Mission also means caring for the vulnerable. It's a meaning that emerged in Jesus's first public teaching, his inaugural address in the synagogue at Nazareth, when he read from the prophet Isaiah. It's Jesus's own mission statement, a summary of what he himself has been sent to do:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has
anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has
sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery
of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to
proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up
the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has
been fulfilled in your hearing."
Mission is primarily about how Christians are meant to live their lives, and what actions are asked of them in relation to their neighbors. We might say mission is how to love God through loving our neighbors. The Anglican Communion promulgated a framework for thinking about mission some quarter century ago, called the Five Marks of Mission.1 It's a helpful outline, particularly in its breadth:
To proclaim the good news of the kingdom. Share the ancient dream of God, spoken by the prophets, about what the world is supposed to look like. That involves living in right relationship with God and one another and all creation. In that world no one goes hungry, the sick receive care and healing, no one studies war anymore, and all live together in peace and justice. Jesus shows us the road toward that reign of God, toward shalom or salaam ("peace" in Hebrew and Arabic).
To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers. This is about forming disciples of Jesus, people who will share the work of building a world of shalom and who will invite others into those right relationships.
To respond to human need with loving service. Anciently called "corporal works of mercy," this mark of mission is our response to suffering in the world around us as we do the kind of feeding and healing work that Jesus did himself.
To seek to transform unjust structures of society. This aspect of mission is prophetic work, advocacy, politics in the way we more often use the word: Jesus's turning over the tables in the Temple (Matthew 21:12), his parables about rendering to Caesar (Mark 12:17) and the widow's mite (Luke 21:1-4), as well as the vineyard parables about employment and a living wage (Matthew 20). To many Christians this can seem like "secular" work, or too dangerous for religious folk. But it is at the root of our Christian mission to build a society of peace and justice.
To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth. This is an area of mission long ignored, but it's intrinsicto a world where all have enough to eat and the opportunity to livein peace. The biblical charge to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Genesis 1:28)has often been misread. That word "dominion" has been grosslymisunderstood to mean "take possession of" and "use for your ownpersonal and usually selfish ends." The word is actually related todomus, house, and should invite us to think about caring for theearth as a householder—it is husbanding and housekeeping work.
Mission has not always—or even often—been understood in this broader way in previous centuries. Indeed, Christianity has often equated mission with proselytization. The earliest Christian missionary efforts were about spreading the good news of Jesus and were usually accompanied by efforts to relieve hunger and heal sickness. After the Roman emperor Constantine became a Christian in the early fourth century and made it legal for Roman subjects to be Christians, the mission scene began to change. Christianity began to be associated with citizenship, sometimes leading to forced conversions. The monastic movement emerged at least in part as a reaction to state religion. Mission opportunities expanded in monastic communities, with the scribal work of copying biblical manuscripts, monastic houses of hospitality for travelers, and the development of agricultural practices better suited to local conditions. Gregor
Mendel's genetic work on pea plants was a late outgrowth of that kind of practical relief and development work—a concrete example of mission in action.
Yet all through this history is a strong theme of conversion of pagans and infidels—and I use those terms advisedly. Non-Christians were often seen as objects for the action of the Church, rather than subjects in and with whom God might already be at work. Indeed, much of the global exploration beginning in the fifteenth century was underlain by religious and royal orders to colonize and appropriate lands that were not occupied by Christians. Non-Christian territories and peoples were fair game, and European powers looked to the Church to oversee the dividing up of territory. The Doctrine of Discovery,2 affirming the right of Christians to appropriate land belonging to infidels, has undergirded legal principles of property ownership in the United States since a Supreme Court decision in 1823. The related concept of manifest destiny provided motivation for dispossessing native peoples of lands and cultures, if not their very lives.