Mission — to follow the way of jesus biblical Foundations of Mission – Some highlights The call to universalism

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1. Biblical Foundations of Mission – Some highlights

The call to universalism

After many years of reading and teaching about mission, one can easily loose track and fail to see the forest for the many trees. At the same time, one often encounters sentences or insights that bring one back to the essentials. One of them is almost hidden in the “Introduction” to what I consider the best book on the topic. According to the authors, the search for the biblical foundation for mission is, ultimately, a search for the biblical basis of Christian universalism.

“To be universal, capable of embracing and being expressed by all cultures and all peoples of all times, is essential to the gospel.”

Christian universalism means, on the one hand, that God’s word spoken to Israel and particularly the Good News brought by Jesus is for all peoples of the earth to be heard, and on the other, that all people should be able to understand and embrace it.

The Bible relates the experience of a people, Israel, who were convinced that in their history God was shaping their destiny and asked them to be “light to the nations.” Similarly, the Church (the new Israel) is called to be “light to the nations” and to help the peoples of the world discover how God is shaping their destiny also.

This is a tremendous task and a great challenge. The fact that most people have not heard, understood or accepted the gospel as “good news” points to the historical failure of the Church to be truly universal or “catholic.” Those people include people of other faith convictions, of different cultures, and the masses of the poor, the excluded and the victims.

The question of universalism is not an academic one. It has serious consequences for mission and the Church’s witness. The fundamental divine mandate to all Christians is to go and witness to “all nations.”

The Church’s call to be universal touches the very issues that challenge Church, theology and Christian praxis today: the dialogue with other religions, contextual and liberation theologies; the struggle for global justice and peace, for human dignity and equality; pluralism in teaching and praxis; the emergence of new forms of ministry; the role of women and gender issues, etc.

The fact that the Church has to struggle with such issues is a direct consequence of faith in a gospel that is universal in nature. By definition that gospel cannot be locked up in one culture, one social class or gender. The pages of the Bible, both OT and NT, are full of the struggles of God’s people to be faithful to God’s covenant: to bring justice and salvation to the poor and defenseless, to reach beyond the boundaries of Judea and Israel, to share God’s dream with all nations, and to be God’s people in new times and places.
A people chosen and called forth: the mission of Israel

The source of mission according to the Bible is God. God appears as Creator of the universe, a God who is concerned for creation, who, out of compassion, reaches out to humanity and intervenes in human history, revealing God’s plan of universal salvation. Although later developments in Israel’s theology led to the discovery of the universal scope and implications of God’s revelation, extending to all peoples and even to creation itself, the focus of the Old Testament is primarily on the people of Israel as recipient, vehicle and instrument of salvation.

Throughout the Old Testament the theme of its election by YHWH is constitutive of Israel’s faith. Israel is very much aware of being a chosen people. What makes it a people is the fact that it belongs to God in a special way. It is “the people of God”: this is what distinguishes it from other nations. Although the election implies both a “selection” by God and a “mission” towards the nations, the idea of being “set apart” led Israel to consider itself as superior and to reject other nations.

Israel’s election started with the call of Abraham and YHWH’s special blessing that was both a promise and a mission (see Gen 12:2-3; 22:18; 28:14).

At its core Israel’s call and election are universal. Although Israel often preferred to forget this, especially in times of crisis or political struggle, the chosen people always instinctively understood that their faith, their God and their election also concerned the nations, and that their history was linked to that of the other nations. On the one hand, Israel’s faith is based on the conviction that it is God’s chosen people (“set apart”), and on the other, on the insight that YHWH is the only God, therefore, the God of the nations, too.

YHWH is not a tribal or national god. God’s love, compassion and judgment embrace the nations also. That is why Israel had to be “open to the nations”. This theme is very prominent in many Psalms (“Let the nations come to Jerusalem … to see the works of the Lord and praise the God of Israel”) and in the prophetic literature, especially in Deutero-Isaiah (“You are my witnesses” – Is 43:10-12; “You will be a light for the nations” – Is 42:6; 49:6).

From the moment of its election, the people of Israel has been summoned to undertake a journey, as illustrated by the two foundational myths of Abraham’s call and journey, and the Exodus. In both stories the basic themes of the ‘Promise’ and the ‘Land’ are central. The biblical person is at the same time citizen of a nation (Land), and a stranger en route to elsewhere, to new horizons (the Promise). This tension between belonging-settlement-safety and motion-journey marks God’s people. The Spirit continually sets the history of this people in motion to face new challenges.

The divine call to be light for the nations includes the demand of openness to the foreigner, openness to other peoples (see Dt 10:18-19). Here the foreigner or stranger appears at the center of Israel’s theology (“God loves the stranger”), ethic (“You shall love the stranger”), and history (“You were once strangers yourselves”).

The Old (First) Testament tells the colorful story of how God chose, gathered and sent a people for the sake of the nations, and how Israel has struggled to fulfill that mission. From the perspective of the New (Second) Testament, the people of Israel has failed to live up to the demands of the covenant and to fully respond to the call to be universal. Israel was neither able to accomplish its mission nor to recognize the presence of the Messiah as the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise.
The people on the bridge

My eyes have seen your salvation – a light to the Gentiles (Lk 2:30-32).

In his gospel account, the evangelist Luke displays a particular attention and sensitivity for the poor, the little ones, those who suffer, people at the frontiers of humanity.

