This ran in this month's Forum Letter put out by the Lutheran Forum folks.
Epiphany: mission statement of the Church
By Paul Gregory Alms
No word is used more often in church
circles these days than mission. It has
picked up a plural over the centuries
(missions) and morphed recently into an adjective
(missional). Almost every congregation is expected to have a mission statement. In some quarters there is talk of little else besides mission in all its
forms. This emphasis is a salutary one and has borne
much positive fruit in the Christian community over
the past few decades.
The word mission derives from the Latin
missio, sending, and it touches on the heart of the
Gospel testimony that the Father sent his Son to the
world for salvation and that same Christ sent the
apostles (the word apostle itself is derived from the
Greek word for .to send,. apostellein) and the church
into the world to preach the Gospel to sinners. Missio Dei sums up much, if not everything, about the church's vocation in the world.
But these days talk of mission often proceeds
as if Christians have never really practiced mission
before the advent of the church growth movement
or since the church woke up and discovered itself in
a .new mission paradigm. with the surrounding
culture having been drained of its putative Christian
content. Most writing and speaking on this subject
sounds as if the church is creating mission out of
nothing every few years. Everything is thought to be
new: a new situation, a new strategy, new goals,
"Doing mission" nothing new
This is wrong-headed on several counts. The
church has been "doing missions" (as we say these
days) ever since the church began, and it has never
stopped. Pagan Europe was converted to the faith
well before Donald McGravan. The push to develop
mission strategies ex nihilo every few years turns the
church into a scatterbrain, hurrying this way and
that way with no apparent purpose.
Such scurrying ignores the Christians who
have gone before. Surely our situation is not so
bizarrely new that there is no continuity at all between us and our forebears. We are not the first saints who meet a large number of unbelieving people around us. The church of the past has wisdom to share. The church is not born with a missional blank
slate every generation.
In fact, the church has already written the
greatest mission statement ever and dropped it in
our lap. It is the Epiphany season of the church year.
The church has never been unaware of the need for
reflection on the centrifugal nature of its life. It devoted an entire season out of only six to precisely this topic. The season of Epiphany proclaims the
great mission texts of the New Testament: the evangelization of the Magi, the testimony of the Father at the baptism of Jesus, the missionary tours of Jesus
and the apostles. The season's structure, its texts,
hymns and color, gives a vital template for the
church.s mission. The Epiphany season was missional before there was such a word.
God made flesh
The season's progression from Magi to Baptism of Jesus to the preaching of Jesus himself to the Transfiguration is itself a mission blueprint. The
story of the Magi places the Son of God in his Incarnation at the very center of the church's proclamation. What the church calls sinners to is not some
vague goodness or love. It is the enfleshed God himself. The real presence on earth of the Creator, his presence in the tangible body of one born of a
woman, is the miracle at the heart of the church. The
Magi do not come to worship an idea or a philosophy; they bow down before a human being, God in flesh made manifest.
The connection between the Magi and the
church today is at the altar, in the real presence of
Christ now in the Eucharist. The mission of the
church is not one focused on numbers or growth or
any other quantifiable goal. It is to lead people to,
and keep them in communion with, the life-giving
and death-defeating flesh of Jesus. That contact
comes in its highest and most profound way in the
sacrament of Christ.s Body and Blood. As the Magi
knelt in humble and awe-filled faith, so the church
fulfills her mission by bringing her children, large
and small, to the sacramental manger, to kneel and
worship and receive that same Christ.
If Epiphany shows us the Incarnation and
Eucharist as the center of the church's life and mission, it also shows us Baptism as the foundation of that life. The first Sunday after the Epiphany takes
us to the waters of the Jordan where we recall the
Advent preaching of the Baptizer. To those far off,
those who had, in sorrow over sin, forsaken the borders of the promised land, John sternly preached repentance. In the season of Epiphany the accusing
finger of John is replaced by the saving voice of the
Father which points no longer to the sins of those
wishing to draw near but to the dripping wet figure
of his Son leading the way into the water. Mission
preaching leads to the font.
