This call was specifically given to Israel at first. Jesus came to Israel, as any of the Old Testament prophets did, with a call to Israel to repent before the coming judgement of God. “The axe is already laid to the root of the tree,” John the Baptist said, “and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” This was the judgement of God coming to Jerusalem in AD 70. The city would be burned by Rome.
The call wasn’t just an evangelical call, in the modern sense of the term. It wasn’t a call to be forgiven and to go to heaven. It wasn’t a call of separation from the world, except from the world’s sin. As Paul described in Ephesians, the mystery was our union, not separation. The mystery was God was using Israel to leave behind its distinct nationalism and become part of the world to renew it. This is a far more practical and secular project than the usual private, religious affair.
God had called Abraham to bless the entire world. The mystery was that in Christ, this permeation of the church with the world was coming to pass. All gentiles were invited to join Israel in faith and repentance. They were invited to leave behind their self-serving idols, and embrace neighbourly love and care, following God’s enacted love for his creation in the gospel.
As soon as we mention things like Abraham’s promises, we think of religious things. This is a wrong mindset. It is about this world, bringing change to the human condition, bringing our lives and societies into his practical, loving restoration.
The Holy Spirit
First, Jesus asked his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit would empower them for witness, not just in miracles, but in discipleship living with their enemies. The use of miracles was to be God honouring. There are many examples in the New Testament of wrong motives in this area. The miracles were not for money, personal ambitions, or to divide the community. They were to be used in humility, to point to Jesus’ community plan, as the multiple languages at Pentecost indicate.
The uniting of the languages at Pentecost, indicated the mission of the Holy Spirit in the church. The Holy Spirit, in our lives, is on a community project. He is on a justice to the world project, bringing us all together in love. He is breaking down the walls of division among us, so that we may care for each other and heal the world. This is what the Holy Spirit was doing in Acts. He was glorifying Christ, because this is the mission Christ started, the kingdom of God. And he was equipping the church to stand, even with opposition to this project, from those who preferred their self-interest.
The ministry of the Holy Spirit was more than the visible miracles. In Ephesians, Paul said we were sealed by the Holy Spirit, who would lead us into our full inheritance. Then Paul spoke of the saints’ faith and love for each other. This is what the Holy Spirit was bringing into their lives. This faith and love, in the face of a corrupt world, even towards their enemies, was the work of the Spirit in the new community. This was the way in which God was empowering his people.
Discipleship is the Mission
In the early church, discipleship was the way of missions. That is, their mission was to be lived out as disciples. Discipleship was the method of the mission.
This is the way it was with Jesus. In Christ, God lived out his mission towards the world. The message of Jesus was an explanation of this action. With God, the mission started with his way of living, his way of coming to the world in the flesh, and the preaching of Christ announced or described what this way of living is all about. It started with example, then it is secondly verbal.
Without the example, there is no message. Without the example, there is no credibility. Without the example, the message distorts into one of power over others. The world sees the message. The church’s call is to show the message.
If the message is to be truly transformative, and discipleship forming, then it is far more about doing, than about speaking. Speaking only has renewing force because of the doing. It is our culture that has divided “preaching” into a single category of verbal communication. In early discipleship, preaching was holistic. The word is a person. Hearing involves all our being.
What things do we see in the way God acted in Christ?
- In the incarnation, God came to the world. He joined heaven to earth. He took the initiative to come to our place.
- In the incarnation, God pulled down walls, and built bridges, between himself and humanity, and between Israel and the Samaritans, people of different races and faiths. In the incarnation, God forgave the world its hostility against him. He didn’t hold the wrong others committed against them.
- He took the risk of love, of rejection, and still reached out to his enemies.
- God lived a counter-cultural life in the world. He didn’t follow the cultures of broken humanity, but the selflessness of heaven.
- Where there was selfishness, he brought service.
- Where there was violence, he brought self-giving.
- Where there was injustice, he cared for others, not for himself.
- Where people were rejected by the community, he included them and told them of God’s love.
