Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Politics of Evangelism, Part IV: Scripture and Mission

Before constructing an account of evangelism, we must attend to the witness of Scripture. The Gospel of Matthew concludes with the risen Jesus on a mountain with the eleven remaining apostles. “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go 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 surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”[1] This enormous charge, what has come to be known as the Great Commission, hangs over every account of mission and evangelism the church attempts as a pledge and a vision, not only of the community’s commissioning, but of Jesus’ promise never to abandon the church in all its missteps and failures.

However, we must begin long before this mountain sending in order to understand the full scope of God’s mission in the world. Scripture tells a coherent story, from beginning to end, of the origins of creation in God’s mighty word to the telos of all things in the descending of the glorious New Jerusalem, the peaceable new creation, God’s dwelling with humanity and his shalom in abundance for all. After God’s pronunciation of “very good” on all creation and especially on humanity as made in the image of God, Genesis 3 tells the tale of the alienation wrought between humanity and God, between humanity and creation, among humans in their life together, and within each human person him or herself. The name for this alienation is sin, and as Paul would later say, “the wages of sin is death.”[2] Murder, violence, pride, hoarding, and division ensue, piling upon one another as the world spins out of control, truly falling from a primal transcendence over—inasmuch as with and for—the rest of creation.

And yet! In Genesis 12:1-3 God calls Abram, promising to him innumerable descendants, a great nation and thus a great name, and (most importantly) that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” By the calling of Abraham, God put into action what Lesslie Newbigin calls “the logic of election.”[3] God would not reveal himself to all persons equally, nor would he be immediately present to every people or region of the earth—no, God would reveal his will, his law, his saving purposes through a people and thereby work his purposes for the blessing of all the nations. Thus—as Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, and the twelve sons of Jacob, and the twelve tribes proceeding from those lines lived and grew over time in Egypt, were enslaved by Pharaoh and brutally oppressed, only to be delivered mightily and publicly by the hand of Yahweh, the same God who called Abraham so long before—was Israel born, the holy people of God’s own choosing.

Israel was to be God’s “treasured possession,” a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”[4] through whom God would bless all the earth. Over time, however—through taking the land, through the time of the judges, through monarchy, disobedience, exile, and return—Israel was perpetually forgetful of or unfaithful to its calling and vocation. Having been delivered anew from landlessness in Babylon, God’s people remained under occupation in its own land by a foreign power. Who would bring, when would come, how would look the final and definitive establishment of the righteous rule of the one God on the earth, in vindication of God’s people’s suffering?

“At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. ... After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The reign of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”[5] Jesus of Nazareth comes proclaiming the reign of God, but not only proclaiming, embodying: with healing, with forgiveness, with table fellowship and welcome for sinners and outcasts, with radical inclusivity for the marginalized, with subversive teaching and concrete resistance against both the religious and the political establishments of the day. Jesus calls Israel to be gathered around him, to follow after him as disciples—but discipleship to this Nazarene is no simple thing: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the good news will save it.”[6] Suffering, opposition from the powers, love for enemies, reconciliation, truthtelling, right worship, hospitality toward the other, peaceableness toward all, no care for possessions or for tomorrow[7]—all these things and more would characterize disciples of Jesus as gripped and called forth by and in the reign of God.

Yet the powers that be could not stand by and watch this movement upend their plans. Jesus of Nazareth is crucified as a convicted criminal, condemned by his people and accursed by God, utterly rejected, naked and alone, bloody and disfigured on a tree for all of Jerusalem to see. The one so many thought to be God’s anointed, the deliverer, the outstretched arm of the coming righteous rule of God on the earth, dead and lifeless, asphyxiated on a cross, laid in a tomb like so many would-be messiahs.