In his account of the events that surround the birth of Jesus he presents a series of people who were able to see, recognize and embrace the Messiah, yet for some reason did not actually become disciples of Jesus: Zechariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Joseph, the shepherds of Bethlehem, Simeon, and Hannah the prophetess, and – in a certain way also – Mary. They represent all the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, sages, all the little ones of Israel, all the “just” or “righteous” ones (dikaioi) who were looking forward to the fulfillment of God’s promise. The canticles of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon are their songs of pain, hope and joy.

In his Christmas account Matthew only mentions Joseph and Mary, but in a kind of mythical story, he introduces other people, the Magi. They represent the countless peoples of all ages and cultures who are loved by God yet still “live in darkness and under the shadow of death” (Lk 1:79), and yearn for liberation and God’s salvation.

By mentioning all those people — whom I call the “people on the bridge,” the bridge crossing over to the new covenant — Matthew and Luke highlight the universal dimension of what God is realizing through the incarnation of God’s Son. It is to all those people that Jesus reached out through his ministry. Presently we, his disciples, are called to continue this outreach to all “the bridge people” of today: the poor, the little ones, people of different cultures and faiths, all those who are ready to recognize God’s Messiah. This is the heart of mission.

2. Missionary Praxis in the Manner of Jesus
The mission of Jesus

We know that since Vatican II the understanding of mission has shifted from a one-sided concern with making converts, saving souls, planting the Church or even religious “conquest,” towards the insight that all Christians, as disciples of Jesus, are mandated to continue his mission of announcing the Kingdom of God, bringing it into reality in ever changing historical contexts, and inviting all people to become part of this divine project of universal salvation.

Jesus was sent by the Father. His mission was the continuation of the saving deeds of God and the realization of the ancient prophecies of Israel. The goal of his mission was to inaugurate the “Kingdom,” i.e., the fulfillment of God’s promise that Chaos will be overcome in the “utopia” of a New Creation, a hospitable world of SHALOM for all.
Following Jesus the evangelizer

Jesus’ Mission Statement

To understand better the mission of Jesus and, hence, our ministry, let us reflect a while on the well-known and important text of Lk 4:16-20. Some call this pericope the programmatic discourse of Jesus at the start of his public ministry. It is like a personal job description and a mission statement rolled into one.

The program includes the gift of sight to the blind. In Luke Jesus makes his evangelization conditional on the fact of being “seen” in the sense of being recognized. Hence, the task of the disciples consists of making “the blind” see, of making people “recognize” Jesus as the Messiah.

This is beautifully illustrated by the chiastic structure of the text. The fundamental characteristic of this structure is that the main element – the gift of sight to the blind – is at the center:

Ahe went to the synagogue

B He stood up to read,

C and he was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

D He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written

E The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me

F to preach good news to the poor.

G He has sent me to proclaim to the captives freedom

H and recovery of sight to the blind

G’ to send out the oppressed in freedom

F’ and to proclaim

E’ the Year of the Lord which is favorable

D’ And he rolled up the scroll,

C’ gave it back to the attendant,

B’ and sat down.

A’ … of all in the synagogue

In the gospel of Luke the theme of “sight” is important. We see it, e.g., in Lk 2:29-33 (Simeon’s song); Lk 3:6; and Lk 7:21-23. In the latter text, like in Lk 4, the gift of sight is the pivot on which the whole list of “liberations” rotates.

The good news to be announced is that Jesus enables people to see, and those who “see” him are evangelized, that is, receive the Good News. Therefore, if mission means – as we will see later – that we have to prolong the logic of the ministry of Jesus, missionary action must aim at ensuring that Jesus and his message are made known to all people in such a way that his true identity is recognized.

Luke develops this theme fully in the long section of Lk 18:18―19:10, especially in the story of the healing of the blind man near Jericho (Lk 18:35-43) and that of the conversion of Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10).

The blind man recognizes in Jesus the Savior and the presence of God. This recognition is faith that opens eyes and makes feet capable of following Jesus. The person evangelized is the one who “sees” Jesus’ real identity and feels called and qualified to follow him.

Zacchaeus wanted to “see” Jesus, but it was impossible because of the crowd. But he persists and at last, transformed by faith, he acknowledges Jesus as Lord and comes to salvation. It is this “sight” that evangelizes and saves him.

Some persons are not able or willing to “see”, that is, to recognize Jesus: the rich young man who is blinded by riches; Herod who wants to meet Jesus, but only to see a miracle; the Pharisees and scribes who want signs and proof of the Kingdom. But the Kingdom is not perceived by those who want to “observe” it without committing themselves personally. Recognizing Jesus and seeing the Kingdom must be related to a personal commitment.

It is our task as evangelizers to make Jesus known, to help people recognize him and to make them into disciples. But how will they “see” Jesus if we, his followers, do not “shine”, if our lives do not bear testimony of the Good News. How will they recognize Jesus if his message is not understood?

In his “mission statement” according to Luke (see Lk 4:18-21), Jesus declared that his mission was being executed by the power of the Spirit and indicates clearly his goals and basic options: he came for the poor (in Greek hoi ptoochoi), the captives (hoi aichmalootoi) and the blind (hoi tuphloi), that is, the people pushed to the periphery of society, and especially for the oppressed (hoi tethrausmenoi), the “crushed” or the victims whose only hope is a “Jubilee,” a year of God’s favor.

