The Trinity on Mission

One could write a history of mission focussing on the images of Christ and of the Church that was prevalent in a particular period. If Jesus is the prophet, then mission is to witness to the Good News as a challenge to the world and the Church is the community of disciples and witnesses. If Jesus is the King of Kings, then mission becomes a conquest and the Church has all the trappings of an earthly kingdom, sacralised in the process. If Jesus is the Teacher or Revealer, then the task of mission is to teach and civilize and the Church is the depository of revealed truths. If Jesus is the conqueror of evil, then mission becomes a crusade and the Church is the only true religion, destined to subjugate the rest. If Jesus is the Saviour, then conversion becomes the goal of mission and the Church becomes a sacrament a cultic body that mediates divine power. If Jesus is the healer, then the focus of mission is development and the Church become a body of social workers. If Jesus is the liberator, then mission is liberation and the Church is a movement of people. If Jesus is the servant, then mission is dialogue and the Church also becomes a servant. A particular community can be animated by one or more of these images. But the focus in the past has always been on the Christological and ecclesiological dimensions of mission. Planting of the Church as the main goal of mission is still widely prevalent in Roman catholic and Evangelical missiology. Planting has often meant transplanting a ready-made religious structure as the mediator of salvation.

The Missio Dei

In is in this context that the vision of mission as missio Dei comes as a new paradigm. David Bosch, in his monumental work Transforming Mission traces back the introduction of this image in missiological discussion to Karl Barth, in a paper he read in 1932, though it acquired greater clarity only in 1952. (Pp.389-391) Mission is derived from the very nature of Godself. God the Father sends the Son and the Father and the Son send the Spirit on mission. Further God, Father, Son and Spirit send the Church on mission into the world. Thus the doctrine of the Trinity replaces soteriology and ecclesiology as the source of reflection on mission. This idea is later picked up by the all the mainline Churches in their various assemblies. Let me quote the Second Vatican Council, as one among many texts that could be quoted from the documents of many Churches. It says:

The Church on earth is by its very nature missionary since, according to the plan of the Father, it has its origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit. This plan flows from “fountain-like love,” the love of God the Father. As the principle without principle from whom the Son is generated and from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds through the Son, God in his great and merciful kindness freely creates us and moreover, graciously calls us to share in his life and glory. He generously pours out, and never ceases to pour out, his divine goodness, so that he who is creator of all things might at last become “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28), thus simultaneously assuring his own glory and our happiness.

(Ad Gentes, 2)

We must note here that the missionary activity of God does not start with the redemptive activity of Jesus, but with creation itself. This shift is further deepened when the activity of the Spirit in the world is explored. Affirming the universal salvific will of God the document of the Second Vatican Council on The Church in the Modern World, says:

Since Christ dies for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery.

(Gaudium et Spes, 22)

The same document extends the influence of the Spirit to what we might consider the ‘secular’ dimension. Talking of social order and development it affirms:

The Spirit of God, who, with wondrous providence, directs the course of time and renews the face of the earth, assists at this development.

(Gaudium et Spes, 26)

We see here the mission of God embracing the whole of human history, including its secular dimensions. Bosch suggests that Barth would not have been happy with this development. (p.392) However, let me unpack this new paradigm.

Creation as Mission

If mission has its origin in God and its goal is divine self-communication to the world, then its first act is creation itself. The whole of history then becomes a history of salvation. The Word and the Spirit are already active in creation giving expression to the plan of God, which aims at the reconciliation and unification of all things. This is the vision of John in the prologue and of Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (ch.1) and the first letter to the Corinthians (ch.15). The involvement of the whole cosmos in this process is spelt out by Paul in his letter to the Romans (ch.8). If God has been speaking to people in various ways, at various times, through various prophets (Heb.1), then all this is part of God’s plan for the world. We could argue from this that all the religions, popular or developed, are part of this plan. All religions are capable of mediating salvific divine-human encounter. Once we start with the mission of God then the conclusion seems inescapable. John Paul II does not hesitate to draw it. He writes in his letter on The Mission of the Redeemer:

