Mission: An Expression of God’s Love
by Rev. R. Randy Day
The scriptural mandates and goals of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church remain clear, solid, and compelling: To make disciples of Jesus Christ. To strengthen, develop, and renew Christian congregations and communities. To alleviate human suffering. To seek justice, freedom, and peace.
Collectively, the goals point to the central purpose of the church and its ministries, which, to borrow a phrase from theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, is to “contribute to the increase of love for God and neighbor.”
The Call: Moving Forward
Saul and his companions prostrate themselves on the ground but quickly learn that Christ is not looking for immobility. “Get up, Paul. I have come,” Christ says, “to make you a servant and a witness.” Paul was going on a mission! And the world was changed forever.
We are on a mission as servants and witnesses to what God has shown, is showing, and will show us, as we strive as Christians to increase the love of God and of neighbor around the world.
Our partner churches are very often our eyes and ears into local and national examples of economic, political, and social issues of importance to followers of Jesus Christ. Witness and service belong to the whole church. Global Ministries is a means to connect, enhance, and increase our mission capacity, the results of which are an increase of love of God and neighbor! Global Ministries needs good and strong relationships with every expression of the church.
I see The United Methodist Church becoming increasingly alert to God’s call to global mission and ministry. I see the various parts of our church connecting and reconnecting to tell the story of Jesus and his love, to extend the family of faith, and to serve those in physical and emotional need. I see us, as individuals and as a denomination, gaining clarity on the central place of mission in our response to God’s grace.
The Greatest of These Is Love
Paul explains Christian love and then tells “the church’s leaders” to pursue it. The Greek verb dioko, like its English counterpart pursue, has several meanings. It can mean “chase after,” or as the commentaries on 1 Corinthians 14:1 suggest, it can involve the “promotion of a cause” or the “attaching of oneself” to a goal, cause, or person.
Promote love, attach yourself to it, make it known, says Paul. This passage is one of the greatest mission texts of the New Testament, for it tells us what we should be doing with our lives. God calls us to attach ourselves to the goals of mission, not as theological abstractions but as living embodiments of love through the church.
Where do we get the energy to promote and accomplish these goals? Paul and other New Testament writers have told us: love. Mission energy is love in action. The source of mission energy is love itself: agape, God the Almighty, for “God is love.”
We can’t achieve a single one of our goals if we do not first pursue love. Love comes first! God loves us and puts us on course; we return the divine love through worship and by loving one another and God’s world.
Going to the People in Love
This is the joy and the burden of mission. One of my commitments as general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries is to move the agency toward mission among and with people, while deliberately moving us away from what I call an “institutional maintenance only” kind of mission.
What I am suggesting is a perspective rather than a program. God has led me to the firm conviction that our entire United Methodist Church needs to look beyond itself, to get a better focus on the urgent spiritual and physical needs of the world’s people.
Practical Pursuit of Love
Children and young people are an essential area for concentrated mission and love, one sanctified by Jesus: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14). Jesus wants us to raise healthy children; of that, I am 100 percent sure.
As with children and young people, ministries to people in crisis also require direct services—the alleviation of human suffering, as we say in our goals. The services can relate to health, employment, economic exploitation, political oppression, or development of abilities and talents.
The third “C” is ministry to those cast out by “proper society.” Jesus certainly thought it important to minister to the rich young ruler and to upstanding families like those of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. But many accounts in the gospels are about Jesus’ special outreach to nobodies and outcasts: fisherfolk, lepers, beggars, prostitutes, tax collectors, and people considered crazy.
In love and energized by love, we take the gospel to those who have been cast aside—or those we have failed to notice or who, without hostility, we have disregarded, moving them to the sidelines. Our mission is to increase love in the world by our actions in the name of Jesus Christ.
A Sacramental Mission
Baptism marked the Ethiopian eunuch and the Samaritans as new creatures, not only as individuals but as part of the community—the church—the body of those baptized by both water and the Spirit. We call baptism a “sacrament” because it is the sealing of a bond of grace between God and the community. In a sacrament, we accept God’s acceptance of us.
Mark 14:12-26 is an account of the Last Supper and the institution of Holy Communion, the other sacrament in our Protestant tradition. This was in many ways a totally ordinary scene. Jesus used ordinary table elements—bread and wine. Passover brought not only a ceremonial meal to be eaten for remembrance but also a real meal to be eaten for sustenance. Jesus sensed that a crisis point had been reached in striking a “new covenant,” creating a new sacrament that forges and continues the close ties between God and us.