His words and deeds revealed the goal of his ministry: to free all those excluded for political, economic, social or religious reasons, all those oppressed by “demons,” and to restore their lives and dignity as children of God.

What is most striking in the gospels is – in the words of David Bosch – the provocative, boundary-breaking nature of Jesus’ ministry. It is evident in his boundless compassion for those who were cursed as “sinners” and “impure,” in his gestures and words of healing and forgiveness. It is evident in the many times he breaks religious or social taboos and reaches out beyond the barriers of exclusion.

The law of the new covenant demands of his disciples to love without limits, to forgive “70 x 7” times, and to take care of the “lost sheep,” the wounded and the “little ones” (G. hoi mikroi: Mt 18:6; hoi mikroteroi: Lk 9:48; hoi elachistoi: Mt 25:40) close by or far away.

That is why table fellowship is one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry. Universal in scope and intention, it includes in a provocative way the poor, sinners and outcasts, even preferably, foreshadowing the eschatological banquet of the Kingdom.

This table fellowship stands for all-inclusive hospitality expressed in a variety of creative forms: to feed the hungry (multiply the loaves and the fish; “give them some food yourselves” Mt 14:16 //); to visit the prisoners; to care for the sick; to bring back the lost sheep; to wash one another’s feet; to feed the hungry; in summary, to “break the bread and share the cup” of the Kingdom with all who long for it.

All of this – not only the celebration of the Eucharist – has to be done “in memory of Jesus,” for if we forget him and his commands, we cannot be his disciples.

Mission in the N.T. means to respond positively to the call to discipleship. Discipleship is a key theme in the N.T. understanding of mission, especially in Matthew. Discipleship is not so much a question of being with Jesus, it is, rather, the call to go the way of Jesus and in doing so to become like the Master (see Mt 10:25). The sequence of this call is: Come with me! – Come and see! – Follow me! – Go! – Make disciples! The goal of the command to make the “nations” into disciples is not to make converts, to increase the membership of the Church, or to make people accept Jesus as their personal savior. The goal is to make Jesus known to others and to teach them to observe all that he has commanded us (see Mt 28:20), which is the practice of superior love and justice (see Mt 5:20).

Like that of the O.T. prophets, the mission of Jesus was marked by vulnerability, suffering, incomprehension, rejection and persecution. His message and actions were perceived by the religious establishment of his time as so utterly scandalous, dangerous and “sacrilegious” that they decided to eliminate him. That is why Jesus was very careful and demanding in choosing and accepting disciples (see e.g., the Beatitudes, and Mt 7:21-23; 8:18-22; Lk 9:57-62). He asked: “Can you drink the cup that I will drink?” (Mt 20:22 and //)

The way of Jesus: kenosis

Mission always has to be carried out in the manner of Jesus, that is, in the way of kenosis: a kenosis in which – looking at Jesus’ life and ministry – we can distinguish three dimensions: the kenosis of incarnation (identification and solidarity with human reality), the kenosis of the road (being on the move, reaching out to all people, especially the most abandoned), and the kenosis of the cross (faithfulness in assuming the ultimate consequences of discipleship). True mission, therefore:

- will follow the way of insertion, of option for the poor, of solidarity with the defenseless, the excluded, those who suffer (the last, the least and the lost);

- has to be done from people’s reality, dialogue with their culture and religion;

- has to be done with respect, with a listening attitude, as an invitation, without pretension nor imposition, with a maieutic approach (the midwife-approach).

Mission has its origin and foundation in the Missio Dei (God’s mission), in the salvific presence and action of God in history. Mission originates from God’s boundless love for God’s creation and for the human beings created in God’s image. Hence, we are not ‘missionaries’, for in the real sense, only God is missionary.

The goal of the Missio Dei is the Kingdom of God. Kenosis is the means by which one becomes part of the mission of God. The kingdom that Jesus announced and inaugurated is one that is founded on and maintained by a self-emptying love for all. No one is compelled to be part of it, but all are invited. Unlike in human societies, the first to be part of it are the poor, the victims, the marginalized, the vulnerable and the abandoned.

The images Jesus uses: “light in the darkness,” “salt of the earth,” “leaven in the dough,” “to lay down one’s life for others, ”all point to the kenotic way of discipleship.

If kenosis is constitutive of Jesus’ mission, it follows that missionary praxis always has to be carried out in the incarnational way of kenosis. In spite of difficulties and distortions in diverse historical circumstances, there has been a deep-rooted conviction throughout the history of Christianity that following the way of Jesus is an integral aspect of mission, proof of its authenticity, and the test of missionary faithfulness. An understanding of the self-emptying of Christ can lead to a fuller comprehension of his ministry and, consequently, of our own missionary commitments.

The criterion of the life, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ permits us to identify him today … to discover who he is (the Lord and Savior of the oppressed), where he is to be found today (among the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed), and what he is doing (healing their wounds, breaking their chains of oppression, demanding justice and peace, giving life, and imparting hope).(Orlando Costas)

3. The basic option of Jesus: the periphery …

Come to me – Follow me – Go! This is the sequence of the journey of committed Christians:

[1] called and touched by Jesus, [2] invited to discipleship (which in Matthew is always linked to ‘following’ Jesus: the Greek verb he uses is akolouthein= to walk with, to follow, to be ‘acolytes’), and [3] sent on mission.

