Is Missional Good for Us? or Is Missional Life Abundant Life?

I’ve been a Christian as long as I can remember, but one of the important moments in my faith life was when I was in ninth grade… I had always been a good kid, but that year it came to my attention that being a Christian wasn’t like being white or Korean, it wasn’t something that you were just born with, but something more like being a soccer player—something that you actually do. And the first things I realized about what it meant to be a Christian was to have a relationship with God which you were supposed to do through reading the bible and praying. So for the first time I started reading the bible on my own.  And I read it quite a bit.  In fact, being the good kid who does what he should, I read the whole Bible cover-to=cover in 9 months.  But about 1 month in, I realized something.  I realized that if I kept reading the Bible, I’d just keep discovering more things that I should do, more things that I would be accountable for.  And it would become a never-ending list of things I should be doing.  But I was stuck now in a Catch-22.  Now that I knew I should read the Bible, there was no way out.  And I decided to submit to this.  This put me on a journey. 

It’s funny because this was a really important moment on my journey with Jesus—it was the beginning of my discipleship, really, and yet from where I stand now, I can see that resigning yourself to a bunch of obligations isn’t what following Jesus is all about.

And yet persistent guilt about what we should be doing is one of the things that plagues a lot of Christians.  Ever had thoughts like these?  I should be praying more.  Or maybe: I should be reading the bible more.  I should be giving more.  I should be spending more time with my family.  I should be taking Sabbath.  I should stop that dirty little habit. Oh yeah, and I should be missional. 

For some reason, it is so easy for our whole Christian life to just become one stinking pile of should.  Am I right?  And when we have this kind of Christian experience, all this talk about missional just smells like the final should to top it all off.

Isn’t that the point of all these missional books and sermons?  That you should think of yourself as a missionary.  You should see the world like a missionary.  You should act like a missionary.  Isn’t it?  Whether or not this was the point of those sermons or books, I’m guessing that for some of us that’s exactly what you walked away with.  Maybe inside you were saying to yourself: I know I should be serving, but deep down I’m afraid it would just suck the life right out of me if I try to somehow add missional acuity and seeking justice into to my already packed schedule.  Deep down, many of us don’t believe that all this missional stuff is really good for us.

One of the things that sometimes contributes to this problem is the words we sometimes use.  We hear a lot about the kingdom or reign of God.  And this is a really good thing, since it was the central theme of Jesus teaching.

But sometimes when we’re talking about the kingdom, we give the impression that Jesus mission was to recruit people to build the kingdom. A kingdom sounds like something that takes building, doesn’t it?  Something that we should be working at.  And in the end all this talking about the kingdom often leaves us with a burdened feeling about what we should be doing.

Of course, the phrase “kingdom of God” isn’t the problem.  It’s that little verb “build”.  I want to tell you a secret: Jesus never asked anyone to build the kingdom.  He talked about “entering” the kingdom and “receiving” the kingdom.  Like it was a better quality of life to enter. Like it was a gift to receive.  Sounds a little more inviting, and a little less burdensome, doesn’t it?   

This exactly that the writer of the Gospel of John picks up on, and he uses it to faithfully (and authoritatively) reimagine the life and teaching of Jesus in words that made more sense to his particular audience.  So while the word “kingdom” is used in Matthew, Mark and Luke 116 times, in John, Jesus only uses the word “kingdom” 3 times.  Instead, there’s another word that’s constantly on Jesus’ lips.  Know what it is? 

LIFE!  41 times in 20 Chapters, that word shows up.  And John makes it clear to his audience that Jesus’ good news, what he’s offering us, is LIFE.  The gospel is a life we get to enter.  A life we receive.

Here's just a few of Jesus’ words in John:

John 6:35
-- I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

John 10:10
-- The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 3:16
-- For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Jesus came to give us life.  Jesus describes it as a kind of life that leaves you never hungry, never thirsty and death-proof.  So rather than merely offering us life after death, or an eternal duration of life, Jesus was also offering an eternal-quality of life. A life that’s infectiously joyful, that’s totally at peace, that loves like crazy, and that death itself is impotent to extinguish. 

And, if we’re honest, we are all desperate for this life. 

We’re jaded by the false promises of the countless advertisements that assail us daily, spinning lies about how this shampoo will make us sexy and that sexiness will make us happy…how this superberry or colon cleanse will finally make our bodies healthy and full of life…promises about how this smart phone, or the iCloud will make us efficient and that efficiency will finally give us some peace.  And time and time again we discover that consumerism is a wild goose chase in the pursuit of life.  And we become jaded by these false offers of life. 

God speaks words of life to Isaiah’s contemporaries: Isaiah 55 NIV

“Come, all you who are thirsty…Come, buy wine and milk without money … 
 Why spend money on what is not bread, and work for what does not satisfy? 
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. 
 Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.

Our bodies long to receive nearly unbelievable offer, a life that’s like a feast and our hearts cry out: What must I do to get this eternal kind of life? 

So here’s the question I want to try to answer in the remainder of this post:  How to we get this overflowing life, and what, if anything, does it have to do with this missional stuff?

I think there are two pretty dominant ways that Christians go about trying to get life.  See if either of these sounds familiar.

1. Some imagine that we fill up on life through things like quiet time and Sunday worship and bible study—that these are how we get peace, how we get joy—and then, they say, once we’re full we have something to pour out into that missional service stuff.  Let’s call this the, fill-up/pour-out model.  [Pitcher, cup and cup]. In this perspective, life is a prerequisite for service. 

2. Others of us assume that it works the other way around.  That God is up there waiting for us to get our butts in gear and start serving missionally, and then he’ll give us the joyful, peaceful life we long for.  Let’s call this the work-for-life model. In this view, life is a reward for service.

