Proclaiming a new humanity19 May 2020
What is the church’s mission statement? Perhaps you have an answer to that question–perhaps not. If you do, are you satisfied with your answer? Does it excite you, spur you into action? Is it a mission worth sacrificing your weekend for? What about your job–or your life?
The missing mission
I once spoke with a campus minister after I had participated in one of his Bible talks.1 During the Bible talk, he had focused on the need to spread the good news and to help other people become disciples of Jesus. I agreed with his points, but something felt missing. In this introduction to the Christian faith, there was no discussion of what about this news was so good. So after, I asked him: “what’s the point of being a disciple?” His answer: “The point of being a disciple is to make other disciples.”
The circularity of this statement troubled me. It seemed to reduce the Christian faith to getting as many people as possible to join our club–just so we could have a big club. It felt empty, without the power to captivate me the way I knew it needed to. I knew at that moment that I could never give my life to a mission that was summed up in this way.
Fortunately, dear reader, Jesus offers us a substantially richer mission than “let’s make a big club.” It is a mission worth spreading and sacrificing for. Yet I am concerned that many in the church do not share Jesus’ mission. Perhaps we have traded it in for a cheap imitation, content with something less because it demands less in return. Maybe we’ve decided that it only applies to the “super-religious”: the staff and elders and other leaders who we hold to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. Or perhaps we yearn for it and crave it but have simply never understood it; we have seen the pieces and mistaken them for the whole.
Before we go further…
This is the part of the post where I’m supposed to tell you what our mission is. And while I’m excited to share my thoughts with you, I hesitate. To share my thoughts is to risk being misunderstood. I’m not writing because I believe I’ve reached some milestone that now allows me to look back and show you how far I’ve come. I write not so much to explain as to understand: to probe deeper into the riches of our hope and calling. But rather than retreat into my room until I’ve “figured it out”, I want to share what I have learned and am learning with you because this is an adventure that gets better with company.
The new humanity
Let’s start in Ephesians:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. … Ephesians 4:1-2
When someone “gives up their life for a worthy cause,” it means that the cause was worth that great cost. It’s something worth living for, worth dying for. In common usage, someone might use the phrase “worthy cause” to refer to the pursuit of justice or to meeting the needs of others. Paul uses similar language in his other letters: he prays that the Colossians “may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way” and tells the Philippians to “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” What is assumed here is that our calling demands something great from us, not for some arbitrary reason but due to the very nature of the calling itself.
That calling is described in more detail in 2 Corinthians. This may be a very familiar scripture for you, but there’s one very particular word in here that we need to pay attention to and that you may not have noticed before. See if you can find it:
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Paul here is describing our mission: as Jesus came to us to reconcile us to God, now we are sent to the world for the same reason. Don’t tune out yet! This is where it is so easy to get stuck! What is this “ministry of reconciliation” that Jesus has given us? Is it to get people to give verbal assent to their sin and get baptized, only to live a life that is virtually indistinguishable from an upstanding atheist apart from going to church? Far from it. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
There’s the word: become. It doesn’t say “proclaim” the righteousness of God, or “extol” the righteousness of God, or “be grateful for” the righteousness of God. Rather, we are to become the righteousness of God. God desires that we will be the living embodiment of his goodness in this world. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:8). This isn’t some passing fancy or secondary goal: it is central to our purpose. We are Christ’s ambassadors, a new creation, proclaiming that others can join in the new creation. But what good is an ambassador proclaiming a new creation if their life looks very much like the old?
The call to embody the new humanity is stamped all over Colossians 3. It starts with a reminder of where we came from and who we are now:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Colossians 3:1-4
Remember, Paul says: your old self is dead. Christ is your life. So now what? Now, we live a life “worthy” of Christ. That is, we live a life like his: a life that rejects the evils that have brought so much destruction to humanity and instead embraces an ethic of sacrificial love. So he says “put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthy nature” and “as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” This is the new humanity, and it is so that you can live like this that Jesus died.
It is easy to emphasize Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross but deemphasize the calling he has given us to live the new life that our world desperately needs. And yet when we do so, we ignore why Jesus came down to earth:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. Titus 2:11-14
Look at that word, “eager”. That’s a call higher there. When it goes contrary to our sinful desires, it is so easy to see the call to live as a representative of the new creation as a burden. A people who are eager to do what is good don’t see things that way. What is the difference between those who are eager and those who are reluctant? The eager ones are those who understand that the life Jesus calls us to is the answer to our problems. The cliché song says that what the world needs now is “love, sweet love”, but Jesus showed us what true love was, and then calls us to embody it just as he did.
Coming full circle
The campus minister whose Bible talk I attended strongly emphasized our call to make disciples. And in doing so, he reminded us that we are to be a people spreading a message. But what message?
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
Jesus calls us to go and teach them to obey everything that he has commanded us. He calls us to spread the message of the new humanity. The brokenness we experience daily does not need to consume us. He will be with us always. Through his Spirit, he has given us the power to live differently. Through his teaching, he has given us the blueprint to know just what “differently” means. He has shown us the way to life; our mission is to walk in it, proclaiming with our lives and our mouths the power that is present to those who follow the Slaughtered Lamb. Jesus gives us nothing less than the calling to embody the answers to the world’s problems. That, my friends, is a mission worth dying for.
I’ve been reading two books recently which have been extremely helpful in understanding our mission/purpose as Christians in the world. They are The Kingdom of God, Volume I: The Future Breaks In by Tom Jones and Steve Brown and Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World by Lee Camp. This post draws especially on many of the ideas in Mere Discipleship. I highly recommend both.
A “Bible talk” is lingo for a discussion that is primarily focused on introducing people to Christianity–generally to those who have never had any serious or positive exposure to the faith. ↩