Selections on New Creation Week 5
Associate Professor of Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry
Read this week’s Scripture: John 20:1–23
For spring break I used to take my youth group to Tijuana to build houses. Students loved going on these “mission trips,” often saying that they were special times to get away to a different environment where they could bond with friends and be spiritually invigorated. After the trip, which was usually quite expensive, we would come home feeling tired but happy, inevitably slipping back into our normal routines, waiting for next year’s trip. Then, after the school year was over, I’d take my youth group to a summer camp. Students loved going on these camp trips, often saying they were special times to get away to a different environment where they could bond with friends and be spiritually invigorated. After the trip, which was usually quite expensive, we would come home feeling tired but happy, inevitably slipping back into our normal routine, waiting for next year’s trip.
Maybe you see the issues at work here. What makes the first a mission trip and the second a camp? The fact that on the first trip we did something nice for someone? If that is the case, could we call the summer camp a “mission trip” if we were kind to our fellow campers? Or must missions be in a foreign place? Notice also that students often judged the “success” of the mission trip based on how it made them feel, just like the summer camp. What’s going on here? How are we defining “missions”?
What are Missions?
Often, when Christians talk about “missions,” it is in one of these two ways: “We’re going on a mission trip next week!” or “A missionary spoke at church this morning!” For most, missions is seen as a particular activity of the local church or para-church (“short-term missions”) or as a special ministry for an exclusive set of dedicated people (“long-term missions”). Short-term missions could be a weekend trip, a weeklong excursion, or even a summer-long experience — something for which we must plan and raise money, and that we then debrief with others when it is over. Long-term missions is reserved for those who feel “called” to spend a significant amount of time — usually at least a year or two — “in the field” doing mission work. In both of these cases, short- and long-term, the place where this work is done is usually far away, in a place where people look different than we do. And what is done there? The “work” can take two forms — sometimes it is aimed at introducing people to Jesus or deepening their faith (usually called “evangelism”), and sometimes it is aimed at providing for physical or other felt needs (usually called “service”). Sound about right?
What if I told you that we are thinking about missions all wrong?
Now I am not saying that “doing missions” is (necessarily) bad. I know that many have had powerful experiences on mission trips, and that there are missionaries all over the world doing amazing things. But I am saying that the way we think of “mission trips” and “missionaries” indicates that we have the concept of missions upside down, and thus we hinder the Kingdom of God, the reality of new life, the reign of the Risen One.
John 20 tells the story of Easter. Very early that morning, Mary Magdalene visits Jesus’ tomb, a customary act delayed a day by the Sabbath. However, to her dismay she finds the entrance stone missing and the tomb empty. Thinking that someone had taken Jesus’ body, Mary runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple, who rush to the tomb. Seeing the burial cloths but no body, the two men come to believe (John 20:8) [Author’s Note 1] that Jesus is risen, not because of what their Jewish Scripture had pointed to, but what their own experience has.
After they leave, apparently — and oddly — without telling her the good news of what they have come to understand, Mary is left to fret about the missing body of her rabbi. Neither the supernatural presence of angels nor the appearance of Jesus himself brings Mary to see what has truly happened. In fact, she implores Jesus, whom she takes to be someone connected to the removal of the body, to tell her where she might find it. It is not until Jesus calls her by name that her eyes are opened. Aghast, she understandably wants to cling to Jesus, who tells her to let go; he reminds her that there is still work to be done in the short time before he must go to his Father. And that work begins with her: she is told to report to the rest of the disciples what she has seen and heard — that Jesus is alive. Mary is the first missionary. Though she is not the first to believe in the resurrection, she is the first to see the risen Christ and the first called to carry his message.
Yet despite Mary’s testimony, not to mention what Peter and the beloved disciple presumably report about their morning, the expectation of the disciples is strangely muted. Why are they not celebrating what they heard? Could it be that they are not convinced their Lord is alive? Or maybe their fear is bigger than their hope? After seeing what had happened to their rabbi, the disciples are assuredly frightened that the authorities might come after them next. So they lock their doors and huddle together. Perhaps those among them who do believe do not think Jesus will come to them. Yet neither their fears nor their locked doors will keep Jesus away, for he mysteriously appears in their midst, nonchalantly uttering the traditional Jewish greeting, “Peace be with you” (20:19, 21). To affirm his identity, Jesus shows the marks of his crucifixion, at which point the disciples finally rejoice.
But they are not meant merely to glory in Jesus’ presence. Like Mary, they have a mission in front of them. Meaningfully, Jesus repeats his encouragement for peace to be amongst and within them, and then gives them their marching orders: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20:21).