The Spirit offers the human race “the light and strength to respond to its highest calling”; through the Spirit, “mankind attains in faith to the contemplation and savouring of the mystery of God’s design”…. The Spirit’s presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions. Indeed the Spirit is at the origin of the noble ideals and undertakings which benefit humanity on its journey through history…. Thus the Spirit, who “blows where he wills (cf.Jn.3:8), who “was already at work in the world before Christ was glorified” AG 4), and who “has filled the world,… holds all things together (and) knows what is said” (Wis 1:7), leads us to broaden our vision in order to ponder his activity in every time and place (DEV 53). (No.28)

What are the implications of this new paradigm of mission?

First of all, if God’s mission starts with creation and if the whole of cosmic and human history is salvation history, then the radical separation between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ breaks down. In other words, the secular becomes the manifestation of the sacred. In such a context, probably, we will have to give up using these terms altogether, since they could be misleading, introducing an artificial dichotomy where none exists. History’s meaning has a religious significance, which is not apart, above or hidden, but which is in history itself. It needs to be discerned, of course. But it is not imposed from the outside.

The Mission of Jesus

God’s mission is not opposed to the mission of Jesus. There is no radical rupture between creation and redemption. But, their interrelationship has to be carefully articulated. One way of articulation is to consider the mission of Jesus as the fulfilment of the mission of God. This may be meaningful if the mission of Jesus is understood eschatologically as including his second coming. Such an eschatology also allows space for the continuing mission of the Holy Spirit in history. Another way of articulating it will be to see Jesus as being the symbol and servant of the mission of God. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection does add an historical- eschatological definitiveness and concreteness to the mission of God. The community of the disciples of Jesus carry on the mission of Jesus at the service of God’s mission. Servanthood is the best image of Jesus as well as of the Church.

What is the meaning of redemption, then? God enters into history when the Son becomes incarnate in Jesus. He gets involved in the ongoing struggle between God and Mammon. He takes the side of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. His death is a consequence of this option. His resurrection is the first fruits of victory. This is a new intervention of God in history to achieve the goal that God set at creation. The historical action of Jesus acquires universal significance, not only because it is equally the act of the Word, but also because it makes decisive impact in the history of the world. Through his disciples Jesus launches a historical movement to carry on the struggle in history as it marches towards its fulfilment. This movement does not replace other religions. But it is a prophetic presence in history. But its prophecy is one of humble service and witness. This is the kenotic way chosen by Jesus.

The actions of Jesus in history acquire a mysteric and cosmic significance because he is the incarnate Word. It is the recognition of this mystery by John and Paul as they contemplate Jesus that leads them to talk about the pre-existent Word that becomes flesh at a particular time precisely in order to carry forward God’s saving action in a new historical way. The mission of Jesus then becomes the historical concretization of the mission of God, which networks with the other ongoing actions of God in history through other manifestations of God in other religions. The underlying unity is that of the Trinity. But this unity is not detrimental to the diversity of God’s historical manifestations. That is why one cannot oppose Christocentrism to theocentrism. Unless one reduces Christ/the Word to the human Jesus such an opposition is meaningless.

In missiological reflection the articulation between the mission of God and the mission of Jesus is sometimes expressed in terms of the dynamic tension between the Kingdom of God and the Church. The Kingdom of God reaches out to the whole cosmos. The Church is the symbol and servant of the Kingdom. Its mission is to help in the building up of the Kingdom. But the Kingdom itself is primarily the work of God, Father, Son and Spirit.

