What Hope is there for Mission?

It was a privilege to recently give the Whitley College 2010 Annual Missiology Lecture. Whitley College, part of the University of Melbourne,  is the  Baptist training college in Melbourne. The lecture was subsequently published in the Australian Journal of Mission Studies. Vol. 4, No.2 (Dec 2010) 55-61.  The lecture begins with the material below, but the full text can also be downloaded here.

 

The humour of this kind of “end of the world” cartoon reminds us that there is a certain disdain for crazy preachers who proclaim the end of all things, but we ought to remember that Jesus came into Galilee as an end-time preacher, saying, “The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15). It might be good if the church was more willing to sound equally crazy in saying that the kingdom of God is a lot closer than many realize, and that we are nearly there at every moment of time!  The Celtic Christian tradition has a saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, and that in the “thin” places the distance is even less. This is a way of saying that there are times and places when it seems that the veil between heaven and earth is lifted and we are able to get a glimpse, a sense of the holy.

The “thin places” can be found everywhere, in conversation, in prayer, in the classroom, in worship, in the street. This is partly because the idea of the “end” of the world has two distinct meanings. It can refer to the temporal end, the time when it finishes; and it can refer to its meaning or purpose. From a biblical, or eschatological point of view these two dimensions of “the end” are connected because the meaning of all events is to be discerned from examining those events which occur at “the end times”.

And God, by grace, has helped us in this by locating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, an event which, theologically, belongs to the end of time, in the midst of time. An analogy of this is that although the “end” (the purpose or meaning) of this talk really belongs at its “end” (the temporal “end”) I can actually anticipate this and bring the future into the present and say:

The mission of the church (participating in the mission of God) is to help people understand that the purpose of life can be found, and experienced right now as well as in the future, in what God has done through the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus individually in the eternal life we can experience now; and corporately in the life of the kingdom of God in which we share; and cosmically in the redemption of the whole of creation.

This means that the church’s mission is to bring the future into the present. There is a joke about a man trying to explain complicated directions to a disorientated tourist who finishes up saying, “Well, if I were you I wouldn’t start from here”! But, in terms of finding one’s way to the kingdom of God, you can start from anywhere! God is gracious, if you want to start with him, he simply does not mind about time or place.

The lecture then proceeds to discuss the relationship between the biblical story and the ‘scientific’ story of the events of this world. Christian mission can be characterised as bringing these two stories with their different ‘endings’ together. The difficulties involved in this are explored and it is then related to the understanding of God as Trinity. The lecture concludes that “in the end, mission emerges out of hope which is connected to our understanding of the Trinitarian God. And the church’s hope, and thus the church’s mission should focus on all three dimensions of that hope, individual, communal and cosmic. Only because the church has a hope does it engage in mission. And anything that is done without hope is not a part of the mission of God.”

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