As you may have guessed, I don’t think either of these is quite right.  

In order to offer a different visual image for what it looks like to receive life, I want to take us to John 15.

John 15: 5-17 NRSV
[Jesus said] I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Of course, when many of us hear the phrase, abide in me, we think immediately in terms of the fill-up/pour out model. We think that Jesus is saying if we have quiet times then we’ll have the joyful life.  Bible and praying are critical, but if you noticed they’re not primary command in this text.  What is?  That we keep Jesus’ commands.  Keeping Jesus commands constitutes abiding in him.  Which commands, you might be wondering?  Well, all of them, but especially the one he names explicitly here: that we Love one another. 

Catch this: The primary spiritual practice Jesus is commanding is not a devotional one, but a relational, social, political or even missional one.  The command we’re supposed to focus on is the one that will lead us to love so much we’re willing to lay down our life for another. 

So obedience, obeying Jesus’ commands, is key.  And when we notice this, we might be tempted to start thinking in terms of the work-for-life model.  But again, that’s not it.  In fact, Jesus debunks the work-for-life model directly when he says: “I no longer call you servants…”  True, abundant life isn’t something God gives us as a reward for obedience. 

Instead, Jesus offers us the live-in-me model. Abide in me, Jesus says.  Just a like a healthy branch is connected to its grapevine and bears fruit.  Share my life-source. Make your life an expression of the life that is in me. Weave your sinews and fibers together with mine and you’ll come alive.

Here’s the point:  Missional isn't about stuff we should do.  Let me repeat, missional identity, missional acuity and action for justice aren’t primarily things we should do.  Instead, each of these describes a particular way of weaving our lives together with God’s life…and it is in this weaving that we find true life. 

First, missional identity.  Taking on a missional identity is nothing more than weaving our self-concept together with who God says we are: His beloved chosen partners in mission.  In this weaving, there is life. 

Last Saturday, I was borrowing a car and giving a friend a ride to the airport and went through the same toll station, the one at the exit from Westbound Mass Pike to Allston or Cambridge.  Both times, I found myself in the line of the same toll-taker.  And both times, after I’d given him the toll, he said to me “God bless you” as the green light signaled.  As I drove off that second time, it occurred to me that this guy must not see himself as just a toll-attendant.  He was God’s partner in mission, uniquely positioned to bless literally hundreds of individuals every single day, thousands of people every week.  And he gives us a picture of how missional identity can actually be a great source of life.  Most toll-takers I meet are slunken-down, seemingly miserable folks, but here, in this life we see the difference a missional identity can make.  Taking what might seem like an impossibly life-deadening job and transforming it into beautiful, massive, life-giving ministry.

Cultivating your missional identity is weaving your life together with God’s, and the result is a life of deep meaning and purpose.  

Second, missional acuity.  Developing our missional ability to see is nothing more than weaving our eyes together with God’s eyes and it is life giving.

A couple weeks ago on the public bus here in Boston, something oddly beautiful happened.  The doors of the bus closed and the friendly gentleman standing at the front declared to the whole bus, loudly and with a smile on his face, “Everybody here is my family.” Then, turning to the woman who had just stepped onto the bus, he announced, pointing to Lindsay, “She’s your sister.”  Pointing to the driver, he said “He’s my brother.” “There’s mom, Hi Mom!” he said, waving.  We could call this man, with his funny sense of perception, disabled, and he was.  But his funny way of seeing made him undeniably joyful.  Everywhere he went, he saw family, he saw people who he loved, people of immense worth.  And he shows us just how developing missional eyes can fill our lives with gratitude.  Jesus said that if we weave our lives together with his, his joy will be in us, and…our joy will be complete (v11).  If we weave our eyes together with his, then his life will be in us, and our inner life will be abundant.

Third, doing justice is nothing more than weaving our action together with God’s action, and it is empowers the life of those who do it. 

A while back I read the story of a man named John Woolman.  John lived in the 1700’s and unlike the rest of the nation at the time, he became increasingly troubled by slavery.  He began insisting slaves take payment from him whenever he was the guest in a slaveowner’s home.  On several occasions he convinced people to free their slaves.  He preached for years against slavery and finally, at the Philadelphia Quaker Yearly Meeting in 1758, a miracle happened.  Some were suggesting that they simply put restrictions on the buying of new slaves, and leave current slave owners alone. Others were calling for postponing any decisions since it was such a volatile issue.  After sitting in silence and tears through the meeting, John finally stood up and gave an impassioned call to do what they knew to be right, lest they find themselves the enemy of the God who hears the cries of the oppressed.  The effect of his prophetic word was profound and total: they voted unanimously to remove slavery from its midst. They were the first body of any kind to do this in America.  And they did this it at great cost to themselves.  Quakers, unlike later denominations, asked slaveholders to reimburse their slaves for their time in bondage.  Keep in mind, it wasn’t until 1863 (more than 100 years later) that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves.  Woolman shows us what it can look like when we weave our action together with God’s action. He shows us the greatest form of love that to lays down its life for its friends.  When we do this, our action becomes infused with divine power for good.  As Jesus said, if we abide in him we can ask whatever we wish and it will be done to the glory of God.

I believe this is Jesus’ invitation to us: “Share my life with me, it is the life I share with the Father, and I want you to enjoy it, too.  It’s a life in a rich community of friends.  It’s a life full of the deepest joy.  It’s a life of power for good.”

1 comment:

  1. You couldn't have said it any better. The spirit of evangelism or going out to win the lost is gradually phasing out in the church, and being replaced with other teachings. World-renowned evangelist, Dag Heward-Mills shares 120 reasons why we must be missional in his book "Tell Them". Great read, check it out :)