Like for the first disciples, the call for Christians is essentially to follow Jesus to ‘Galilee’, that is, to the periphery. In Jesus’ time, Galilee was the region bordering pagan lands, a region populated by marginal Jews who were considered backward and inferior, by Gentiles and outcasts. It was a crossroads of cultures and religions, open to what Judeans considered the bad influences of the outside world.

In the synoptic gospels, especially in Matthew, ‘Galilee’ has both a sociological and a missiological meaning. It refers to the outer boundaries of human existence, to the world of the outcasts, the desperate and the excluded, where only bad news is heard and imposed. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth, youth and ministry show that Jesus belonged to that marginal world and identified with its people.1 He chose to become a stranger and a marginalized, “assuming the form of a slave” (Phil.2:7). He embraced the marginalized and experienced marginality among the marginalized.2

Galilee is the place where Jesus started his mission, chose his first disciples and sent his disciples on mission after the resurrection. In his gospel, Matthew highlights ‘Galilee’ to accentuate Jesus’ identification with the poor, suffering and rejected of society, and to present Jesus’ mission as inclusive of Jews and Gentiles as well as of people at the social and religious margins of society. For Matthew, the term ‘Galilee’ is a symbol of the radical newness of the vision of Jesus. Indeed, the heart of his mission is to cross boundaries and to accept the unacceptable. ‘Galilee’ means “that Jesus accepts the rejected ones of the world and commissions them as his change agents in the world.” He made ‘Galilee’ into the new center of missio Dei, the sending-base for world-wide mission. From there Jesus sent his disciples who came from the fringes of society to the further fringe, beyond Israel, to the ends of the earth.3

Therefore, when mission occurs in the reality of everyday life at the margins, it becomes a vital and transforming force in the world. When mission begins at the center among the exclusivities of the elite, however, it quickly loses its cutting edge and results in “a historically harmless church, a private gospel, and a plastic Jesus” (Orlando E. Costas). 4

The call to ‘Galilee’, to the frontiers is especially compelling for missionaries.

Missionaries are those who cross human frontiers. They are ‘frontiersmen’ and ‘frontierswomen’ in other ways also. They are at the frontier, at the cutting edge of the Church’s historical development, “pointing to the new forms which the Church is taking, as a result of the dialogue with other faiths and cultures and as a result of the unique experiences and insights of new faith-communities. They – more than other Christians – are attentive to what the Spirit is saying and doing in other religions and traditions. In the universal Church, they are the voice of the periphery, of the poor and marginalized, of the so-called ‘young’ Churches … (Aylward Shorter)

“The activity of Jesus and of his disciples is characterized by a boundary-breaking outreach, a centrifugal dynamic.”5 The disciples first experienced a call to the center (“Come to me”). But then Jesus starts moving away from the center, to the hills and villages of Galilee, to the peripheries of Jewish society and even beyond. This outreach is the momentum of his mission.

However, for Jesus the margin is never a fixed center. The periphery is wide, the margins are multiple, the marginalized are everywhere. For Jesus, marginality means mobility, itinerancy and flexibility. Mobile marginality is the harshest of all lifestyles, yet the most transformative. Jesus’ mission is a continuous journey, a ministry of the road. Eventually he will travel to the center, not to install himself there, but to die in protest of the arrogance and self-centeredness of the elites.6

Much later, on the day of Pentecost, the centrifugal force of the Spirit propelled the disciples from the center (Jerusalem) to the edge, “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The ministry of Jesus and his followers is always outgoing, embracing, inclusive. It is peripatetic, en route, it is mission.7 And the content of that ministry is outreach: preaching, announcing the Good News of God’s love for all, denouncing the Bad News, healing, forgiving, bringing hope, restoring life.

If the basic option of Jesus is the periphery (that is, the outer limits of human existence, where the Good News is both good and new), an option that demands mobile marginality, and if we want to be his disciples, then our basic option should be that of Jesus himself. The call to the frontiers, to itinerancy and to flexible mar-ginality defines the missionary charism.

The peripheries are vast and the marginal situations are many. We will need to devote more time to discover and name them, because they will forever determine our missionary priorities.

... that is, the option for the people, the poor, the victims

The call to the periphery means the call to the people who live, suffer, hope and struggle there. Jesus’ basic option for the margins and boundaries was the option for real people who lived there, “those who hunger and thirst for justice,” not in their free time but as a way of life. They are the outcasts of society, those whom scribes and Pharisees called “sinners.” In fact, they are more sinned against than sinning. They are the victims.

