The Theology of Mission
Bible Study by Regional Missionary Dr. Catherine Mudime Akale at 2010 United Methodist Women Leadership Training Event
It is a privilege for me to be invited to address the 2010 Leadership Training Event here in St. Louis, Mo. I have been given the rare opportunity to deliver the Bible study on the "The Theology of Mission" as well as comment on the Lucan text we have been pondering these past two days. It is as newly elected and appointed leaders of the United Methodist Women movement across the United States and as the Women's Division that we have been doing this, and my talk will bear this context very much in mind.
Not being a theologian, my first reaction to the invitation was that of sheer panic. It seemed a tall order, not to say a daunting—even impossible—task. But the scene of the angel's parting message to Mary in Luke 1:37, declaring that "nothing was impossible with God," gave me the impetus I needed. And here I am!
Why the Theology of Mission Now?
The first question I asked myself about this assignment was, "Why focus on the theology of mission at this particular time?" After all, it is not new: United Methodist Women members have been doing mission for more than a century, authoritatively furnishing those out in the field with resources, sending intermediaries all over the world, and transforming the map of global Christianity in the process.
- Is it perhaps because there is a spiritual shift of the church's center of gravity from the historically Christian north and west (mainly Europe and North America) to the so-called global south, with at least 75 percent of the world's Christians now found in the continents of the south and east Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia.
- Is it because the established Western Protestants Protestant ways of interpreting of scripture can no longer assert that their method of interpretation of scripture is claim to be the only valid method, because?
- Is it because we now live in a world of multinational church and multidimensional mission?
- Or is it because the missionary enterprise, an essential part of the Christian faith, requires redefinition, a new analysis, understanding and modalities?
All these questions require much more study and analysis than can be provided here today. Some are clear, and others are more questionable, but all represent areas of challenge both for our mission and our faith in and as the United Methodist Women. You see, the future of mission rests on the faithfulness or faithlessness of the church and on God's sovereign activity . The hope is that some attention to the meaning of the theology of mission will aid us in sorting out the challenges we face and responding faithfully to the good news of the Kingdom.
Mission: The Goal of Theology
The main thrust of theology, the specific way in which God is glorified, is through mission. The flow of biblical history is filled with stories about the mission of God. This history helps us to understand all about God, God's glory and God's mission, and who we are in God's history. When we think of mission, we naturally go to the classic texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and to the epistles of Paul. Matthew 28:18-20 (NRSV), for example, has been used to inspire generations of missionaries with the powerful words of the Risen Lord, thus:
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember,I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
The mission of the apostles—and our mission too—rests on Jesus' own mission. In John's Gospel we see how Jesus was always conscious that his mission came from the Father and was given by Him. Jesus' one desire in his earthly life was to fulfill that mission. Therefore he lives constantly in the presence of the One who sent him and listens continually to Him.
In the course of his mission, Jesus knew that his responsibility was not to get as much as possible from the mission that was assigned to him; rather, it was his task to add life and meaning to that which already existed.
It is in this light that we can better understand him when he said, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10, NRSV). This is one of the clearest and best expressions describing the mission of Jesus.
What Is Mission?
Mission is about the Kingdom of God. Jesus' sense of mission energized and inspired his ministry. He gave every person he met his undivided attention without even a trace of self- concern. He brought out the very best in each person. In the presence of Jesus, people could fully be themselves. There was always a genuine and warm concern for the person, and with a wonderful ease he related to people in sincere and heartfelt affection and love. He served others appropriately. His was a life at the service of life, truth, freedom, salvation, unity and, above all, a life totally devoted to the love of humankind.
Mission is integrating. Mission participates both in the spiritual dimension, seeking to win souls, and at the material level, providing practical input. Such was the mission and work of Jesus. He was concerned for the bodily as well as the spiritual well-being of those he encountered on life's journey. Jesus remained faithful to that mission throughout, completing perfectly the work that his Father had given him to do.
Mission is about unity of purpose and communion with God. In John 11:50 (NRSV), Caiaphas, in a statement that is both politically calculating and coldly cynical, says, "You do not understand that itis better for you to have one man diefor the people than to have the whole nation destroyed."Yet, without realizing it, Caiaphas spoke a truth that went far beyond his own earthbound calculations. John therefore comments,"He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for thenation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersedchildren of God"(John11:51-52, NRSV).
This is another aspect of the mission of Jesus. His death, which has a unifying role, is an instrument and sign of unity, not only on a vertical level with the Father but also on the horizontal level, among all God's children. In John 10:16 (NRSV), while allegorically identifying himself as the Good Shepherd of the flock, we hear Jesus say, "I have other sheep that do not belong tothis fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. Sothere will be one flock, one shepherd." In John 15:1-17, another metaphor from rural life is used. This time God the Father appears as the vine grower, Jesus as the true vine and the disciples as the branches. Here too we have the same theme of unity. As Jesus' followers, who accept him in faith, we are encouraged to be fruit-bearing branches, united with him. His teaching on the new commandment of love finds its clearest expression in this context of unity.