Just as in the new paradigm of mission the focus shifts from Jesus Christ to God as the author and initiator of mission, the goal of mission shifts from the Church to the Kingdom. Just as we neither separate nor confuse Jesus and God, we need neither separate nor confuse the Church and the Kingdom. The goal of mission then can be refocused as helping in the building up of the Kingdom and of the Church as its symbol and servant. Such refocusing also redimensions the role of the Church as an institution in mission. The kenosis and servanthood of Jesus is also the kenosis and servanthood of the Church. Triumphalism and domination should no longer characterize the Church. To put it in a popular way: the goal of mission is not to bring Christ to a people among whom he has never been, but rather to discern the presence and action of Christ (God) among them and work along with them (God). The first task of mission in a new place is to contemplate God’s action among those people by reading the signs of the times so that one can conform oneself to what God is already doing there.

The Spirit in Mission

The Bible bears witness to the mission of Spirit throughout history. The Spirit is hovering over the void as creation comes into being (Gen.1) and it is at the heart of creation as it is groaning to be set free (Rpm.8). Prophecy, freedom, creativity and pluralism seem to be the special marks of the Spirit. The leaders of the people, the prophets and the Messiah himself are anointed by the Spirit. The Spirit is there at the incarnation and at the inauguration of Jesus’ public life at the Jordan. The Spirit launches the new community of Jesus’ disciples on mission at Pentecost. Her intervention persuades Peter to open up the Church to the gentiles. (Acts 10) Her charisms contribute to the building up of the community.

The missions of Jesus and of the Spirit seem to be in a dynamic, dialectical relationship. Sociologists speak about the institutional and the charismatic aspects of a community. While the institutional structure stands for order and tradition and looks back to its foundational roots, the charismatic inspiration is expressive of the prophetic dimension, claiming a certain freedom from institutional structures. The Spirit is not only challenging the rigid structures to change but is also creative of newness and future oriented. Such charisms are actually embodied in persons who feel specially chosen by God and animated by the Spirit.

Theologically and pastorally attempts are made to subordinate the mission of the Spirit to the mission of Jesus, by insisting that the Spirit is also the Spirit of Jesus. The term filioque in the Creed may be used to justify such a subordination. But I think that the specificity and freedom of the Spirit in mission have to be affirmed and defended. It is not good to solve the tension between the institution and the charism in favour of the institution.

In missiological discussion one notices a division of labour between Jesus Christ and the Spirit. Whatever happens in the Church is attributed to Jesus, while what happens in other religions is attributed to the Spirit. Unity is then maintained by saying that the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. The problem is that such a solution makes the Church inclusive with regard to other religions. I think, first of all, that such a division of labour does not respect the unity of the Trinity. Wherever God is active, the Father, the Son and the Spirit are active, each person in his/her own way. Secondly, the originality and distinction of the Spirit are not recognized. The problem with inclusivism is that it does not recognise the other as other and different.

The Trinity in Mission

To preserve the unity of the Trinity on the one hand and on the other to affirm a certain articulation between the mission of God and of Jesus, Indian theologians point to a distinction between the Word and Jesus. Jesus is the historical manifestation of the Word. But his activity is not coextensive with the activity of the Word. Such a distinction makes it possible to distinguish the action of God, Father, the Word and the Spirit in the world and in history from the action of Jesus in history and in the Church and not reduce one to the other. The presence and action of Jesus in and through the Church then can related creatively to the presence and action of God in other religions as well as in human, ‘secular’ history as such.

To contemplate the Trinity on mission in the world is a freeing experience, so that we can carry on our own mission without aggressivity and anxiety, conscious that we are making a real contribution to the realization of the plan of God for the world. We learn to be sensitive to what God is doing in the world and to coordinate our own mission with the mission God. At the same time we do not hesitate to witness to the prophetic challenge of the Good News of Jesus. We do away with the dichotomy between the sacred and the secular whether in history or in the world. We begin to see salvation as a cosmic project in which all will be reconciled and transformed, fulfilling God’s aim in creation. We are open to the future in hope because we do not know what form the fulfilment of God’s plan will take, though we know that it will be a new heaven and a new earth.