Anthony Gittins writes: Jesus “journeyed along the borders between countries and people, letting himself be sidetracked and put upon (Lk 17:11ff)… He engaged and encountered a variety of people, sinners and outcasts, and he entrusted himself to people whom he did not intentionally seek (see Mk 7:24ff; Jn 12:1ff).” The many examples thereof reflect a whole attitude and a whole way of being: Jesus’ entire life was directed toward engagement with people and with negotiating and transcending their boundaries but also, gradually, his own.8

And so it must be with each one of us. But we have to be committed to the call to mission, to the lure and the demands of the boundaries or margins. Unless we seek the margins and the people who live there, a dimension of our Christian lives will remain unexplored and a whole vista of mission will remain unseen, out of sight.9

If we look carefully at the ministry of Jesus, we notice that his so-called ‘preferential option’ for the poor was not exactly preferential.10 Although he incarnated the universality of God’s love and did not exclude anyone, Jesus is partial and quite biased. In contrast to those who think to own the truth and morality and who think to be the sole recipients of God’s blessings, he constantly seeks out the “lost sheep,” who usually only hear bad news. For them he becomes the Good News.11

Gittins continues with words which, I think, we should ponder carefully:

For the follower of Jesus (the disciple, the learner) his biased choosing of the outcast becomes a compelling example. Jesus is doing the will of God; we, through following Jesus, do likewise. … God heals the brokenhearted (Is 61:1). This is part of the passage of scripture that Jesus makes his own “mission statement” … (Lk 4:18). And for the disciple there is more. In our following of Jesus we are made whole, and in our encounter with the broken our brokenness finds healing.12

Mission is the heart and nature of the Church, the instrument of God’s mission. For Christians mission has to be modeled according to that of Jesus and, hence, has to assume his basic options. It is obvious that the Church more often than not has forgotten them and is in need of conversion. It is true what Lucien Richard wrote: we need a kenotic, self-emptying church, a counter-cultural and counter-societal church, a church which offers an alternative vision; a church always – with the Lord – on the way to Jerusalem13 to assume the consequences of its options.

A biblical image that powerfully renders the idea of following Jesus at the periphery is Heb 13:12-13: Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.

To go “outside the camp” means that we have to go and encounter Christ where he is to be found: outside the visible civil and religious compounds, outside the security and comfort of the redeemed community,14 among the excluded in human deserts and jungles, where he gave his life for our salvation. We have to look for him and find him among the crucified people of today, among the destitute, the persecuted, the rejected and those who suffer. If the disciples want to encounter Jesus and follow him, they have to go and see where he lives, “outside the gate”, in the wilderness, at the peripheries of society, amidst the outsiders and outcasts of the world. And once we have found the master there, we are summoned to commit ourselves to those with whom he suffered and for whom he gave his life: the excluded, the poor, the desperate, the voiceless.15

Indeed, this is the true meaning of Missio Dei:

For this … indicates an action, which [points] to one incomprehensible event, namely that God, the creator of all things, submerged himself in his own world as a stranger, as a displaced person, an outcast, in solidarity with other outcasts and strangers, who in this world pursues a very special, hidden road in order to liberate it.16

This means that God is hidden in history and especially in Jesus Christ. And Jesus and the Spirit are “hidden” (active) in the Church, hence, in all disciples.

The mission of the disciples is to continue this mission of God by prolonging the logic of Jesus’ mission in a creative, courageous and credible way.17

“Jesus’ ministry could be described as loving encounter. He moved beyond familiar reference points, broke through boundaries, and reached out without discrimination to all the people. At the same time Jesus disturbed the statu” quo and challenged the complacent.”18 Jesus repudiated the notion that some people are more worthy than others. He broke taboos and criticized self-righteousness. However, the essential message of Jesus is one of unification and reconciliation, of outreach and inclusion.

Jesus made a difference in his time. Do our witness and ministry make a difference where we are?19 Do we prolong the logic of his ministry of Jesus? What is demanded of all true disciples, is primarily to go, like Jesus, to all human peripheries, to transcend all kinds of frontiers, to break down the boundaries of exclusion and discrimination for the sake of the Kingdom. It is a movement of transcendence, of making the world into God’s realm.

Like Jesus, we have to advocate the cause of the poor, to serve those on the many peripheries, to raise up the oppressed and the broken, to tell people to “get up and walk”, to heal the sick and the wounded, and above all, to proclaim the Jubilee, “the year of God’s favor” (Lk 4:19), which according to the Bible is the only hope for the “brokenhearted” (those “crushed” by injustice) to get out of their misery.

4. The Challenge: Make the message understood –

make it touch people’s lives

In the gospel (see Mt. 14:14; Mk. 6:34) we see Jesus who takes pity on the crowds that follow him. How come that people flocked together where Jesus appeared? Though the reasons for following Jesus were mixed, it is obvious that they understood what he said and did, because it responded to what they were looking for. People were at a loss, “like sheep without a shepherd”, hungry for a liberating word, thirsty for meaning, in need of somebody who would be on their side to comfort them, to free them from their curses and bondage, and to lead them to new life. Because his message was “good news” to them they listened to him.

As disciples, called to continue Jesus’ mission, we are sent to that immense multitude of billions of people who did not yet hear Jesus’ message and who look forward to hearing “good news” in the midst of all the “bad news” that afflicts them. Countless people are hungry and thirsty for Jesus’ liberating word or at least they have the right to be of­fered the opportunity to know Jesus. It is our call to make this happen, to facil­itate the encounter between the Gospel and cultures, between the Gospel and the many different experiences of the Mystery.

Do people run after us the way they pursued Christ? And when they do, isn’t it maybe to benefit from the material goods we offer, the facilities we build, the resources they see placed at our disposal or, perhaps the op­portuni­ties for advancement offered through us and by us? But are people fasci­nated by our witness to the message we bear? Is what we announce and teach “at great length” understood by those who hear us? Is what we do and how we live understood by those whose life we want to share?

