Joining the action of God in the world
If God loves the world, if he is present among the nations, doing his own work, which is the salvation of humanity, if at the end of times will burst in all its splendour the gathering of the nations and the Kingdom will be manifested as it had been prepared since the beginning of the world, then what is the meaning of our missionary life? If God loves at the same time the Christians as Christians, the Jews as Jews, the Muslims as Muslims, the Pagans as Pagans, each in his proper situation, then why proclaim the Gospel? In daily life, the objection to mission is very often expressed in this way: each individual has his own way of reaching God or answering to his love (To each his own religion: the council has recognised the value of all the religions as ways of salvation). Father Beauchamp wrote somewhere that the word of God is a word with many voices which have to be harmonised. There is a voice that proclaims that God loves all human beings and that he wants to save them all; there is also a voice given to his disciples asking them to make disciples of all the nations.
There is this amazing text of Saint Augustin claiming:
“The substance of what we today call Christianity already existed in the past and had been given in the early days of mankind. Finally, when Christ appeared in our flesh, we started to call Christian religion something that had always existed.”
Facing such a question, two options can be offered:
- There is what we may call “de-mission”. When putting the accent on the fact that Jesus did not go to the pagans, and also putting the accent on the positive and salvific value of all religions, then must we not conclude that “each one to himself, each one serves God in his own proper way”? Why should we consider ourselves better than the others? Our missionary involvement would it not be a form of spiritual imperialism becoming unbearable in a world that recognises more and more the diversity, even spiritual diversity as a wealth? All the New Age literature goes in that way. A few years ago, a Canadian journalist, in an interview with a young missionary told him: “You say that your religion is the best, the good one, yet any believer of any religion in the world claims the same. If they were not convinced, they would change immediately”. This journalist concluded his intervention with this last question: “How can you justify your pretention to be universal? Let us imagine for instance how we would react here at home, if some Muslim missionaries would turn up fully convinced that Islam is the only religion, and start building Mosques… How would you react if you learn that many among us would convert to Islam?
- The second option is to readjust our missionary action to the new conception drawn from the word of God. Let us start from what we call the Charter of Mission, in the last words of the Gospel of Matthew. The current reading of these verses, linked with a certain idea of a militant Church, puts the emphasis on the missionary mandate, and makes of missionary activity the main note of this text. We usually give a semi-pelagian meaning to this text by preferring human intervention to the power of the risen Christ. Unconsciously there follows almost inevitably a human appreciation of Mission. We are still often biased by a missiology of an active type. Our missionary history, most of the time, refers to this type of missiology. Mission becomes a specialised activity, given to a few daring volunteers, of whom we tend to praise the courage, and whom we remember once a year on a Sunday morning collection for the mission work. Verse 20, which is probably the key verse of this text, becomes but a consoling promise of Christ to support the work of his apostles. According to that reading, given a certain missionary practice, it is as if Christ would have said: “Go, and then I shall be with you until the end of times”. Christ would not only be a companion who can eventually give a little help facing the enormous task of going to convert the nations. The words “I shall be with you” do not depend on the fact of going to the mission, as if the risen Christ would promise that he would be there simply to second our missionary work. The presence of Christ does not depend on Mission: it dominates it. It is the glorified Christ who brings the nations together. In other words, Mission is not an activity to we undergo for the sake of Jesus, with his kind help. Therefore, it is not the evangelizer who brings the Gospel, but it is the Gospel that brings the evangelizer. “You are but only simple servants” (do not translate: useless!), as in the parable of the servant coming back from the fields. (Lk17,7-10)
Then how do we conceive Mission?
First of all, Mission is not something done by the Church. It is a movement in which the Church must participate if it wants to remain faithful to its vocation as the community of Jesus. Its call is to join the action of God in the world. (Saint Paul spoke about being co-builders, collaborators: cum laborem) The being of the Church is characterised by its participation in the history of God in the world. It does not belong to the Church to fulfill its mission of salvation toward the world. It is the mission of the Son and of the Spirit sent by the Father who owns the Church. The Church, as a pilgrim, along the way, allows God to foster communities of disciples who then radiate the project of God’s salvation, fully unveiled in Jesus-Christ, as Saint Paul said (read Ep.3). The first missionary requirement is to become a community of disciples of Jesus. The first task of the local churches is to stand in front of the world as a community of disciples.
Moltmann puts it in a fine way: “the Church must stand for God in front of the world and for the world in front of God.” This is why, on one hand, the Church as a community of disciples is called to reflect on its life, its form of life, its words, its silence, its actions and omissions. On the other hand, it must also give an account in front of the people, it must reflect in front of the people, on what its life expresses in front of the people. There, where Christ reigns alone and where the Church only listens to his voice, there the Church can reach its truth, there also, it becomes free, it is there that it becomes a seed for the world and it is there that it becomes a sign of the liberation that God brings to the world. In a very beautiful book about Saint John of the Cross , Father Ian Matthew wrote that: “The role of the Church is not simply to do some maintenance but to do some transformation. “. If the Church draws some people without transforming them at the same time, if it only adds some adherents without assimilation to the life of Jesus, then it weakens itself by its growth, diminishing while increasing. Thus, Mission envelops the totality of the Church. It is the whole Church through its evangelical fervour, by its concern to become the community that Jesus meant it to be, that becomes missionary and radiant. Mission concerns the totality of the Church, not only a few of its members sent by her.
Mission is, first of all, Jesus risen who, mysteriously, by the witnessing of its members, realises now in seed the gathering of the nations. Through the testimony of his disciples, small communities take shape and will burst in plenitude at the end of times: the gathering of all nations for whom the Kingdom has been prepared from all eternity. The coming kingdom is present in our history as the liberating reign of God, a force of salvation as Saint Paul puts it in Roman 1,16-17, a force of God which is being manifested in the lives of his disciples. As we find again in a famous book about the mission, it is the case of Jesus that goes on  . Mission is part of the final accomplishment toward which the world is going. God makes it grow, as the reason for which he has created us, we are the witnesses of all this. Through our involvement, God gives us the grace to be able to collaborate at the coming of this hour. Bishop Tessier, in his book about mission  speaks of young Christians coming from the Philippines as workers in Saudi Arabia in the middle of an Islamic State. They form small Christian cells, very active as becoming a pole of attraction for the Muslims. This is done without any preaching; there are no priests with them. They do not build churches; they have no infrastructures. It is through their way of life by witnessing to the Gospel as being taken seriously that they have become a ferment in the dough, being what Jesus meant them to be in the world. They live the Gospel in the middle of the world. They are really this seed that God wants in the middle of the nations. It is then that the Kingdom of God gives, already in this world, signs of his presence through the community of those who have been placed under the move of the Gospel. Whatever they are, whatever they do, the disciples of Jesus do and are through Jesus. By proclaiming their faith, their existence and their actions, humankind, religions and societies whatever they may be, are called to open up to the Kingdom of God, to the values of the Kingdom already at work in the heart of the world. The Kingdom of God is God’s action in the heart of the world bringing the world to its complete fulfilment, toward that Kingdom that God has prepared since the beginning of the world. The Christian communities coming to life testify that the Kingdom of God has a certain visibility in its history. Thus, is being revealed the provisional and visible way, what will be revealed definitely one day, the Parousia of Christ. While evangelising the world, the future is present in a certain way. It is the Kingdom already at hand, and yet to come. That the Gospel of Christ be proclaimed to the whole world, it is already part of the beginning of the future where God will be all in all.