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Church, Mission, Spirit

April 15, 2015 Leave a comment

As I preached on the lectionary gospel for the first Sunday after Easter, I was reminded again of how critical it is to keep mission and Spirit together, for our understanding of who we are, and what we are to do, as the church of the risen Christ. John 20.19-23, and in particular the words of Jesus, As the Father has sent me so I am sending you, followed by his action of breathing on them saying Receive the Holy Spirit is, perhaps, the critical text in the development of the terminology missional church, which today is used everywhere and just as commonly misunderstood.

First of all we need to note the use of the word “church”. Unfortunately some of the missional church material actually gives little place to the church. Notice here that Jesus sends and breathes on the gathered community of disciples, not just individuals. In the Old Testament, God called a community of his people through Abraham to be a missional community, a light to the nations, to demonstrate to them what God’s purpose (mission) was; the restoration of all of creation to a condition where once again he could look at it and see “that it was good.” It takes a community to demonstrate that, and so after Israel failed, God’s purpose was to form through Jesus a new community, the church, to take up that calling. God’s mission can only be forwarded through community.

What is that community sent by Christ to do? To continue what Jesus had begun to do, the manifesto which he set out in Luke 4; to bring “good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.” It is important to note that the first thing Jesus does after this is to call the disciples and form a community to engage in this mission. This is what the church exists for. It is our calling. We are God’s missionary people, participating in God’s mission in the world.

How do we mere mortals do this? The same way Jesus did, in the power of the Spirit. Jesus waited until he had received the Spirit before commencing his mission and he called on the disciples to wait until they had done likewise before they commenced theirs. Jesus went from the Father in the power of the Spirit and we need to go from Christ in the power of the same Spirit.

A break with any one of these three elements which belong together is problematic. There are those trying to engage in God’s mission as solo individuals, but if God is about “reconciling all things together” then only reconciled communities can give witness to that. There are churches that are all about mission, but have no sense of the empowering action of the Spirit in their midst, and so find themselves unable to confront the powers that hold people and communities captive and oppressed. Many good things happened in the charismatic movement of the 70s and 80s, when it focussed on renewing churches for the sake of mission in the world. In my view, it ran out of steam and dribbled away in the late 80s and 90s when it became internally focussed on those in the church having a good time among themselves, and on the experience and blessing of individuals. So there are other churches with plenty of talk about the Spirit but none of that energy going into mission.

If we are going to be a truly “missional church”, it is critical that we keep church, mission and spirit tightly together with the risen Christ present as our centre.

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