People understood Jesus because they felt that he was close to them, that he knew their needs. Through the incarnation God’s word became human, audible and understandable! What he said caused amazement, joy, hope and enthusiasm among the poor and the marginalized. It caused also anger, envy and resistance among those who had turned God’s word into oppressive laws and religion into a means of power.

What about us? Are we close enough to the people for our message to get through? Does it touch their lives? Does our witness cause surprise, joy, en­thusiasm? Does it provoke a faith answer? Sometimes, even many times, yes. But then again perhaps, even many more times, no.

The quality of the messengers

It is true that the important thing is not visible results or numbers. Mission is not our work, it is God at work. We are sowers, not harvesters. Jesus’ parables tell us that the seed of God’s word once sown has to germinate and survive. They also explain why this does not always happen. The quality of the soil, the receptiveness of the listeners, is important. But we may not forget that the quality of the speakers, the messengers, is also of the utmost im­por­tance. The way they present the message, their ability to connect the Good News with people’s religious experience, sufferings, aspirations and world-view will also determine whether or not the message will be heard and understood as Good News, both liberating and new.

As disciples of Jesus, we are summoned to continually grow and mature in the service of the Kingdom. But that process has to go on. We have to become ever more committed and qualified witnesses. This is not only – and not even in the first place – a question of knowledge and insight, but a question of vision and resolve.

    • Therefore, we have to take care of our personal (emotional, religious and cultural) needs, in order to sustain the fidelity to our call, to develop a strong spirituality, and to keep us sensitive and attuned to the signs of the times present in the historical reality of the people.

    • On the “professional” level, we have to try to continually enhance our capacities to re­spond creatively to the challenges of mission today in a world in constant change. The Spirit is at work, but she surely appreciates qualified collaborators.

A concluding thought

  • Hopefully, all of us have tried many times and continue trying to answer time and again the crucial question of Jesus: “Who do you say that I am?”

On the answer to that question depends the strength of our faith, the depth of our spirituality and the quality of our ministry. That answer cannot be given at once nor can it be given once and for all. It has to grow in us. It has to be enriched by our experiences, by our personal encounter with the Lord, and by our commitment with the sake of the gospel.

  • The question Jesus launches to each one of us should provoke another question, this time a question that each one of us should ask Jesus time and again: “Lord, who do you say that I am?”

  • And finally a third question that we should ask as a community of disciples:

Lord, who do you say that we are?”

This question is equally crucial, for the answer will reveal the depth of our faith and the credibility of our discipleship. Jesus will surely give us the answer. The challenge is to capture it. The answer can be heard, it will reach us in many ways. Are we capable of listening?

A Spanish song about the disciples on the road to Emmaus gives a beautiful answer:

Te conocimos, Señor,

al partir el pan.

We recognized you, Lord,

when you broke the bread.

Tú nos conoces, Señor,

al partir el pan.

You (will) recognize us, Lord,

when we break the bread.

5. Mission into the Future

God’s mission entrusted to the gathered disciples (ekklèsía)

After concluding his earthly ministry, Jesus assured the continuation of his mission by commissioning his disciples. It was a risky thing, because those who had been for years so close to him, had proven time and again — during his ministry, during his passion and death, and even after the resurrection — to be unreliable, uncomprehending, unable to understand, cowardly, and ambitious. Nevertheless, after “opening their minds to understand the Scriptures” (see Lk 24:25-27.44-47) he took the risk (“As the Father sent me, so I send you” – Jn 20:21) and gave them the Spirit they needed. Still, they would need to be shaken by that Spirit on Pentecost before they could become witnesses of the Lord in Judea, Galilee and beyond, to the ends of the earth (see Acts 1:8).

A mandate executed through history

Jesus embodies in a unique way God’s love and compassion for humanity. Throughout the centuries his disciples have carried out the mission entrusted to them in a variety of ways. Historical circumstances, cultural realities and different philosophies influenced the interpretation of this mission and affected the ways of putting it into practice, giving rise to the appearance of different missionary paradigms.

After a colorful history spanning two millennia the Church is confronted with the possibility that it had misunderstood the Lord’s mandate. Or, that it had not been daring enough to remain faithful to his call. Is it possible that, like the Israel of yore, we have failed to recognize God’s visitation, our moment of grace, the kairoi made manifest in the signs of the times. Did we hear God’s voice, audible in the cries of the poor?

Where do we go from here?

This subtitle has several parts which together offer a framework for a deeper reflection on our missionary responsibility as members of a local church.

1. From ‘here’… — Where are we?

The Second Vatican Council was a grace-filled event through which the Spirit enabled the Church to open doors and windows that had remained closed for centuries and had turned the Church into a fortress of orthodoxy and conservatism. One of the revolutionary insights of Vatican II — it was in fact a rediscovery — was that the Church is God’s people on the way and that the whole Church is missionary. Hence, every Christian has to be an active disciple and witness of the risen Lord.

The “here” of mission refers to the time and space we live in.

It is a world in turmoil, undergoing profound and rapid transformations on the socio-political, economic, scientific, technological, ideological and religious levels. It is a time of dizzying changes, conflicts, crises, dangers and opportunities. It is a time of a globalization that offers, on the one hand, many benefits and blessings to some, and on the other, more suffering and more exclusion for countless others. We witness its effects in technological advances, the financial crisis, heightened conflicts between nations, wars, the impoverishment of the “bottom billion,” and, very dramatically, in the chain of events that includes climate change, ecological disasters, food and water crises that threatens the very survival of humanity and the planet at large.

