We’re On a Mission…From God!
October 1-2, 2011
Who has seen the classic movie, The Blues Brothers? Jake and Elwood Blues travel around, wearing cool black suits and hats and sunglasses, trying to find all the members of their old blues band in an attempt to raise money to save a Catholic orphanage. Remember their classic tagline? “We’re on a mission…from God.”
We’re on a mission…from God. There’s some good theology to be found in there. God is on a mission, a mission of healing, reconciliation, and redemption. It’s a mission that began with the creation of the world, when God declared all of creation good. It’s a mission that continued through Eden, and through the flood. It continued through God’s covenant with Abraham that through him and his descendants, all the world would be blessed. It continued through Egypt, the wilderness, and the Promised Land. It continued through the prophets, the judges and kings, through a manger and stable, teachings, healings, a cross and an empty tomb. After Christ’s time on earth, it’s a mission that the church became a part of, and still today we’re called to participate in God’s restoration of all things. We’re called to be a part of making all things new, of being a blessing for all the world.
The ten-dollar Latin theological term for this is Missio Dei. Missio is mission, and Dei is God. But notice how it’s phrased. Missio Dei. The mission of God. God’s mission. The mission does not belong to the church. We do not direct the mission, we don’t decide who it’s for, where it goes, or even how it’s lived. Mission belongs to God, and God invites us to be a part of it. But here’s the kicker. God’s mission doesn’t need the church. The church needs God’s mission.
Today’s Gospel reading is a stark reminder of that reality. This is a passage that has been very unfortunately used throughout the years to justify anti-Semitism, and on the surface we can see how easy it would be for someone to get there. Jesus tells a story about a landowner whose tenants keep beating up the slaves he sends to collect the produce. Finally, he decides to send his son, thinking “surely they’ll leave my son alone.” But the tenants kill the son, hoping somehow to get the son’s inheritance. I’m honestly not sure how they thought THAT would happen. In the context of when Jesus tells the story, it’s obvious that the Pharisees he’s telling the story to are supposed to be the tenants, and Jesus himself is the son of the landowner, God. But let’s look at this story through a different set of lenses for a moment, because I think it absolutely has something to say to the church today.
Look with me for a moment at verse 43: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” If we put ourselves in the place of the Pharisees, what does this say to us about our participation in God’s mission on earth? God’s mission doesn’t need the church, the church needs God’s mission. And if we as the church choose not to participate with God in God’s mission of healing, restoration, forgiveness, and redemption for all creation, God will find others who will.
As we stand here not far into the 21st century, we look around us in the United States and in the Western Hemisphere in general, and we see a church in decline. Membership in mainline denominations have been falling across the board. Budgets are being cut, programs are disappearing, and many are asking themselves what happened to the church that for so long was the center of American society.
Different people have offered different answers to that question, but I think today’s gospel lesson gives us a pretty good answer. Jesus was speaking to people who looked back to the promises given to them through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They leaned on those promises, promises that they were a chosen people, that they had a blessing of land, that the world would be blessed through them. Their faith life was inseparable from their public and private lives—the synagogue and temple were not just prominent parts of their society, but were the center of their society.
The danger of this, of remembering one is chosen, of living in a society where the church (or synagogue) holds a central place, is that it becomes easy to rest on one’s laurels. Like a highly ranked football team who reads in the papers about how good they are, the danger becomes that they decide to just show up and forget there’s a game to be played. The church becomes fat and lazy, and develops a sense of entitlement. Instead of being a part of God’s promise to bless the world, we expect the world to bless us, and get upset and huffy when the world doesn’t do that.
But the reality is that God’s mission doesn’t need the church, the church needs God’s mission.
The church is no longer the center of American society. I don’t have to quote the statistics for us to recognize that that is the case. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The race that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Philippians, the prize of the heavenly call in Christ Jesus isn’t one that moves toward the comfortable center of society. The heavenly call is one that calls us out, rouses us from our comfort zones, compels us to go to the edges, to the need, to the darkness and the brokenness and the sin and grime and muck of the world. Our faith is a faith of the edges, our mission is a call to the edge. When Christianity becomes cultural, it becomes domesticated. It becomes tamed, safe. Power and influence tend to do that to anyone. Rather than following the call to mission for the sake of the call to mission, we ask ourselves how our decisions will affect our ability to hold on to the power and influence we have. On the other hand, when Christianity is counter-cultural, it is free to become that prophetic voice, that prophetic presence, the voice speaking uncomfortable truths and being present with the marginalized of society, or in other words, living its life much like Jesus lived his.
So what does Jesus mean when he says the Kingdom of God will be taken away? First, it’s important to say right up front that we’re not talking about salvation here. Our salvation is not based on what we do or how we live, it is a free gift that comes to us by and through faith. Jesus isn’t talking about heaven, and neither is Paul when he writes about the “heavenly call.” This isn’t a call TO heaven, a call that says there’ll be pie in the sky in the sweet by and by and so I don’t have to worry about this world or the people or things in it. This is a call that comes to us FROM heaven, from God. For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is in the here and now. It’s what we experience and what we live in when we love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and care for the poor. It’s a kingdom that was ushered in through the cross and the empty tomb, a kingdom that will not be fully realized until the end of time, but a kingdom that we catch glimpses of and live in when we follow God’s call to us to participate in God’s mission.
God’s mission doesn’t need the church, the church needs God’s mission.
The Bible speaks of the church as the Body of Christ. If the church really is the body of Christ, the hands, head, eyes, ears, and feet of Christ, then when we decide not to follow the heavenly call, when we decide not to participate in the Missio Dei, when we decide that being comfortable and holding on to power and influence are more important than being a blessing to the world, then we are not being the church. And we’re not living in the Kingdom of God, that kingdom of costly service and self-emptying love.
My friends, we ARE on a mission…from God! The mission is not our own, it is not of our choosing or direction, but it is one that we have been called to participate in. We must always be asking ourselves, are we going about God’s business of blessing the world, or are we waiting for the world to bless us? In our baptism service, we say that baptism is both a promise and a call—on the one hand, we can rest securely, assured of our promise of salvation. But on the other hand, at the same time we’re called out beyond ourselves. Jesus tells the church to take up its cross and follow him, and there’s nothing about the cross to suggest that the way of following Christ is easy or popular. Where are we, as individuals, as a congregation, as Lutherans, and as the whole worldwide Christian church, following God’s call to mission? Where have our desire for comfort, influence or power clouded our call? As a church whose very heritage comes from the process of reformation, may we always be asking ourselves those questions, always looking for those ways in which God is looking to reform us, to literally RE-form, reshape, form us again into something new, for the sake of God’s mission.
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church