Freedom in Mission
SERIES CHRISTIANITY AND FREEDOM by Revd. Daniel Kirk
In Walter Brueggeman’s latest book, Virus as a summons to Faith: Biblical reflections in a time of loss, grief and anxiety, he discusses possible reasons why God permits or even provokes plagues. He writes of a possibility that: ‘concerns the sheer holiness of God that God can enact in utter freedom without reason, explanation, or accountability, seemingly beyond any purpose at all’ (p.10)
I was reminded of this aspect of God’s sovereignty - his freedom to act in a way that constantly surprises his created beings - on hearing again that description of Aslan in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: "Safe?" said Mr Beaver. "Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.” In the same way God isn’t safe, because He is totally free to act as he wills and sometimes much to our horror He acts in ways that are totally outrageous and offend our human sensibilities. And nowhere is this truer than in the area of Christian missions.
God being free to act as He likes works itself out in at least three ways:
1. He freely chooses an absurd starting point for mission.
That of the death of his beloved son as a substitute for rebellious sinners. This so undercuts human sufficiency that it is an affront to many. It has even shocked some who describe themselves as Christian, describing this doctrine as ‘Cosmic child abuse’ (Chalke and Mann following earlier liberal scholars). This shouldn’t be a surprise for those who have read the Apostle Paul: ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ (1 Cor 1.18).
And a few verses later (22-24) Paul states ‘Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ But this brings true freedom in mission because the basis of our message has nothing to do with lifeless human traditions and thoughts but with the power and wisdom of God. God is reconciling humanity in Christ Jesus and we are just invited to participate as messengers and ambassadors of God’s good news.
2. He freely chooses absurd people in advancing his kingdom.
I once worked in recruitment in a mission agency and there was a temptation to select middle-class folk who seemed to be more together, ticked the right theological boxes and would find it easier to raise money. But look at who God chooses and uses. Not just younger sons (most of the OT), ladies with dodgy relational histories (Matthew’s genealogy) and enemy kings but also Baalam, Samson, Joanna and the Gerasene demoniac.
In church history God has used missionary rejects like William Carey and Jackie Pullinger and controversial preachers like Smith Wigglesworth and Mark Driscoll. This is not to say that constantly seeking to live holy lives is unimportant, far from it, but that examples of God using sinners (who else could he use?) from unlikely backgrounds or with obvious character flaws, abound in Christian history.
Paul sums up God’s approach in choosing people to serve in his Kingdom in 1 Cor 1.27 “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” The fact that God frequently chooses absurd people liberates us from having to conform to a ‘Christian stereotype’ to get involved in his mission. God makes ‘no exceptions’ when it comes to class, gender or race (Gal 3.28) when justifying people and setting them free in Christ to serve others.
3. He freely acts in absurd ways.
My orderly, rationalistic mind struggles with with passages in Acts such as 5.15-16. “As a result, people brought those who were ill into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing those who were ill and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.” I know that Acts isn’t prescriptive but illustrative of church growth but why does God act in so many strange ways throughout the book (and indeed all the bible) with signs and wonders, visions and prophecies? Why is the outbreaking of God’s kingdom often so strange and at times seemingly irrational?
Perhaps we shouldn’t let our rightful concern with sound theology paralyse our stepping out in faith to preach the gospel? Perhaps we should pray more for God to pour out his Spirit to convict and convert sinners and not worry too much when other absurd things happen. We might be freer to see God act in ways that may surprise and even shock us, but ultimately make many disciples and bring Him much glory.
I think that understanding that our missionary God is one who chooses an absurd method of salvation, with the second person of the Trinity dying in human form cursed on a tree, absurd messengers who are fragile, fallen and fallible and absurd miraculous acts, leading to rebirth by the Holy Spirit, gives us great freedom in mission. May we be able to say with the great missionary Paul: “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Co 2:1-5).