Beyond the Jordan
The place of this reading at the beginning of the Epiphany season and the status of the river Jordan as a border between the wilderness and the
place of God.s presence in the temple and in the
land of promise makes this text significant for the
theology of mission. Entry into the church takes on a
specific shape. It is wet and it is filled with the figure
of the God/man who is the substitute for sinners.
Not having crossed the border, not having been buried in the Jordan with Jesus, people remain foreigners.
In pursuit of her mission, the church is sometimes tempted to devise her own strategies in trying to engage the culture in a fresh way. Such improvisation may be warranted or useful, but it must never
be at the cost of losing sight of what is eternal in the
New Testament proclamation itself. The season of
Epiphany in its structure and readings reminds us of
this. Those whom the mission calls to join Christ and
his church are on the other side of the Jordan. We
ourselves by our sins and selfishness find ourselves
on the wrong shore of that heavenly stream. Baptism must always be the underpinning sacrament, the life-giving flood offering new birth, the ocean of
forgiveness which Christ calls us forever to swim.
Mission paradigms, strategies for evangelizing the
world or the neighborhood, that do not lead to and
through the water of Baptism risk losing connection
to him who began his ministry in that very water.
The liturgical color of the season of Epiphany
is green. This humdrum fact takes on some weight
when one looks at the season from a missiological
perspective. The season of Epiphany teaches us that
mission is a long-viewed, patient activity of the
church. It involves growth and maturity in the Gospel. It leads the church on a tour with Jesus around Galilee to hear him preach and to witness his mighty
acts. The church's mission aims at heaven. We are in
it for the long haul. The church is dressed, in other
words, in green, catechetical green. We are not in the
business of growing dandelions, blowing the seeds
of the gospel to the winds and then hoping for a
bunch of fast growing but ephemeral flowers that
bloom and then disappear.
No, the church is more like a forester who,
seeing a burned-out section of forest, begins planting seedlings, tending, watering, planning for and envisioning a vast forest of towering trees. Such
Christians have roots that stretch deep into the
scriptural, sacramental, Gospel foundation of earth
and soil so that no storm may damage them. The
church.s mission is to nourish Christians on the
words of Christ, season after season, so that they
may reach his fullness.
Seeing Christ as he is
This eschatological point of view asserts itself clearly in the grand finale of the Epiphany season: the Transfiguration. Here the Magi scene repeats itself, transposed to a heavenly, eternal key. Once more God in flesh is at the center and surrounded by worshiping mortals. But now it is no
longer the travelers from the east but the glorified
saints of old and the trembling church militant that
stand around Christ. And the saints see Christ as he
is: filled with divine light, the promise of the manger
now fulfilled. This is the goal of the Epiphany season, to manifest Christ to all for the sake of salvation and worship and praise, the purpose for which we
Epiphany and the mission of the church are
one at this point. The church.s mission is to bring
sinners to the beatific vision of Christ. The mission
of the church is pointed squarely at the divine light
that overshadowed that ancient mountain. The
Transfiguration shows us how important the work
we do in the church really is. We are not simply tallying numbers or building a .successful. enterprise. Christ is leading us up Mount Tabor, leading us up
Calvary, leading to the Mount of the Ascension,
leading us to that eternal moment of worship.
The Epiphany season is the church's mission
statement. And as anyone knows who has been
through agonizing sessions trying to craft a perfect
congregational mission statement, every word and
phrase and sentence ends up being of great consequence. So it is with the mission of the church. Epiphany sets out the vision with tremendous care,
each part honed by the Spirit-led experience of centuries, crafted by countless bishops, pastors and saints. We do well to listen carefully, to pray and
worship fervently during this season. Our mission
to this dying world can only be strengthened as we
shape our own lives in the light of God in flesh
Paul Gregory Alms is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran
Church (LCMS), Catawba, NC.