And yet! Three days past, and the crucified and dead is alive—and not merely alive, but newly alive, the same yet different, restored and renewed yet utterly transformed, human, embodied, yet something more. The risen Jesus appears to his disciples and says, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”[8] Yet they understandably ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”[9] This vindication of Israel’s Messiah as truly the bearer and messenger and harbinger of God’s reign on the earth, this apocalypse of Jesus Christ as Lord of all, surely it is the beginning of the end—surely God will establish his rule here, now, by this man. But Jesus replies: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[10] God’s rule will come, is coming, is present even now in Jesus—but the final consummation is yet to come. For now, it is left for the apostles—literally, those sent—to live and proclaim before the world as witnesses of the good news that God’s reign is coming, but not only coming, has come, in the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. And they are not alone in this, for the mission to the ends of the earth is grounded first and foremost in the power of the Holy Spirit; and God will pour out his Holy Spirit on his servants, both men and women, and thus a new people will be created, both Jew and Gentile, for the embodied taking of this mission, this witnessing, to the ends of the earth: the church.

The church, therefore, is the eschatological people of God. It is the new social body, created by God in Jesus’ death and resurrection, sent forth into all the earth to witness to the good news of God’s reign come in Jesus. It is the body of Christ, his visible presence in a suffering and violent world. It is the sign of the peaceable kingdom, whose life together points toward that day when all things will be made new, when the nations will no longer make war. It is the temple of the Holy Spirit, where the depth of God’s power and wisdom makes his home in the hearts and the actions and the worship of God’s people in the world. It is the radical dissolution of all “natural” divisions between male and female, Greek and Jew, slave and free, poor and rich, married and single, powerful and powerless—all are welcome at the table of God’s meal, prepared for the world. The church, in all its mistakes and all its hiccups, is the set apart people of God’s own choosing, sent into God’s beloved world with a mission to witness to the way of the reign of God. Just as God called and sent Abraham, just as God called and sent Israel, just as God called and sent Moses and David and Isaiah, called and sent Jesus the Messiah, called and sent Peter and Paul, promised and sent the Spirit in love—so God calls and sends the church of Christ in power and in grace for the sake of the world.[11]

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[1] Matthew 28:17-20. All Scripture quotations taken from Today’s New International Version.
[2] Romans 6:23.
[3] Newbigin, Gospel, 80-88.
[4] Exodus 19:5, 6.
[5] Mark 1:9, 14-15.
[6] Mark 8:34-35.
[7] See Matthew 5–7.
[8] John 20:21.
[9] Acts 1:6
[10] Acts 1:7-8.
[11] For an excellent ecclesiological account of the peoplehood of the church in the American context, see Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People (Downers Grove: IVP Press, 1996).


  1. A couple questions. First, what is the difference between "witness to the way of the reign of God" and simply witness to the reign of God? Maybe an over-subtle distinction, but it seems to me that we witness to God's reign itself, not primarily to its ethics(I'm guessing this is what you mean by "way"). Not saying we don't follow the "way of the kingdom" or anything like that, only that the the object of our witness is simply the fact of God's lordship in Christ.

    Second, when you say: "Just as God called and sent Abraham, just as God called and sent Israel, just as God called and sent Moses and David and Isaiah, called and sent Jesus the Messiah, called and sent Peter and Paul, promised and sent the Spirit in love—so God calls and sends the church of Christ in power and in grace for the sake of the world."

    It's the "just as" that I wonder about here. The uniqueness of Christ's sending by the Father seems to get lost as just one identical sending among others.

    Just some thoughts. Keep up the series.

  2. Halden,

    Thanks for the helpful comments.

    1) In some sense it probably is "over-subtle," but you can never be too careful. While I agree in principle re: witnessing to the reign of God, what I am getting at is the concrete, embodied form of that reign. Agreed that "the object of our witness is the fact of God's lordship in Christ," that lordship is never and can never be divorced from created time and space. Jesus is Lord precisely as the incarnate Word, crucified and risen. The reign of God revealed in that identifiable life is a "way" insofar as it is embodied in the story of a person.

    That, at least, is the idea I was aiming at.

    2) Good call on the "just as," which is more a rhetorical move to emphasize God's perpetual practice of "sending" as well as the connections from Abraham all the way through Paul. In that sense Jesus the man is "called and sent" in the desert temptation and his baptism, but not the "same" sent-ness as prior and future persons/people.