Mission is not extraneous to the triune God’s being and activity. It is central. God is missional, for it is bound up with God’s communal being. Take for example the word “love.” 1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love. Love is an active word. Love requires an object. I cannot be loving, if I have never loved another. It is not enough to love myself. The love of myself in isolation from another is not love, but a form of narcissism. Love of another requires that I go beyond myself. God always goes beyond himself, for God’s communal being involves turning outward toward another.
The context for “God is love” in 1 John 4 is God’s sacrificial love of us in Christ:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:7-12; ESV).
As a result of such divine love that goes beyond itself to include us, we are to love one another.
Does God need us in order to be love, since love requires an object? No, for God’s triune being involves relational otherness. From all eternity, God has loved the Son in the Spirit, and the Son responds in kind. In his incarnate state, we are informed at Jesus’ baptism that the Father loves the Son prior to his public ministry. Jesus is God’s beloved Son. The Father is well pleased with him (Luke 3:21-22).
No doubt, Jesus had obeyed the Father prior to his public ministry. And yet, it is only after this public affirmation of love for God’s Son that the Son goes public with his ministry. Do we go public with “missional” output in order to gain God’s love or to respond to it? The answer to this question is all-important.
Once when I was guest lecturing to a doctor of ministry cohort, I shared of how I have often wrongly tried to compensate for a lack of security in God’s love with ministerial output. Missional output only truly flows from communion with God, where we receive and respond to God’s love. As 1 John 4 claims, we love because God first loved us. It is not the other way round. In response, a seasoned Christian leader who was a member of that particular DMin. cohort asked, “What if you have never experienced God’s love before?” I appreciated his vulnerability and was pained by the look of longing on his face to experience God’s love in ministry. May this dear brother come to know experientially the love of God that transcends knowledge, as Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians in Ephesians 3:14-19.
My interaction with this Christian minister who desires to engage the world missionally reminded me of the account of John Wesley prior to his story of conversion at Aldersgate. After receiving his seminary education in England, Wesley was commissioned to go to the Americas to “save the heathen.” From what I have been told, his ministry venture was a shipwreck. On the journey home, it is claimed that he cried out, “I was sent to the Americas to save the heathen. But who will save me?!” It was only after he heard Martin Luther’s commentary to the Romans read aloud at a meeting at Aldersgate Street in London on May 24, 1738, that Wesley experienced the affectionate assurance of salvation. Here is Wesley’s account of the event:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change that God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death (John Wesley, The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, vol. 1, ed. Nehemiah Curnock (Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2006), pp. 475-76).
Wesley moved forward missionally from that event in a radical way. His gospel preaching and care for the widow and orphan in their distress had an incredible impact in the church and society at large in his day. No doubt, the impact of that event continues to shape the church in various circles today in England and abroad.
Wesley came to experience the love of God that leads us to love one another. Those who have not experienced God’s love and who seek to earn it are in danger of making the objects of their supposed missional witness “twice the sons and daughters of hell” that they are. They can so easily use the people they reach to try and appease God and gain God’s approval rather than love them because of God’s approval of them in view of the matchless grace revealed in God’s two missions in the history of salvation—Christ and the Spirit.
The way in which the triune God engages us in history resonates with how God interacts within the divine life eternally. Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity shown above presents in pictorial terms this same posture and form of engagement. My friend and colleague, Charles C. Twombly, shared with me the following reflection just yesterday:
Each “person” defers to one of the others in Rublev’s “Hospitality of Abraham” icon. Note the tilt of the heads, note the pointing of the feet, note the subtle gesture of the hands. If you focus on one figure, your eye’s drawn immediately to the others and the whole scene stays in motion. Only the cup in the middle allows for a fixed gaze (For more from Charles Twombly on this subject, click here).
Just as God is communal as reflected in the persons’ deferential and open posture, so too God relates communally with us. God does not exclude us from the table at which the persons are seated. Rather, the cup in the middle with the roasted lamb invites the reader to sit and partake. The triune God of holy communion is on a communal mission. From all eternity, God turns to the other—within the divine life and outward toward the world. In view of God’s communal way of living within the divine life and outward toward the world, it is fair to claim that the Great Commission is ultimately the great communion (See Matthew 28:19-20). God is missional, for God is communal.