From “Missions” to “Mission” to “Missional”
The word “mission” comes from the Latin word missio, which means a “sending” or “dismissal.” And so here we see Jesus “missioning” his disciples, declaring them to be apostles or “sent ones.” [Author’s Note 2] Importantly, Jesus links their sending with his own: Just as the Father sent the Son into the world in order to save it, so the Son now sends them into the world to continue this cosmic reclamation project.
These words of Jesus reveal the true nature of mission. Missions is not one activity of the church among other activities, as if it splits time and focus with small groups and service projects. In fact, missions isn’t principally an activity of the church at all. Rather, missions are expressions of what is first of all an activity of God, an activity revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. “The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me,” says Jesus earlier in the gospel (5:36). Jesus is the incarnation of God’s self-expression, which is also called the Word of God. [Author’s Note 3] Jesus is God’s very nature born — or sent — into vital activity among us. “I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me,” Jesus says (8:42). In short, Jesus is the enactment among us of God’s mission, or the missio Dei, a “sentness” embedded in the Trinity itself. The fact that we are sent out into the world is based on the reality that first the Son was sent to us. And our acts in mission continue the acts of God.
So here, Jesus speaks not of the missions of the church, but of the mission of God, a mission — a “sendingness” — that we are called to embrace as ours, too, by the grace of God. And so, caught up in that mission of God, we might be called a “missional” people. We are “people of the mission” because we are people of God, called by Christ and empowered by the Spirit to participate in the mission grounded in the Trinity. Churches do not have missions. Rather, God’s mission has churches — churches filled with missional agents created, commissioned, and empowered by God to mediate faith, hope, and love into the world.
The Breath of Mission
Thankfully Jesus does not simply send the apostles out and then go on his way. He does not leave them to figure out how to be equipped so that they might then respond to their calling. As the saying goes, Jesus does not call the equipped, but rather equips the called.
John reports that Jesus “breathed into” [Author’s Note 4] his disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22). This verse certainly hearkens to Genesis 2:7 when God breathes into the lump of clay, giving it life. The Hebrew and Greek words for “breath” also mean “spirit,” and so in both Genesis and John we see that the Spirit of God enables life. And this life we are given by the Spirit is not merely biological animation, but spiritual vitality that sends us out to be and do the good work of God.
Just as the Father sent the Son into the world to effect salvation, so now does the Son breathe the Spirit into his disciples that they might be sent into the world to continue God’s redemptive work. This is not the first time we have seen the activity of the Spirit; indeed, we see God’s Spirit present in the very beginning, in the work of creation itself (e.g., Genesis 1:2). Nor is this the last time we’ll see the activity of the Spirit; in just a few chapters, the Spirit will even further equip the people of God for mission at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–13). Yet here we see a particularly straightforward continuity in God’s centripetal work — from the Father to the Son to the Spirit to us, a diversity united in mission.
And so Jesus both calls us and gives us what we need to fulfill that call. But to what, exactly, are we called? What is the Spirit empowering us to do in mission?
The Ministry of Reconciliation
Here we come across what can be a very confusing passage of Scripture. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained,” says Jesus (John 20:23). What exactly does he mean?
First, Jesus is not giving his disciples the authority to forgive sins. Only those who are sinned against are in a position to forgive the sinner. Sins are, simply put, actions contrary to that which we are created to be — namely, people meant to love God and love others with all that we are. Therefore, sins always compromise our relationships with others (Romans 5:12 [Author’s Note 5]), and sins always compromise our relationship with God (Matthew 25:44–45). So for those breaches to be healed, we need the forgiveness of others and of God. Sadly, even if sought, we will not always receive the forgiveness of others; in fact, we will rarely even realize the extent to which people have been affected by our sin. But in Christ we have received the forgiveness of God already. This is a fact that merely needs proclamation. Jesus is sending out his apostles not to offer their forgiveness, but to announce and assure others of God’s forgiveness when sins are laid bare — a determination that is Spirit-led. And since the disciples are so intimately acquainted with the heart of the forgiver, they are in a good position to make this proclamation. [Author’s Note 6]
Second, forgiveness is not an end in itself. Rather, forgiveness is a means, a step — a significant step, but only a step — on the journey toward reconciliation. Forgiveness is deciding not to harbor ill will toward someone who has wronged you, but reconciliation goes further. Reconciliation is a bringing together of two polarities. Theologically speaking, reconciliation is a healing of the two relationships ruptured by sin — relationship with others and relationship with God. And the two are entwined. We cannot be reconciled with others without being reconciled with God, and vice versa. And so the mission of forgiveness for which Jesus equips his apostles is within the wider context of Jesus’ mission of reconciliation, of which the apostles are a part. He is sending them out to help kick-start a horizontal and vertical movement of relationship-healing.
