Missio Dei: works of love and mercy

Missio Dei: works of love and mercy

Glynn Cardy

Sun 01 Nov

There is a line in the epic Jazz movie, The Blues Brothers, following a visit by Jake and Elroy to church (the ‘preacher/singer’ is James Brown!) where they say ‘We’re on a mission from God’.  It is of course poking fun at our religious antecedents over the centuries who have justified their actions (good or bad) by reference to God.

What I’m interested is the word ‘from’.  The inference is that God, like some sort of heavenly CEO, sets a goal and then appoints some earthlings to carry it out.  But in the world of missiology (the study of mission) we don’t talk about ‘the mission from God’ but the ‘mission of God (Missio Dei)’.  The inference with ‘of’ is we participate in something God is doing.

So, in the way I and other progressive thinkers frame mission, where God is not out in space but earthed, an energy/power best named ‘Love’, working for the good of the whole planet (with inferences here about justice, hospitality, ecology, and compassion), the Missio Dei is about cooperating, participating, and working with all and any committed to that end.

In that delightful Anthony De Mello story of the woman who was picking up glass at the beach in order to prevent children’s feet from being cut – a woman who looked different, looked a bit scary, whose faith and beliefs were unknown – she was a participant in the Missio Dei.  She was trying to make this world a better place for all (not just her family, or people she liked, but anyone who walked on the beach).

In a similar way last week, we watched the short documentary film On the Brühl, where a group of Christians in an East German town, Chemnitz, created in cooperation with the local council a neighbourhood ‘living room’ not as a place to evangelise people to Christianity but as a place of belonging for all.  And in the process – especially in the vignette about communion – learning could just as easily be from those of supposedly no faith to those of faith.  Indeed, this has been the experience of many involved in what can be called overseas or cross-cultural mission.

So, to return to our framing of mission, the group of Christians who set up and ran the ‘living room on the Brühl’ are not on a mission from God.  Rather they, along with their neighbours of whatever faith or none, are participating in the mission of God – which is to build communities of reconciliation, hospitality, and community wellbeing.  The frame is bigger than Christianity.  Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on God, or on the mission of God.

That said, for those of us within the tradition, Jesus offers us a viewpoint into that mission of God.  The New Testament presents to us a variety of perspectives over about 100 years of emergent Christianity, some perspectives of which are probably true to the historical Jesus and some which diverge from him.  Some perspectives even pull in different directions (which sounds a little like the church as we know it today!).

One example of divergent perspectives can be found in Matthew 25:37ff.  When Matthew’s late first century agenda (50+ years after Jesus’ death) is scraped from the surface, there are six actions – commonly called the works of love and mercy – that stand out as formative for mission in the early years after Jesus’ death.  They are feeding and giving drink, welcoming and clothing, visiting the sick and imprisoned.  All of them, particularly the last couplet, have a correlation with stigma and poverty.

Works of love and mercy are performed, as Meister Eckhart would say, “without why”.  Love is not love if it’s in it for gain.  Love is not love if it’s done with expectation of reward or fear of punishment. 

The early Jesus movement knew and met people who were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, and kept away because they were strange.  Stigma and poverty were a reality.  The Jesus followers were, by and large, not among the wealthy but among the economically vulnerable.  They could have walked away from those in need, for their own needs were probably demanding enough.  Yet they didn’t.  Instead they responded.  Why?

It may seem a little crazy, but they chose to love rather than not.  It has no further ‘reason’ than that.  If love has a reason, if it makes good sense, if it’s profitable, you can be sure that what is going on is something other than love.  Love is something that defies explanation.  Like God.

But by the time Matthew was writing some 50 years later, the Jewish Jesus movement was in deep and unresolvable conflict with its Jewish parent body.  They had been expelled from the synagogues.  You were now either on one side or the other of this conflict, a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’.  And Matthew, in this new context, takes those six works of love and mercy and firstly applies them to only helping other ‘good guys’[i], that is those in the Jesus family; and then secondly uses them as a criterion for a newly invented ‘Judge Jesus’[ii] to condemn a Jesus follower to either eternal life or punishment.  Matthew turns these acts of love and mercy into a profit and loss economy.  Eternal rewards are to be gained for those who helped.  Eternal damnation is to be gained for those who didn’t. 

Needless to say, I think Matthew did a huge disservice to our religion by creating this ‘Judge Jesus’ and afterlife punishment, and making works of love and mercy into a reward system.  Where I’m grateful to Matthew though is in his preservation in the text of these six original missional works of love and mercy.

So, the original perspective pulls in the direction of unconditional love and acts of unconditional love for any and all – for the oikumene (the whole earth).  And Matthew’s use of the original pulls us in the direction of unconditional love only for those of the Jesus, or later Christian, community.  This tension between the needs of the world and the needs of the Christian community continues to exist down to our day.  Do we prioritize looking after any in need or do we prioritize looking after our own?  Can we do both without compromising either?

The scripture set for today (Matthew 23:1-12) is also one where we need to scrap aside the polemic directed at the Jewish parent body in the late first century (a polemic that has fed anti-Semitism).  Here, underneath the vitriol and caricatures, we also find clues about the Mission of God.  Firstly, relieving burdens – the weight of poverty, ostracism, overwork, ill-health – and addressing the structural and systemic mechanisms that make for and add to such burdens.  Secondly, always being a student, a learner, and never assuming that the privileges that come our way are permanent or for our own aggrandizement, but rather are for the empowerment and service of others.  And lastly, like the Matthew 25 text, being unconditionally loving, merciful, and of service to others without thought of gain, reward, or praise.

These are high ideals yet they have long shaped our understanding of how we at St Luke’s participate in the Missio Dei.  We live within the tension of building and sustaining a worshipping and caring community at St Luke’s while always knowing that we exist for the good of all (not just those who choose to belong).  Indeed, by word, action, and presence we try to symbolize that everyone is a valued member of the community of the whole earth, and belongs.

So, when we use phrases like building a flourishing, hospitable, just, equitable, and compassionate community, the community we are talking about is the community of the whole earth.  And we action this primarily through relational networks with various groups, some of whom are based here and some of whom elsewhere.  These relationship networks, often created initially through the interests or skills of our members, are often with people who have experienced or work with those experiencing hardship or discrimination in some form.

So, all these relationships are ones where we receive as well as give – helping each other to be ‘at home in ourselves’ with strength and love; helping one another to create hospitable happenings where people can come together, be accepted for who they are, and find the resources for empowerment.  Some of these relationships will only involve a few of us, others many of us.  Some are overseas, most are not.  Some involve governance responsibilities; others involve hands on engagement.  All are part of the Missio Dei, the dream of God.

[i] Matthew 25:42.

[ii] Matthew takes the notion in the Book of Daniel of the son of man – which originally meant someone of flesh and bone, one of the nobodies of this world – and makes the son of man into one of the principalities and powers, a High and Mighty Judge over the nations.