There’s a buzz word that has been around long enough for me to think that I’m catching on to a fresh articulation of a great concept, and long enough for the cynics and smart guys to call it a “flavour-of-the-month fad” that is now tired and passé. I’m talking about the more recent emphasis on a term introduced by Lesslie Newbigin, a godly British missionary whom God used in India.
The term is “missional” and, though it was coined by a missionary, it is not limited in scope to the idea of cross-cultural-in-another-language-on-another-continent service for Jesus. It has to do with what increasingly preoccupies any maturing Christian’s mindset when they think deeply about what it means to allow the Holy Spirit to engrain the teachings, character and example of the Lord Jesus into how they think about life and the way they live life.
As I understand it, to be “missional” is to understand and identify with what was in Jesus’ heart when he laid aside His divine glory as the eternal Son of God, emptied Himself and came among us as a joyful servant. It’s to embrace His attitude of not positioning oneself for more occasions to be noticed and doted on by others, but rather to see Jesus in the eyes of others and to serve and to give of what one is, and what one has, in meaningful ways to them. This requires inner transformation and the inward shifts that come with ongoing discipleship. One must also have a willingness to hear and see what the Lord Jesus wants to show him/her about the world and to have the courage to respond in obedience.
To help me in this regard, I’ve been doing some reflection on where Jesus starts in the foundational collection of his teachings in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. It’s called this because at least the first part, known as the Beatitudes (Matt. 5: 1 – 12), was delivered to his disciples on a hillside with a large crowd listening in.
I love what Fred Craddock has to say about this. He writes, “Jesus is addressing his followers. But it seems that the disciples are being instructed in the context of a larger audience. The presence of the multitudes keeps the disciples honest as to who they are and what price is to be paid for their commitments. The crowds serve also to remind the reader that the invitation to join the circle of disciples is always open provided we are willing to submit to the discipline of God’s reign. After all, the church is a community, not a ghetto, and it is always open to and aware of the world.”
And what does Jesus want this community of disciples (then and now) to have the capacity to see? Poverty in spirit, deep heartbreak about life’s sadness and suffering, meekness, hunger and thirst for wholesome living. Jesus says that there is blessing when people find themselves in these circumstances which Eugene Peterson describes in The Message as being “at the end of your rope… when you feel you have lost what is most dear to you….” etc.
It’s in circumstances like these, when hope is out of sight, that there is room for God to act and for Jesus, that is a place of blessing. Sometimes He acts in miraculous ways in the here and now; sometimes He plants deep hope that will only be fully realized in eternity. At other times, He acts through disciples who see Him in the eyes of those that He calls “one of the least of these my brothers” and these disciples become channels of hope to broken people and communities that formerly they might not have even noticed.
I’ve been thinking about the promise that “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” will be filled. It occurs to me that this may mean more than wanting to be a better Christian. Was Jesus drawing attention to desperate people who long deeply for the possibility of living in wholesome, healthy freedom and are tempted to just quit? Perhaps “the filling” comes as some Christ follower becomes a channel of grace to them – seeing them, listening to their stories, walking with them, not giving up ……
Jesus’ last four Beatitudes focus on mercy, heart purity, peacemaking, and the courage to endure persecution because of one’s open identification with Jesus in the world. Tod Lindberg in his book The Political Teachings of Jesus suggests that “the Beatitudes are organized according to a scale running from passivity and paralysis in this world, through increasing levels of engagement with it in accordance with what Jesus is teaching, up to a pinnacle of earthly conduct Jesus describes. The categories he delineates describe people we can recognize in our own day, from homeless shelters and nursing homes to the halls of power, at least on those occasions when people rise above their private ambitions and work for the public good”.
He also makes an interesting suggestion about how to more deeply grasp what Jesus is saying is important for His disciples.
He writes, “The character of the Beatitudes becomes clearer if we view the categories Jesus calls “blessed” in light of their opposites: the spiritually self-confident in contrast to the p oor in spirit, the persecutors of those who follow Jesus’ teaching in contrast to those persecuted.…. those who offer the lowest of the low only their own sense of superiority; those unmoved by or contemptuous of people suffering from great loss or adversity; those whose response when they encounter the meek and gentle is to lord it over them; those who embrace a doctrine defending their position of privilege at the expense of others; those in a position of power who show no mercy to the powerless; those corruptly seeking advantage over others; those obstructing a just peace or fomenting conflict….”
Let me finish off with what has been perhaps the newest insight for me as I have been thinking about the Beatitudes in light of the mission of Jesus and His disciples in the world. The first set of four Beatitudes describes people in great need – poverty in spirit, deep heartbreak, meekness, hunger and thirst for wholesome living. These are circumstances that exist everywhere in the world. (Co-incidentally, it’s situations like these that often mature and deepen a disciple.)
The second set of four Beatitudes provides the answer to the needs of the first. Mercy needs an object, pure hearts that really see God will also see the pain He sees in the world, peacemakers are only peacemakers when they are helping people in conflict, persecution for Christ’s sake only comes when one is acting or speaking with prophetic saltiness.
I’m not particularly interested in “being missional” for the sake of “being missional”. On the other hand, what Jesus was talking about on the hillside as always being of first importance to his disciples (then and now), well, that’s a different matter!!
Rev. Keith Elford is Bishop of The Free Methodist Church in Canada.