To the “here” of mission belong the many challenges these developments pose to Christian mission. Alongside the old geographical, ethnic, political and economic boundaries that keep people separated or excluded many new “worlds” with their own frontiers are created. For the Church they constitute the new kairoi and areo-pagi which John-Paul II identified so well in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, #37.

The literature studying and analyzing the above is extensive. This is not the place to recite once again the long list of challenges, opportunities and dangers our time and our world present and which we are to face as disciples of Christ.

Finally, the “here” of mission refers to the country we live in. People were Christianized, but were they also truly evangelized?

2. ‘We…’ — disciples of Jesus, in so many ways and places.

Mission is our identity and vocation as Christians. In these challenging times, we need to revisit the mission statement of Jesus, that is, to check time and again if we truly understand and share his vision.

• Is the Spirit of the Lord upon us? What are the signs of her presence in our lives?

• Are the basic options and “biases” of Jesus also ours? Can we rename them for today?

• Did Pentecost ever happen in our local church? In Asia? In the Pacific? In Africa? Are the Pentecost “flames” visible in us, around us, in the church?

3. ‘Where’ do we go? Where are we supposed to be?

This question is maybe the most difficult but also the most urgent, demanding an answer. For me, it is an invitation to discover in the context of today the implications of the double summons of Jesus to his disciples, [1] “Come with me! – Come and see! – Follow me! – Go!” and [2] the call to Galilee where we will see him (see Mt 26:32; 28:7.10).

The question is then: What is Galilee for us? Where is Galilee today? Where are the “Galilees” of today’s world?

As we have seen, the call to the frontiers, defines the missionary calling.

Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga, CMF, says it in his own inspiring way:

“Missionaries should always be people who have ‘left behind’ everything: their schemes and plans, securities and structures, their prejudices and judgments. They are always foreigners striving to be ‘at home’ with strangers. They are nomads. To leave, to leave behind and to go to the frontiers and to the periphery is their charism and identity. Without these characteristics they will never be true missionaries.

“If there’s someone who has to live the ‘pastoral of the frontier,’ it is the missionary. ‘Pastoral of the frontier’ is mission: it is the pastoral of what is timely, urgent and efficient. Mission is carried out where the frontiers are.

“The Church should always be frontier herself: frontier between Gospel and world, the frontier of evangelization, the frontier of the Kingdom in the world. Those who in this frontier-Church are called to be the prow of the ship, and the vertex of the Church, are the missionaries by definition and by vocation. They are called to be at the frontline, to be forerunners.

“Missionaries are prophets, not installed anywhere, not settled down, timely and efficiently present where the needs are urgent, at the frontiers of the future.”

As mentioned earlier, the challenge is to discover and name the frontiers, because they will determine our missionary priorities.

Are we carrying out the commandments of Jesus?

Anthony J. Gittins remarks that the words and actions of Jesus in the four gospel accounts reveal his basic options and convey his demands for those who want to be his disciples. In the words of José María Vigil, his ‘preferential option’ for the poor was absolute and compulsory.

“Jesus consistently crossed frontiers that separated people, he disturbed the statu quo, chided the self-righteous, and broke taboos that caused exclusion.”20 His fundamental option was an option for the people who lived, struggled and suffered at life’s peripheries. … So it must be with each one of us, his disciples. Mission means to seek the margins and to bring “good news” to the outcasts in word and deed.

As mentioned, David Bosch quotes Latin American theologian Hugo Echegaray’s words: “Jesus inspires us to prolong the logic of his ministry in an imaginative, creative, credible and courageous way amid changed historical conditions.” — I find this a wonderful definition of mission.

Jesus calls us to be creative disciples and to use our imagination in carrying out the task he entrusted to us. People will recognize Jesus if we find new ways of inclusive table fellowship for the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized and those whom “society” considers unimportant or even expendable.

In this globalized world we have to look for new ways to “break the bread,” feed the hungry, free the captives, defend the weak, stand up for human rights … and “wash one another’s feet.”

We could organize countercultural communities and communities of reconciliation. We should be in solidarity with those who struggle for freedom and to safeguard and heal mother earth.

The call to universality revisited

Mission has its origin in the universal love of God for creation and humankind. Through Christ the Church, the new people of God, has been entrusted with the task to announce God’s love and project of salvation to all humankind. That is why, as mentioned above, mission is essentially the call to be universal, to be truly catholic.

As mentioned, to be universal means to be capable of embracing and being expressed by all cultures and all peoples of all times. This is another beautiful definition of mission! It contains in a nutshell a complete program for mission: the need to be open to all peoples and their faiths, the announcement of the gospel of Jesus as a message of hope for all peoples, the need to do this in such a way that all people can understand that message not as alien, but as a response to their deepest yearnings without rejecting their own experiences of encountering the Mystery. It also points to the need for relevance and credibility in mission so that the embrace becomes two-way: between the gospel and all peoples of the earth. Indeed, the gospel of Jesus cannot be locked up in one culture, one social class or gender.

Are we ready and prepared for that embrace? Are we willing to get to know and encounter “the other”? Sometimes I have the impression that we are more concerned with talking about our call to mission than with preparing ourselves for it and carrying out that universal embrace.

This catholicity of universal embrace – so powerfully visible in Jesus on the cross – captures the true meaning of mission in a variety of approaches.