- In the incarnation, God suffered with us in our cultures, in our ignorance, and in our violence. He showed us that missions, to bring a new beginning to people, means compassion, which literally means “to suffer with.”
Discipleship first, then Verbal Message
It was as Jesus lived out this form of life, that he preached the message. The message was one of reconciliation, that explained the reconciling way in which God was acting through the incarnation of Christ.
This shows us how mission works. Mission is the life of the church community. It is to be lived out in the world, connected with other groups, not separated from them. We are not setting up a separate religion. We are renewing the world as it is, going to those who live in other communities and customs, and seeing God work his renewal within those communities.
To do this, we reject the politics of division, just as Jesus rejected those divisions and demarcations. He was friends to all, on all sides. He sought out the enemies of Israel, and did not reject them. He went to them and brought them in.
Persecution temps us to flee for safety and build our own religion, but God didn’t flee back to heaven. He lived out his reconciliation in our darkness, at the centre of where we were. He came to accept and transform the Jewish faith. In the same way, he fulfils the aspirations of all communities in our world. He doesn’t come to reject them, but to transform them.
The mission of the church starts with discipleship. It starts by living within the communities that others belong to. Discipleship becomes the mission in those communities. The message is then the explanation of this life. Discipleship is a reorientation of our heart and behaviour, based on Christ. It is not a shift into a new pollical community.
This disconnects the church from any separatist message, “You must leave your people, your customs, and embrace our political views.” It forsakes the nationalism of first century Israel. This is not the gospel.
Rather, the gospel is inclusive, of the people and their identity. Their identity becomes part of the new beautiful fabric of God’s church, his new creation, complete with the different reflections of God’s creation in us all. We learn God’s multifaceted wisdom and purpose in our reconciling relationships with others. We don’t learn by separatist arrogance. God brings each human culture into his resurrection and makes it part of his beauty.
Peter’s World Mission
This was Peter’s path of mission. Peter spent time calling the believers to follow Christ. He listed some of the aspects above, about the way Christ lived. He called the church to follow this in their relationships with each other, and in their relationships in the world.
This way of living was a complete contrast to the Roman world. In the world, people stand out for their own rights. Christ gave up his rights. Peter said, live this way. Then, when the world asks you, “What is this hope you have?”, then explain, share the message of reconciliation with them. Share how the way you are living, the redemptive way, heals communities, as God showed in his incarnation.
Peter said, we are an unusual people. This is the basis for our mission. Our discipleship, our peculiarity, is to show God’s praises, is our mission. Our mission is our incarnational, Christlikeness, living in the world.
This is Peter’s plan for world missions. He didn’t say, “Get in a special evangelist.” He said, “Follow Christ and when the world asks why do you live so oppositely to us, then explain the reason, with respect.” This is how the scriptures said the church is to renew the world.
Non-Hostile Mission of Peace
This also shows that the mission of the church is to be carried out in a non-hostile way. Building separation into our communities is building hostility for the future. We carry out our mission amid our enemies, in service, in forgiving, respectful witness through our lives. If there is any hostility, any disrespect, it is to come from others not from us.
We have no message to the world, unless the hostility is overcome first within ourselves, within our own hearts. When we live at peace with all men and women, reaching out in care to those different to ourselves, just as God has done for us in Christ, then we have a gospel to share with others. The gospel we share must first be lived by our own community.
The mission of the church is not fighting for our place in the world, but serving to renew the world. We don’t have a place in this world. We are pilgrims, not citizens. This means we don’t try to carve out a place for ourselves, but God’s plan is that we become part of the whole community by washing its feet. Our place is the whole community, as strangers, without any claim of our own, and yet bringing God’s love to it all.
We are not calling people to make evangelical decisions for Christ. We are called by Jesus to make disciples, followers of Christ. It is the followers of Christ who transcend our self-centred sectors, filling all things and making all things new. (Eph 1:23)
Mission comes out of our discipleship, our following in the world, of how God acted in Christ.