For at least 2/3 of my life, I had an easy answer to the question “What is God’s mission in the world?” I thought the answer was obvious. I honestly can’t remember anyone overtly teaching me the answer I would have given. It was easily assumed, and commonly held. After giving a blank stare and blinking a few times, I would have responded, “Saving souls.” If I had been asked to unpack my simple answer, I’d have wondered what rock you had been hiding under, and then said something like:
People have an immortal spiritual essence (component) called a “soul”. Because of the bad choices that all individual humans make, this spiritual essence is bound of an eternity of after-life torment in Hell. However, God has made a way through Jesus for our “souls” to be saved from this fate, and instead experience an afterlife of disembodied bliss in Heaven. One need only believe, follow the prescribed “steps” to accept one’s salvation, and stay out of trouble to change their eternal destiny. That’s all God’s really after in this world. He wants individuals to agree with the right ideas, and behave themselves, so that their “souls” will have a desirable afterlife.
My handy little definition of God’s mission served me well for a while. The really nice thing was that my main responsibility in regards to the mission was to make sure that I personally agreed with the “right” ideas, followed the “right” steps and reasonably behaved myself so that my fate in the afterlife was secure. Everything else seemed irrelevant. Even the idea of somehow participating in God’s mission to others, while a “good” thing to do, was rendered superfluous. I was oblivious to the more holistic Jewish understanding of a “soul”, and more oblivious to how much the definition that fed my spirit/matter dualism owed to Greek philosophy.
Eventually though, my simple and self-serving definition began to crumble. Among other things, as a sophomore in college I accompanied my father on a month-long mission trip to Ukraine. It was a paradigm-shifting, life-altering event that shook me to my core. Upon my return to the United States, I found my self-absorbed, afterlife-centered faith to be unsustainable, and the anemic, ethereal “god” it served to be unworthy of both worship and devotion. Unfortunately, both that version of faith and that understanding of God appeared to be prevalent in the church in North America. I thus came to a fork in the road: one path led away from Christianity and church altogether, and the other was the rocky and dangerous path of an active catalyst for change. One was a path of abandonment, while the other was the path of exploration. I chose the later.
My exploration of Scripture, Theology and history has led me toward a different understanding of God’s mission in the world. Theology enabled me to begin to see the narrative of scripture as a whole. No longer content to mine scripture for propositions and steps, I began to see a thread that ran throughout the entire story. In the Creation narratives, God tasks the human beings He created with bearing his image to the rest of his creation. Those humans make a selfish choice that throws the harmony of God’s creation into fractured chaos. Prior to that choice, creation is characterized by perfect harmony; between God and humans, between humans and other humans, and between humans and God’s creation. Human beings were able to find their value from the harmony that characterized their existence. After the choice was made, that harmony was shattered in all of its dimensions, and the world became a very different place. However, God would not be undone. As the world descended into chaos, God called a man we know as Abraham into a special relationship. Through Abraham, God would bring forth a people for Himself. God would bless them, and they would BE a blessing to the nations. In short, they were to bear God’s image; to reflect who God is. In spite of their noble calling and miraculous beginning, the people of God tend to be more interested in getting blessed than being a blessing to anyone else. Things don’t go so well for them in general because they tend to see their election as indicating favored status rather than as a commissioning. Even so, God does not give up on either his people or his mission in the world. God delivers them again and again, that they might live into their destiny. Eventually, God acts in a way that defies their imaginations, in order to move beyond the impasse. As his people cry out under the iron-fisted oppression of Rome, God became a human being. The Creator of all that is came into the world as an embryo in the womb of a teenage girl. Her song in the gospel of Luke, proclaims the redemptive work that she believed was being enacted by this incarnation. She believed that things were being set right; that the powerful would be torn down from their thrones while the humble are exalted; that the overfed would be left empty while the hungry would have their fill; that God was remembering His people and His promise. Her son grew into the man we know as Jesus, and powerfully proclaimed and enacted the Good News that God’s Kingdom is at hand; that it is “near”. He looked forward toward a time when “all things” would be “renewed”. Eventually, he was executed by the empire and the religious leaders of his own people. However, the grave doesn’t hold him. Whereas his life modeled the Way God intended His mission-oriented people to live, his death and resurrection open the door for all humans to become a part of this missional community, and free them from both the cycle of their sin and the threat of death. Liberated from guilt and fear, they are thus enabled to partner with God in His mission of the restoration of all things to the harmony that was lost in all of its dimensions. They are free to join God in reconciling the world to Himself.