Mission is about reaching out and engaging the political and economic systems of the time, just as Jesus did in his day. He taught about money, taxation, and inheritance rights. He also introduced values that would eventually put the power structures of this world into question. We are called to be with the poor, the despised and the marginal, all those in difficulties of one kind or another, those whom the world looks down on or ignores.
Mission is about working together. We call ourselves members of the United Methodist Women. We must remind ourselves here that Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs and in groups, denoting that Christian mission is always undertaken as a collaborative activity. This is because the gifts of each believer are in the context of the Body of Christ, and each individual needs the other to make up for what is lacking in herself. We have only to think of what is written in this regard in 1 Corinthians 12, with verses 1-11 talking about "spiritual gifts" while the rest of the chapter expounds on the "one body, many parts" philosophy.
Mission is about relationships, about love. The manifestation of the Father's love is the most important aspect of Jesus' mission. We read in John that Jesus came to show his Father's love to us and his love for the Father. The most important thing to note here is who Jesus was and the relationship he had with his Father.
Jesus summarizes the law of Moses in terms of two relationships: Love God, and love your neighbor. One of the most famous phrases in John's gospel is Chapter 3, verse 16 (NRSV): "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." This makes plain the heavenly Father's love for humankind, with Jesus as the visible, tangible sign of the Father's unconditional love for the world. In his farewell address in John 14:31 (NRSV), Jesus affirms, "I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father." In John 13:1 we are told that Jesus loved his own to the end. John also tells us what Jesus said in the upper room and how he suffered in the garden, during the trials, on the way to the cross and at his death. All these are signs of the love with which he loved us to the end and also of love without end. Jesus remained faithful to his mission and completed the work that his father had given him to do.
Mission transforms. Despite our possible sentimental familiarity with the passage in which Mary visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56), if we look at it closely, we will find that it raises the stakes for our thoughts. The text presents, very clearly, God's distinctive way of ruling—that is, through social reversals and transformations.
Luke brings together the marginalized (poor, women, outcasts) in song at the beginning of the story. As an older woman and the wife of a priest, Elizabeth has a higher social rank than Mary, an unmarried teenager. Yet, Elizabeth, crying loudly, exalts Mary, affirms her role as mother, and proclaims Mary's child to be "my Lord." Throughout Luke, the proud, powerful and rich are the opponents of Jesus. They are portrayed as people who look to enhance their own social honor and prestige and as people who are indifferent to those lower on the social ladder. In Mary's child, God has intervened on behalf of the "lowly" and the "hungry," bringing salvation and healing to those who are victims of the system. God, Mary and Elizabeth were involved in the Mission of the Kingdom.
Mission is communion. And it is a two-way process. Mission is a sharing, and the story of Mary and Elizabeth is text we have been focusing on these last two days is, among other things, a joy shared. These two women receive a treasure from God in private. By sharing that private treasure, isolation is broken; the moment of redemption is shared, and this act of sharing causes an increase of grace. This sharing confirms that grace is not and cannot be confined. A virgin can conceive, as can a postmenopausal woman. A prophet can be called and can respond to the call, even before he is born.
Mary's response to the angel's message is, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38, NRSV). To lead is to serve. To lead is also to listen, not just to talk: Mary is all ears; she listens to the word of the angel, and she hears God's word in what the angel says. If we are to be leaders we have to hear what the others—those to whom we are sent to serve—are saying. We have to be attentive. Only then will we pick things up correctly and lead not in our direction but in the right direction. Mary agrees to be led, and as a consequence she can lead.
Now, how can we go on fulfilling that mission of Jesus as the United Methodist Women of today, in our own historical context? How can we keep on participating in, and continuing, the very same mission of Jesus? He himself says the following, and we can think of it as applying to us, here and now: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21, NRSV). We are all united with Christ on Mission. The question is, as servants of Christ's mission, indeed as newly elected United Methodist Women leaders, invited, privileged and set apart to partake in and carry on the activity of mission for the growth of God's Kingdom, how strong is our faith to deal with the problems and obstacles that stand in the way of the advancement of the United Methodist Women mission? Are you ready to lead with integrity and authority?
There is no single and uniform way of looking at the mission of Christ, and the same is true of our mission as the United Methodist Women. Each person looks at the mission of Christ from her own perspective, highlighting the different aspects of her own particular work, task or talent. Each view of mission is correct, and yet each is, at the same time, incomplete. Exaggerating and overemphasizing one particular view against the other would be a disservice to the richness of the vision and mission of Jesus Christ. It may be good to recall that as in the Father's House (John 14: 12), so also in the mission field, there are many rooms and approaches. Still, every form of mission will be geared in its own way toward creating and nurturing life, cherishing and sustaining it. For Jesus came that we "may have life, and have it abundantly."
