Henk Medema

The God Who Sends Himself: Missio Dei

There’s a lot of talk about mission, and particularly around such an event like the Lausanne Internationl Congress on World Evangelism. Mission is about being sent, of course, and much of the time what we’re talking about is that it’s us who are in the middle of this spiritual process of being sent, and how we view that and how we handle that. Since the middle of the last century, however, stimulated by influential theologians like Barth and Hartenstein, the notion has come up of missio Dei. This is a Latin expression, meaning ‘the mission of God’, but it should be read in a double way: naturally as a genitivus subiectivus, God is the author of mission, but also as a genitivus obiectivus, God is the object of mission. God sends Himself, He is both the Sender and the Sent One. Believers are part of this mission, bearing the same burden that God laid upon Himself. Together they are the incorporation of the Son, the Body of Christ. Collectively and individually they are the ‘in-dwellings’ of the Spirit. This is such an important notion, as it helps not to make ourselves the source, nor the target of missions. Two paradigms had been introduced (as Barth and Hartenstein said), respectively in the nineteenth and twentieth century, which cannot be sustained as the right way of thinking about missions. First, seeing Christianity in a pietistic way; second, stressing what I would call an ethicist line of thinking. Pietism would concentrate on the spiritual benefits coming to us through the Christian faith; we should thankfully accept these blessings, it is said, and move others to accept them equally, the net end result being maximized by as many people as possible reaching the greatest eternal bliss. This is a strongly vertical paradigm. Ethicism puts us under the ethical norms of the Bible, as we find them especially in the Prophets and in the Sermon on the Mount, and they make us responsible to be concerned about this world, and in a horizontal paradigm take action for it. Darrell L. Guder, in his brilliant book The Continual Conversion of the Church (Grand Rapids, 2000), clarifies why both paradigms need to be rejected. Read the stories of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Paul – their lives where not about securing spiritual benefits, but rather about being changed, to what the Bible calls ‘glory’ (Hebr. kabood, Gr. doxa), the effulgence of God Himself. The central aspect of the Gospel is its fundamental ‘translatablity’, the possibility AND necessity to translate it, not only lingually, but also culturally. A Dutch missionary working in Belgium would already experience this, and an American working in Bangladesh even more. The most radical translation of the Gospel happened when the Son of God moved into our world, taking on the form of a servant and entering into death itself. This is why Guder emphasizes the need for a continual conversion of the Church: everything should be constantly open for communicative change. We don’t go into this world claiming to possess Gods authority. He never borrows that to us. The problem of theocracy, to quote Rick Warren, is that so many of us want to be Theo. Humbleness and willingness to adapt to people should be the mark of our missional attitude. What should charactarize us, is not so much Christ’s authority coming through us, but first of all Christ’s eternal life flowing through us. What we should be looking for, in short, is the incarnational paradigm of missions, where we show forth the life of our Lord. This is a summary of a paper to be published in ELLIPS (2010) # 299.

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