Depending on your era, some of you may remember the tune from a TV series in the late 1960s or early 70s, others more recognise it more recently from the Tom Cruise films – another one is due out soon, I understand.
Of course it is the theme of ‘Mission Impossible’- stories about secret agents given a, so called, impossible mission full of dangerous risks to rescue the world, or some part of it. That tune goes with the phrase used at the start of every story ‘this is your mission, should you choose to accept it’.
Now park that sentence for a moment because we will come back to it. But first I want to take a moment to ponder with you something else. We’ve just heard again another famous sentence, in our gospel reading: ‘God loved the world in this way. He gave his only son’.
This time the words don’t mark the start of a story, they come near the middle of it. And this story is the story of God’s impossible mission, the story of God reaching out again and again to be present and active in, even to rescue, the world he loves, amongst the mess and the brokenness, at huge risk and cost to himself.
This reflection was offered at the Trinity Sunday service – a united service for the churches of the Lordsbridge Team – as a starter for a series on the 5 Marks of Mission. The Bible readings of the day were John 3:1-17 and Romans 8:12-17.
The Trinity and the missio Dei
This is also the story of how God expresses his presence in the world not in one way but in multiple ways. We most traditionally call these ways of expressing himself ‘Father, Son and Spirit’. These are words that are used in Scripture. But, following Augustine, we sometimes limit them and limit our understanding by giving these words an implicit or explicit hierarchy.: Father first, then Son, then Spirit. Spirit is often side-lined in our thinking, too near the bottom of the heap to bother about. And yet Jesus talks to Nicodemus in our gospel of being born of the Spirit, and Paul writes to the Romans in today’s Epistle of living by the Spirit so that we are children of God and joint heirs with Christ.
There is another way of looking at this, and that is to consider these expressions of the life of God as at the same ‘level’ in a mutually enriching interweaving, like a complex circle dance or a 3-way embrace. A few of you may have come across the technical term perichoresis as a label for this and which goes right back to the church fathers. More recently, the writer of the book The Shack made a pretty good attempt at articulating this sense of the equality and mutual interweaving of the persons of the God the Trinity. We sometimes also speak of God as ‘Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer’, or ‘Companion’, alongside ‘Father, Son and Spirit’, to bring into the foreground some of the other ways in which these expressions of God can be described, again also drawing on Scripture. The fact that none of these entirely captures how we understand or experience God demonstrates the inherent complexity and unfathomability of both. All of our attempts fall short, God remains mysterious and Other. Understanding God is perhaps a true ‘mission impossible’.
And yet, there are some things about how God expresses himself in the world that we do understand from the narrative of Scripture, and perhaps its extrapolation into our own experience.
We know from the creation myth-narratives that the world is intended to be a place in which a creative God works together with human beings, that we are part of a complex web in which our role is as a steward, to care for creation as God himself would.
We know from the stories of Abraham and Moses that God reaches out to call and shape people into a community that is to be a blessing to all others.
We know from the stories of the prophets that God again and again reached out to challenge injustice, and to call the people into a proper care for the vulnerable and marginalised.
We know from the story of Jesus the good news that God reached out once more, for all time, to show us himself, in the being, the words and the actions of Jesus Christ, to teach us how to live alongside each other, to offer us the grace of forgiveness and to show us the Spirit’s power in the resurrection.
We know from the last words of Jesus and the activities of the early church after Pentecost that teaching and baptising disciples in the name of the Trinity is part of Jesus’ commission to us.
These are ways in which God, Father Son and Spirit, or Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer – expresses himself in the world: ways in which, if you like, the internal relational communion of the Triune God overflows to include us. These are God’s mission in the world – the missio Dei to use a theological term. And as any child learns from observing and knowing their parents, so we as the children of God (as Paul puts it) learn by observing and knowing God.
Someone said: ‘It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world. The church’s involvement in mission is its privileged participation in the actions of the triune God’. Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, a Heart for Mission, Tim Dearborn (p. 2)
This is our mission, should we choose to accept it.
In the second half of the last century, the worldwide Anglican Communion tried to lay out this mission in a way that would make it easier to grasp. They called it the 5 Marks of Mission.
The mission of the Church, they said, is the mission of Christ, and these are the its marks:
- To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
- To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
- To respond to human need by loving service
- To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
- To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth
These 5 marks are part and parcel of the ministerial training of anyone who has been ordained over the last 15 years or so. Our diocese in common with many others in the church in the UK is, as we come out of the pandemic, re-articulating them as a valuable way of describing what being a disciple of Jesus Christ looks like, to answer the question ‘how then should we live?’.
So, this is by way of an introduction, and over the next few weeks in all our church services in Lordsbridge Churches, we will be unpacking these marks of mission and what they might inspire in us, individually and collectively, in our lives as children of God, born of the Spirit, as Christian people.
This is your mission should you choose to accept it.