Vatican Council II teaches us that Scripture is the heart of all theology. If, then, we desire to understand more about mission in the Church, we should return to Scripture to see what the Word of God tells us about mission.
The Synoptic Gospels tell us that Jesus sent his apostles to Israel to preach the good news. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel [Mt 28:16-20], we hear Jesus giving the Apostles a mission to whole world. In John’s Gospel, Jesus links this universal mission of the Church with his own mission from the Father: “As the Father sent me, so I send you” [Jn 20:21]. The formulation of this mission statement is the same as that of the new commandment of love: “Love one another as I have loved you” [Jn 15:12]. In both cases, the little word “as” is extremely important and is the key to a deeper understanding of both the mission statement and the new commandment of love.
Basically, in spite of immediate impressions, the word “as” does not imply comparison. There is no comparison between Jesus’ love for us and our love for each other. In the new commandment, the word “as” is an invitation to a religious experience. We must experience how Jesus loves us before we can know how we shall love each other. In the same way, in the mission statement Jesus is not comparing his mission to the Church with his mission from the Father. He is, rather, showing us the origin and the foundation of the Church’s mission. There are not two missions, but only one. In the mission statement, as in the new commandment of love, the word “as” means something like “on the basis of the fact”, “on the ground of”. That is to say, on the basis of the fact that Jesus loved us, even to death on a cross, so we are empowered and enabled to love each other. We do not love each other on the basis of our own strength. We love each other on the basis of the grace of Jesus’ love for us. In the same way the Church does not have an independent mission. The Church’s mission is grounded in the mission of Jesus by the Father. On the basis of his own mission from the Father, Jesus sends the Church on mission, as a continuation of his own mission.
This is an important consideration for a theology of mission. We do not go on mission because we are great people or because of high ideals. We go on mission because we are sent by Jesus since he was sent by the Father. Of course, in going on mission, we must have certain human qualities. We must be generous in spirit. And we must have high ideals. The mission stories in the synoptic Gospels show us how the first disciples were prompt and ready to answer Jesus’ call. So, too, we must show a similar generosity. Grace, we are told, builds on nature. Generosity and idealism form the natural basis upon which the grace of mission will build. We receive the grace of a call from Jesus to go on mission. This grace will build on our natural qualities and dispositions, so that our missionary enterprise will be an enterprise of Jesus himself for the good of the Church and for the good of all humanity.
There is another important element in the theology of mission derived from John’s Gospel, which merits our attention. Jesus says to his disciples: “Lift up your eyes and contemplate the fields ripe for the harvest” [Jn 4:35]. The word which I have translated as “contemplate” is usually just translated as “look at”, “see”, and so on. However, there is a good case for translating it precisely as “contemplate”, especially since that reminds us of the need for contemplation as part of all our missionary work. As we go on mission to any territory, we should contemplate that territory and its people before we begin to preach the gospel to them. Essentially, this is what Matteo Ricci tried to do in China. Contemplation demands openness and humility, respect for history and culture. Where openness, humility and respect are lacking, all missionary efforts will fail. Where there is no contemplation of the mission fields, there will be no great harvest. Let us then pray for more workers, lay and religious, to be sent to the harvest fields of the Lord, workers with a deep spirit of contemplation. In our own mission formation, let us prayer for this gift of missionary contemplation.
Fr. Sean O Cearbhallain S.J.
(Last modified: 25-11-2019)