Third, ultimately, this is God’s mission and not ours. Sometimes people will not want to forgive, and sometimes people will not want to be forgiven. And sometimes people are not interested in reconciliation, either with others or with God, and will want to cling to the sin that causes the rupture of those relationships. In those instances, we cannot force the ministry of reconciliation, as much as we would like to do so. And so Jesus instructs his apostles not to announce reconciliation where it has yet to be realized; notice that it is “sin” and not “forgiveness” that is retained, which means that the apostles are not told to withhold God’s forgiveness (as if they could!), but rather to restrain themselves from declaring a sin negated where it obviously still remains — a determination that is, again, Spirit-led. Sometimes we are eager to brush past sin before it is properly healed, and Jesus here is encouraging the apostles to take healing seriously. In those times when sin is retained, we must not give up, but we must also remember that this is God’s mission. And though God will not fail, we are merely one part of God’s work of redemption.
What is Mission?
In light of what we have seen here in John 20:1–23, what are a few general ideas that we can garner about mission?
First, mission is grounded in the Trinity. Just as the Son is sent into the world, so are we sent by the Son and equipped by the Spirit for the same reason: to be part of God’s work of reconciliation. The Son and Spirit are both sent — both “missioned” — into the world to bring about a grand healing of relationship between God and humanity, and amongst humanity. So are we. The missio Dei, by God’s grace, includes and equips our “missions.”
Second, because it is God’s mission, this mission is all-inclusive. It is cosmic. God’s mission does not merely happen in countries where people look different than we do. God is working here no less than there. God’s mission is nothing less than the redemption of all things in all places in all ways. It is the healing of all sins and their consequences. It is the reconciliation of all broken relationships. And so we must not see “missions” only as foreign vs. local, as long-term vs. short-term, or as evangelism vs. service. God’s mission is vast in scope, and though we all have different gifts and we all are in different contexts with different needs, we are a missional people who are always, wherever we are and whatever we do, in the midst of God’s mission.
Third, we are qualified as participants in this all-inclusive mission by our faith in the living Jesus. Mary Magdalene, the first missionary, would certainly not be seen in her culture as the most qualified evangelist; as a woman in a patriarchal society, her testimony was not seen as legally sufficient. And yet in Jesus’ way of doing things, she was the first called to bear the good news. She was qualified because she believed. But she did not believe — nor did Peter, the beloved disciple, or the rest of the disciples — until they themselves experienced the reality of the Risen One, becoming themselves transformed. [Author’s Note 7] And it was this new way of seeing things, of believing in a world in which Jesus was alive, that qualified them for apostleship.
Fourth, because we are missional people, we are called and equipped to bear the ministry of reconciliation here and now. It’s urgent, though it often does not feel that way. Just as Mary was tempted to hang on to Jesus, sometimes we are tempted to rest in Jesus’ presence. Just as the disciples were huddled together in fear, sometimes we huddle together in comfort. Sometimes we believe in new life but do not see it as our responsibility to share that life with the world that so needs it. In short, like at least some of the disciples, sometimes we believe that Christ is risen, but do not live as if it were true.
When that is the case, we can remember what happened on Easter:
- The disciples were sought out by Jesus and given a powerful experience of the risen Lord.
- They were encouraged to remember the peace that had been given to them.
- They were called to go out and extend the ministry of reconciliation.
- And they were equipped to do so by the Spirit of God.
In the same way, may we remember:
- Our own living relationship with Jesus. Those that loved Jesus were the ones who came to see him as risen. We cannot truly understand someone unless we are bonded to them, and so if we are to live out the good news, it must be based on a bond of love with Jesus. [Author’s Note 8]
- The peace that the body of Christ has been given to embrace and enact. Mission is done in community with one another, and by the community to the world. The extent to which we embody our message will determine its validity. [Author’s Note 9]
- The call placed upon us as part of our identity. As people of God and followers of Jesus, we are now people of the missio Dei; wherever we are and whatever we do, we are extensions of God’s ministry of reconciliation. [Author’s Note 10]
- The Spirit will never leave us alone in this work. We are God’s workmanship, commissioned by the risen Christ to continue his work by the power of the Holy Spirit — to breathe resurrected life into the world. [Author’s Note 11]
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