuing missional story of God.
The Gospel of John most eloquently affirms this as his opening verse describes God in Christ Jesus as present since the beginning of the world. "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God" and following this a little later about Jesus — "and the word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth".
As we come up to the time of Advent and begin the church's new year, we will begin to find readings set in our lectionary from the old testament prophets like Isaiah which prophesy about a coming messiah and we understand this to be pointing towards this great messiah and prophet Jesus Christ. During this time we will also recall the stories of Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus, visiting Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Here as the two meet for the first time we start to hear of something of this relationship between the last prophet of Israel, John the Baptist, and our Lord Jesus Christ. And it isn't until their meeting again in the river Jordan that we see this link between the prophet proclaiming to the world the coming of the Messiah, indeed even the arrived Messiah, and the ministry of Jesus Christ as a fulfilment of this final prophesy. I actually think that the character of St John the Baptist could warrant some reflection individually as one whom I think is a good model of catholic evangelist.
In the gospel of St Matthew 5:17 Jesus himself makes the comment which affirms this connection with the people of Israel "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them".
The second point that I think is worthy to note about Jesus' mission in the world is that Jesus does not just engage with people from one particular town and race of people. This is somewhat of a shift in God's revelation but is actually in line with God's original intention that all people and all creation belong in relationship with him and each other. Jesus, in this regard, speaks not only to the men of Israel but to all sorts of people — Jew, gentile, male, female, old, young. Yes, even children are welcomed into the conversation with Jesus. This great array of people become followers of Christ as they are confronted with his openness, his love and his generosity.
New Testament theologian Joachim Jeremias points out that even at the last supper Jesus would have shared the Passover meal in the upper room with not only his 12 disciples but also his other followers, family and friends. Jeremias notes that the famous painting of Michelangelo's last supper, similar to the one which can be seen on our own sanctuary wall, is indeed a beautiful portrayal of the last supper but does great injustice to the gathering at this meal. For in the painting there are only the 12 male disciples portrayed but yet more correctly, and there is much evidence to suggest this, there should be seen a much bigger crowd of Jesus' closest. Women, children and people of all ages sitting around the table would have been more correct, even though the speaking parts recorded in the gospels are only his disciples. In the Passover meal liturgy to this day there can be seen the importance of children in particular as the play there part in re-calling the saving grace of God in rescuing the Israelites out of slavery under the ruling arm of Egypt. If we can re-train our minds outside of Michelangelo's Italian contextual Christology for a moment and reimagine a table full of activity, of conversations, people preparing food, children running around playing, we get a much fuller concept of who God calls into his fellowship and who is invited to partake in the bread of life and the cup of salvation. It says something much deeper about this kingdom of God which Jesus has come to proclaim — a missional kingdom, not of exclusivity but of inclusivity.
Another great New Testament scholar and theologian, and perhaps more well known than Jeremias, is Anglican Bishop NT Wright. Although an evangelical at heart, many Catholics, as well as evangelicals, in the Anglican tradition have benefited greatly from his scholarship. Wright's main concern is seeking out further the historical Jesus and understanding what this means for us in today's church. One point that he continually affirms is about the new kingdom of God. Within Christianity there has always been the notion that it is all about what happens to you after you die. For the gospels, however, and as Wright properly unpacks for us, it is more to do with the eternal life which starts now. Jesus Christ has set about this new kingdom and showed us the way to bring it about. It is up to us as disciples of Christ to continue in the work which Christ Jesus has started for us. Why would God do this when he could just destroy everything and start over? Well, we see clearly through the gospel centrality of Jesus' death and bodily resurrection that God is highly invested in the material of this world, and more specifically for all living things. If Jesus had not raised from the dead, than death would not have been overcome and this would suggest to us that God doesn't care about life on earth. But Jesus does rise bodily from the dead and God is very much interested in the physicality of this world. It is from this that we are called into being missionally minded people of God who have not only half a concern with things other than ourselves, but a huge responsibility to care for all our neighbors as ourselves.
A week ago, on the 2nd of November, an article was published in the Age newspaper which read "Age of intolerance: the war on religion". This article went on to describe how at this point in world history more Christians are being persecuted and killed for their faith than at any other time in history, even more so than the Roman persecution in the time of the developing early church. The statistics were shocking as were the stories of torture that were occurring to many faithful Christians around the world. This article certainly stopped me in my place and made me question, what is all of this about? Why should people die just for what they believe in?
The gospel message of Jesus Christ which we seek to live out in our lives is one of this new kingdom of God. A kingdom of justice, of peace, of love for all creation. But this will and indeed does, stand as counter cultural in our world today.
This message of the new kingdom of God will certainly be foolishness to many but those who are in Christ Jesus, we understand that a world shaped by these gospel values is one which can be nothing else but life giving and life affirming for all.
As we consider the mission of God through the Gospels and how God's son Jesus Christ has shown us the way, the truth and the life, may we take seriously our baptismal convenant of being disciples of Christ and being part of God's mission to care for all people, all living things and our environment around us.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.