3.1.15

Position: Mission


I married into a Catholic family.

When I first met my husband many years ago I was struck on first visiting the family home by a resin and luminous Jesus above the fireplace of their front-room. I knew that this would likely be a family in which I would find a home and for that reason, one amongst many, of course, Henryk and I married and now have two children and are involved in Anglican ministry together. In my mother-in-law's house calendars of Pope John Paul II have featured and he sits framed in a corner together with the rosary and a Bible. A Polish pope, for a very Polish family.

We are also experiencing now the progressiveness of Pope Francis, who has so far carved out a ministry in which he relates to the common man and is slowly reforming some of the grand trappings of the title that perhaps sit awkwardly alongside a call to humility and service. John Paul II continues to shape the faith of the family that I married into and so here I reflect on one key aspect of John Paul II's contribution to our theological thinking.

In 1990, Pope John Paul II wrote his Redemptoris Missio - a defence of the church's missionary mandate. In the second chapter he writes about the Kingdom of God and how there is a close tie between the church and the Kingdom, at least we pray there is but the two are distinct. The church is a 'seed, sign and instrument' of the Kingdom but it 'is not an end in itself.' The Church, as William Temple points out, does not exist to serve and secure itself, it exists primarily for those who are not yet its members and this is a hallmark of its unique identity. As David Bosch would go on to expand and champion, the church does not have a mission, the mission of God has a church.

Pope Francis has taken up John Paul II's thoughts and reshaped them for our modern times, saying that 'missionary outreach' is 'paradigmatic for the church,' of its very essence.

We are to be 'missionary disciples.'

'...the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for its preservation.” (Redemptoris Missio)

It is important for all Christians engaged in churches everywhere to remember that 'church structures were developed to support the mission of the church' (Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences). Pope Benedict, the Pope between John Paul II and Francis, who was in his very stepping down so radical, spoke in an opening address of how, 'the missionary impulse is a necessary fruit' of our lives as we participate in the life of the Trinity.

As we participate in the Eucharist within our churches we are to be fuelled there for God's purely missionary vision. Rappaport reminds us that if the unchanging core ingredients of this ritual remain unchanged, it fosters a secure place where 'participants transmit information concerning their own current physical, psychic or social states to themselves and to other participants.' Although it be a space in which indeed God ministers to us, it is to be hoped too that the words are heard and symbols point to a real call beyond the self because that in itself ministers to the self. God built us to reach others with the news of him because in that way he comes amongst us again: 'It is the Christian claim that each human being can only be completed beyond her or himself...through the neighbour and through God' (Green, Only Connect).

And why these reflections on the Mission that has a Church?

Because tomorrow we are in Epiphany and Epiphany presents a Messiah for the whole world and Jesus' mission in which we are to play our part. Matthew writing for a Jewish Christian audience knows that the largest temptation they face is to keep Jesus to themselves, to try and stuff him into the box of their own preconceived ideas and this we know is exactly our temptation. It happened then with the tension between the Gospel of Grace that Paul announces and those who wanted to take it back to a list of rules and regulations. It happens now every time the church insists that people new to the faith must worship Jesus in the way the church has always worshipped Jesus. It happens every time the church puts barriers in people's way.

To help us to understand this Matthew chooses the most unlikely characters to be amongst the first to worship the Jewish Messiah - Wise men from the East: priests of the Persian religion. However, God being God, who always has a plan, had the Persians capture the Jewish people centuries before and those very exiled Jews had shared stories with their Persian captors of their Jewish God and his promises. The culture then to which these wise men belong knew of the promise all along.

Formed by the story, these wise men then insist on encounter. Knowing the stories is not enough. and so they come determined not unsure, full of conviction and create significant chaos in their seeking this Messiah.

From Herod's point of view, they hail from a land that is a great military enemy. Matthew describes how because of these wise ones Herod and all of Jerusalem was in an uproar. They come to bear witness to the Christ the legitimate King.

They offend the sensibilities of the Romans and the Jews too who had always thought that the promise was theirs alone. These Kings shake up the structures with their insistence on mission.

The knowledge of the Messiah; the promises of the Messiah, even the very person of the Messiah is not the exclusive property of anyone. The Magi move from being messengers to being missionaries. They are the first wave of the incredible news that God’s grace is for all. The Church has a mission because the mission has a church.

Let our churches find our Magi, the wise ones amongst us, those whose discipleship is equipping them for mission. 

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