When John the Baptist was in prison, he heard about the many works of Jesus Christ. He sent his followers to Jesus to ask an important question:
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Matthew 11:2-6 ESV)
According to Jesus, John should recognize who Jesus is both by his message and also by his mission. In the gospels, the message of the kingdom is not separate from the mission of the kingdom, and vice versa. Thus Jesus, Peter, Paul, and others proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom through words and through works. A gospel that is presented through words only is not found in Scripture; and, similarly, a gospel that is presented through works only is not found in Scripture. In Scripture, the gospel is proclaimed through message (words) and mission (works), and today the gospel should be proclaimed in both message and mission.
I recognize that in Scripture we do not find a dichotomy between message and mission. Instead, we find that the message includes the mission and the mission includes the message. However, I also recognize that we tend to separate these two today. So, for this blog post, when I mentioned “message”, I’m talking about the words of the gospel, and when I mention “mission”, I’m talking about the loving, merciful, justice-filled work that accompanies the gospel.
A couple of years ago, a good friend introduced me to John M. Perkins; however, I had not read anything that he had written until a few days ago. I had the opportunity to skim through his book Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development. Now, as far as I can tell, this book is not about developing Christian community. Instead, this book is about Christian involvement in developing community. These are different, but both are important.
In one chapter – “The Marks of an Authentic Church” – Mr. Perkins describes how the church’s message and mission should work together to the benefit of the surrounding community. He writes against the various forms of liberation theology and supports a “theology of reconciliation” based on 2 Corinthians 5:18-19. Consider these paragraphs:
We can begin to understand this alternative theology of reconciliation by defining the church. The church, as we all know, is the Body of Christ. It is the assembly of believers called out by God to be his people. These people see themselves as the replacements, the agents, for Jesus of Nazareth here on earth, in their own neighborhoods and communities. They are committed to being those agents in a specific neighborhood, in a return to the parish concept. Christian community development, then, is a return to the function God intended for the church, to be his replacement, his pinch hitter. This is a church that insists through its words and its actions that dehumanization in every form is blasphemy against God. We, the people of God, are called to live out our lives in our parishes in a way that reveals and affirms the dignity of those dehumanized by society.
Instead, we have turned the church into an institution that serves us instead of God. In fact, the church that we are most committed to is the church that will meet most of our personal and family needs. It has become popular for both black and white Christians to shop around for a church just as we shop around for food or clothing, and the join the one that offers the most “stuff.” But our institutions are valuable in God’s eyes only when they put flesh on the gospel. The gospel then becomes the love of God made visible, able to be touched and felt through physical agents of his kingdom. Only then is the gospel the good news to the poor that Jesus proclaimed. Living out the gospel means bringing the good news of God’s love to people who are in need, demonstrating to them the love of Jesus and introducing them to the eternal life found only in him.
When I refer to eternal life I don’t only mean the hereafter, but eternal life that begins here on earth and continues after. Jesus came to bring life, but also a certain quality of life. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Our task, then, is to enable people to have the abundant life that God desires for them. Abundant life surely begins with salvation, but it also includes having basic needs met and dignity affirmed.
In short, living the gospel means desiring for your neighbor and your neighbor’s family that which you desire for yourself and your family. Living the gospel means bettering the quality of other people’s lives–spiritually, physically, socially, emotionally–as you better your own. [43-44]
Mr. Perkins writes about a gospel that includes both proclamation by words and proclamation by works. He does not relegate the gospel to social action, nor does he relegate the gospel to verbal affirmation. And, perhaps more importantly, he recognizes that the church – the people of God – are the agents that proclaim (preach) the gospel in both message and also mission.
I am learning what it means to proclaim the gospel in message and mission. I’ve talked about this before in a post called “Justice, Kindness, Mercy…” To be honest, this is sometimes difficult for me. I love the church, and I love to see the church working to build up other believers instead of to tear down other believers. But, even if the church is working together to edify itself – which is important – this is only part of the church’s mission. The church is also supposed to be salt and light in the world through both its words and its works.
God is teaching me first by changing my heart. Margaret and I have talked about and prayed about different ways to influence our community for Christ. We have started with our neighborhood by trying to get involved in the lives of our neighbors in order to learn how we can serve them. But, for the most part, our neighbors are not “the least of these”. We are still praying that God would teach us how and where he wants to use us in this way.
Returning to Perkins, he listed seven attributes that the body of Christ should demonstrate as we carry out our message and mission [45-53]:
- The authentic church absorbs pain.
- The authentic community of believers is also called to proclaim hope in a despairing world.
- An authentic church should point to God’s authority.
- The authentic church brings people together.
- The authentic church spends lavishly on the needy.
- The authentic church reflects God’s character.
- The authentic community of faith protects the vulnerable.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not there yet. I recognize these attributes of believers and the church as described in Scripture, but sometimes I think we are too involved with ourselves and our pet projects and theological positions to be as concerned about others as God is. May God change our hearts.
Perkins said, “The gospel then becomes the love of God made visible, able to be touched and felt through physical agents of his kingdom.” This is the kind of gospel that I want to proclaim in message and in mission.