Mission, as expounded here, is all about God the Father sending his Son who has a mission, and the same Son is inviting us to join him.
The Theology of Mission in My Story
In simple terms, therefore, the theology of mission involves reflection about God. It seeks to understand God's mission, God's intentions and purpose, God's use of human instruments in God's mission, and God's working through God's people in God's world. In addition, because of its commitment to remain faithful to God's intentions, perspectives and purposes, the theology of mission shows a most indispensible concern for the relation of the Bible to mission, attempting to allow Scripture not only to provide the foundational motivations for missions but also to question, shape, guide and evaluate the actual working out of the missionary enterprise.
The theology of mission is practical theology that focuses specifically on a set of particular issues: those having to do with the mission of the Church in its context. Such contextual analysis moves us, secondly, to a more particular understanding of the context in terms of interpreting the reality in which we are ministering. This calls us to hear the cries, see the faces, understand the stories and respond to the living needs and hopes of the persons who are an integral part of that context.
We find here that the theology of mission is a process of reflection and action involving a movement from the biblical text to the faith community in its context.
Perhaps I was asked to speak about the theology of mission because I am myself a product of both the former Basel Mission (now Mission 21) and of a mission grant given by the Women's Division. From an overcrowded, poverty-stricken, polygamous home of 23 children with thinly spread, meager resources, I made it through education, which is one of the means to other ends—expertise, self-esteem, mobility, a source of income, sources of information, exposure, networks and relationships, and interventions in the lives of others, which I accomplish through my missionary assignment. Through education I have been able to challenge institutional inequality and create a long-term opportunity for myself to have choice, to use choice and to effectively achieve choice for others. It changed my life. In my own small way, I feel like one of the heroes of the Lucan story of Mary and Elizabeth because God surprised me—one of the marginalized, one of the powerless and lowly of my society, one of the hopeless—with His favor. I see myself as the illumination of the positive and joyous effects of the theology of mission, something which I have been able to experience in a very personal fashion in my own life.
I am constantly conscious of how far I have been pulled out of the depths of poverty by others doing mission. My mission is to strive to be an inspiration for the success of others in my own turn and an instrument of God's presence. This involves motivating the less privileged people I encounter to aspire to achieve what they would otherwise consider impossible. This means helping and encouraging them to attain their personal and collective goals by various means, including promoting a broad spectrum of basic human rights and running related programs and actions through seminars and workshops as well as by doing advocacy. My presence here also brings a global reality home to you who have sent me out.
My work with women at the grass roots has taught me that poverty generates overwhelming needs, and one of the challenges of poverty is realizing that you are capable of doing only so much. The profile of most of the rural women I encounter is that of being poor, overworked and illiterate, women who carry on their shoulders all the responsibilities for daily needs of their families. I usually ask myself what I—we—can learn from these women. Their resilience and unwavering faith indicates that it is not only their numerical strength but also the passion with which Christianity is lived out by these women that makes an impact in my life. Their faith has taught them to derive a sense of comfort in knowing that, from the very beginning, Jesus understood what it meant for there to be "no room in the inn." They make me realize that my limitations are not God's. I see God's work in them because despite the difficulties of poverty and life in general, they still believe they are in God's hands and they are always joyful in outlook.
This seems to be a complete reversal of what is happening now in the affluent West. The church of the historically "Christian" nations like the United States is probably the minority church worldwide. In the richest parts of the earth the church is facing a tidal wave that could overwhelm it, with many Christians in North America and western Europe accommodating to values shaped more by the world than by faith. Surveys show little difference between the views and behaviors of those who claim to be committed Christians and those who don't. Perhaps the joy in a lived faith that was so much in evidence in the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth is more often and more easily found today among the poor. Those who are not rich materially may still be rich in faith and in the gifts of the Spirit, as these two heroic women of the Gospel were, and even in their experience of poverty they may have much to teach us.
What then is "the theology of mission? What conclusions for the modern missionary task can we draw from Jesus' mission, as examined here? The major significance of the theology of mission is that it is firmly rooted in God's redemptive activity; it calls us to have great confidence in the reality of God and the vastness of God's mercy. The theology of mission is God's own enterprise. The theology of mission offers the possibility of cooperating with God in his gracious anticipation of the decisive hour of redemption described in Isaiah 25, where the Gentiles are accepted as guests at God's table. The theology of mission calls us to make our lives, as United Methodist Women members, different: we are to see ourselves in a new way, as joining in with God's mission. God calls us to be real participants in God's own work of raising humanity up.
Mission is an Easter gift. When Jesus met his disciples on Easter Sunday he gave them three gifts: his peace, his mission and his spirit. Today, we are invited, as United Methodist Women members, to carry forward Jesus' mission, to pursue that mission and to share in it, filled as we are with his peace and the Holy Spirit, knowing full well that the deepest effects of mission and of authentic leadership cannot be measured so easily. So do not rest on your laurels because history does not stand still.
In the name of God the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.