  • Vatican II sees mission as ad gentes (“to the nations”).

  • To avoid the idea of religious conquest, some SVD missiologists prefer to speak of mission inter gentes (“among the nations”) instead. I don’t think we have to choose. Ad gentes evokes the dynamism of following Jesus on the way, while inter gentes stresses presence and insertion.

  • Vietnamese theologian Peter Phan adds: mission cum gentibus (“with the nations”).

  • I would still add: propter gentes (“for the sake of the nations”).

All these perspectives are valid and complementary, for indeed, the agenda of mission is wide and all-encompassing.

But the question is: who are the “gentes” today? They are believers of other faith traditions, “peoples on the bridge,” the people who live in today’s “Galilees”; the poor, the sick, the abandoned; people on the move – migrants and refugees; and so many others.

As disciples of Jesus, God’s universal love incarnate, we are summoned to make him known by “prolonging the logic of his ministry” in many different ways:

  • through proclamation and prophecy;

  • through dialogue with people of other faith traditions and world views;

  • by fostering the inculturation of the gospel everywhere;

  • by responding to the cry of the poor through advocacy in solidarity with their struggle for justice and equality;

  • by responding to the cry of the earth – deeply wounded by the effects of human greed and runaway technology – with our struggle for the wholeness of creation;

  • by promoting reconciliation that restores the life and dignity of the tethrausmenoi (“the crushed people”), the bottom-billion of broken-hearted victims of violence, exclusion and globalization;

  • and by taking steps towards common ecumenical witness of all Christians, for mission – especially to Asia – cannot be credible if we continue presenting a divided Christ.

Do we dare to be ‘evangelizers”?

The time to move is now.

➢ Then I heard the voice of the Lord: “Who will go for us? Whom shall I send?”

➢ I answered: “Here I am. Send me!”

➢ The Lord replied: “Go and speak my word to my people…” (Is 6:8-9)

Only if and when we read the signs, listen to the spirits, and recognize the kairoi of the new age correctly, can we be engaged in mission and can God’s salvific plan be made known “till the ends of the earth.” It is of the utmost urgency that we, the Church, move towards the Galilees of today, that we unmask the modern empires, pharaohs, Herods and pharisees, that we recognize the poor, the crushed and the victims in the peripheries, and that we identify the “Spirit” and “spirits” who keep the dangerous memory of Jesus alive.

“We are candles that only have meaning if we are burning, for only then do we serve our purpose of being light. Free us from the cowardly prudence that makes us avoid sacrifice and look only for security.

Losing one’s life should not be accompanied by pompous or dramatic gestures. Life is to be given simply, without fanfare, like a waterfall, like a mother nursing her child, like the humble sweat of the sower of seed.

Train us, Lord, and send us out to do the impossible, because behind the impossible is your grace and your presence; we cannot fall into the abyss.

The future is an enigma; our journey leads us through the fog; but we want to go on giving ourselves because you are waiting there in the night, in a thousand human eyes brimming over with tears.”

Fr. Luis Espinal, SJ

Spanish missionary

tortured and killed in Bolivia,

on March 21, 1980.
Fr. E. Luc Mees, MDJ


1 “…Nazareth was an obscure, isolated village … Yet scholars remain baffled by Matthew’s text attributed to the prophets, ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’ There is no mention of Nazareth or Nazarene in the Old Testament. In other words, Jesus grew up in nowhereland near somewhereland. Even the prophetic text that predicts it is nowhere to be found, but it is quoted from somewhere by Matthew!” P. Hertig, “The Multi-ethnic Journeys of Jesus in Matthew,” Missiology 26 (1998), 24.

2 Ibid., 28.

3 See P. Hertig, “The Galilee Theme in Matthew,” Missiology 25 (1997), 155-159.

4 Ibid., 161.

5 A. J. Gittins, Reading the Clouds, 32.

6 See P. Hertig, “The Multi-ethnic Journeys of Jesus,” 27, 31.

7 Ibid., 33.

8 A. J. Gittins, Bread for the Journey: the Mission of Transformation and the Transformation of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993), 150-151.

9 Ibid., 151 [emphasis added].

10 See J. M. Vigil, “The Option for the Poor is an Option for Justice, and not Preferential,” East Asian Pastoral Review 42 (2005) #4.

11 See Gittins, Bread for the Journey, 160-161.

12 Ibid., 161.

13 L. Richard, Christ: The Self-Emptying God. (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1997), p. 194.

14 O. E. Costas, Christ Outside the Gate, p. 190.

15 See A. J. Gittins, Bread for the Journey, 158-161; also A. J. Gittins, A Presence that Disturbs: A Call to Radical Discipleship (Liguori: Liguori/Triumph, 2002), 107-118; A. J. Gittins, Ministry at the Margins: Strategy and Spirituality for Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2002).

16 H. H. Rosin, Missio Dei’: An Examination of the Origin, Context and Function of the Term in Protestant Missiological Discussion (Leiden: 1972), 34

17 See D. J. Bosch, Transforming Mission, 34, quoting Latin American theologian Hugo Echegaray.

18 A. J. Gittins, A Presence that Disturbs, 91.

19 Cf. the story of the question of the old rabbi, and J. Donders, “The Thomas test.”

20 A. J. Gittins, A Presence that Disturbs, 91.

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