John Wesley made a great deal of the ordinariness of sacramental symbols. Ordinary signs of extraordinary grace, the sacraments were sealed by water, bread, and wine. Wesley called Communion a “converting sacrament,” partly because of our need, even as church members, for frequent renewal in grace.
Equipped by the loving grace of God, challenged by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 to “pursue love,” the community of the baptized, renewed at table, exists as a sacramental community with a mission. Paragraph 1301 of The Book of Discipline declares that “the Church in mission is a sign of God’s presence in the world.”
Global Ministries is not about mere programs, projects, and training sessions—whether in relief, church construction, community-health programs, or personnel assignments. We are part of the presence of God in the world, serving sacramental purposes. Ordinary men and women are transformed into a holy community.
Workers in the Vineyard
This parable can trip us if we rush at it from the perspective of equal pay for equal work and union wage scales. Compensation—reward—may not be the place to start with this story. What is the goal in the story itself? The goal is to harvest a ready grape crop. The farmer is looking for workers. He needs lots of workers because he has full vines. Time is of the essence.
The call is to the work.
We are called to the work—the mission of Jesus Christ, just like our 19th century brothers and sisters who found such affinity with the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Mission is work, gospel work. It is more than emotions, slogans, and piety. Mission is the living, breathing confession by witness and service—individually and through the church—that Jesus Christ is Savior, that we belong “to” God. In the mission vineyard, we trust God to provide any reward God might want us to have—if any.
Mission is rooted in a sublime confidence that gives us joy in proclaiming Good News to those who have little or none. Mission permits us, requires us, to work and get our hands, clothes, and faces dirty in a world of sin and human need, knowing that God, through Jesus Christ, will clean us up every time.
Mission is an expression of faith that people can hear in what we say and do. When people cannot see the faith of United Methodists in our actions, we have left the mission vineyard where John Wesley worked.
Faithful men and women of all ages, races, cultures, and economic stations are called at all hours of the day and night to the honorable, humbling work of mission. We need people at every hour because the work is far too large for a few people, single congregations, or even big denominations to do alone.
The Shared Privilege of Mission
The Apostle tells us in Ephesians 4:11-12 and following, as he does in 1 Corinthians, about how the distribution of gifts equips “the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” The full stature of Christ is a love that knows no bounds. I have a conviction that a church filled with a love that knows no bounds would never—never—need to worry about the growth of its membership rolls!
The parable of the workers in the vineyard is a gospel story in its broad, inclusive vision. The kingdom of God is like a great deal of hard work, done for the most generous farmer we’ll ever meet! The kingdom of God is not based on seniority or special recognition. Let us never forget Jesus’ words later in Matthew 20 when the mother of James and John asks that her sons get a special reward, to sit on the right and left of Christ in the kingdom. In Mark 10:35-45, the Sons of Thunder themselves make the request. How did Jesus respond? Ah, you may suffer what I will suffer—meaning the Crucifixion—but you won’t sit in any special chairs because the greatest in the kingdom is a servant. This echoes the closing line of the parable, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
In the vineyard of mission, the reward is the work!
In The United Methodist Church, we share the privilege of mission through our connection. This is especially true with regard to the cultivation of workers in the large mission vineyard. Our connection provides a means for identifying, recruiting, and equipping coworkers for Jesus Christ. This is an important component of our witness as mission leaders in the church.
As Wesley’s spiritual heirs, we are called to work in an abundant vineyard that yields an overflow of compassion and love sufficient for every child of humanity, every child of God.
I pray daily for the coalescing of our beloved United Methodist Church around mission and the issues mission incorporates. I am convinced that only a love of God and action through mission can draw us together, and I believe that the mission mandate is large enough—and powerful enough—to unite a broad diversity of people, cultures, and perspectives. The heartbeat of mission knows no distinction in skin color, ethnicity, language, or place of origin, and mission is the heartbeat of the church.
Bishop Hans Vaxby of Moscow said in a recent interview that the future of The United Methodist Church and its leadership in any land and culture depends upon “a passion for mission” that cannot be faked. He noted that he faces a shortage of pastors in his episcopal area. Is he concerned? Yes. Is he worried and fretful? No. “A new generation of leaders will come,” he said. “The new pastors will come out of a passion for mission. A passion for mission overcomes all difficulties.”
The Rev. R. Randy Day is the General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries. This article is a compilation of six theological reflections presented by the Rev. Day to the board of directors.
Date posted: Sep 01, 2006