by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
The central presupposition of these reflections is that the church is the instrument of God’s saving mission to the world. Therefore, mission is not one activity among others in the life of the church. Mission is the one activity that makes the church what she is meant to be. Our very identity is bound up in the mission of Christ. As 20th-century scholar Martin Hengel once wrote:
“A church and theology which forgets or denies the missionary sending of believers as messengers of salvation in a world threatened by disaster surrenders its very foundation and in so doing surrenders itself.” — The Origins of the Christian Mission
Given the disasters of the world in our time, we do well not only to reflect broadly upon our intended missionary character as a church but also specifically upon our local context. I keep asking us at St. John the Divine to consider what it is to be “a light for the city” given our location, our people, our resources, our opportunities, and especially our faith in Jesus.
I offer you a helpful imaginative exercise: At the beginning of the Book of Acts and immediately prior to his Ascension into heaven, the risen Jesus appears to his disciples in Jerusalem and says, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
What do we make of these geographic references? Within the programmatic structure of Acts, we see in the early chapters that Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria represent the initial stages and progressive expansion of Christian mission. The spread of the gospel really does originate in Jerusalem, spreads to Judea, and then into Samaria. And of course, it keeps going, all the way to Rome by the end of the Book of Acts. And as we all know, in fulfillment of our Lord’s Great Commission the gospel spreads to all nations through the ongoing mission of the church.
However, there are also practical ways to imagine the missional calling to Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria for our own times and in our own lives.
First, Jerusalem. This is the place where we make our spiritual home, the originating place from which mission is inspired and goes forth. In other words, think of Jerusalem as St. John the Divine. To say that mission is of the essence of the church is in no way to suggest that the life of the local congregation is secondary. Indeed, they are mutually reinforcing. The congregation is the locus of worship and discipleship necessary to form people who become inspired to take the love of Jesus beyond the congregation. Without the life and love of a local congregation to form disciple-making disciples, there is no mission. You might also think of your Jerusalem mission field as your home or family. In what ways is your household a witness to the love of Christ and nurturing capacity to extend that love outward? See below.
Second, Judea. Judea is the immediately surrounding territory around Jerusalem. It is the next geographic ring moving out from Jerusalem. We might think of our Judean mission field as the immediately surrounding areas to the church: not limited to River Oaks, but including Lamar High School, the residential buildings and many residents living along Westheimer, Upper Kirby, West Alabama, as well as the patrons of shops and restaurants nearby. As we continue to settle into a new neighborhood, Susalee and I are contemplating ways to connect with neighbors on our street and in the next blocks. The possibilities for gracious, winsome Christian witness are abundant, especially through simple acts of hospitality and neighborliness.
Third, Samaria. One might think of Samaria as traditional Jews did at the time of Jesus: as those different from us or outside the household of the faith – at least for now. The human tendency in all cultures is to congregate and mix with people most like ourselves. But we see in the gospels that Jesus neither avoided Samaria nor its people. Indeed, he made a point of traveling through the region of the Samaritans. For us in our own day, this next outer ring might include socio-economic neighborhoods different from our own, ethnic groups not well-represented in our congregation, fellow-citizens facing challenges unlike our own, and others with experiences we need to know about. One might also think of our local “Samaria” as wherever we meet those who have had no exposure to the church and those who have negative images of Christianity. If social survey data is correct, their numbers are legion.
I encourage us to hear the words Jesus speaks to his disciples before his Ascension as words he still speaks to us at SJD today. Figuratively, what is it to be his witness in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria right here in Houston? This consideration challenges me to ponder anew to what degree I am participating in the mission of Jesus through my life at SJD (Jerusalem), with my neighbors (Judea), and in other parts of the city beyond my familiar environs (Samaria). And I am also led to consider what this parish might be like when all of us have missional engagements in all three realms to which Jesus calls us and has already gone before.
“We ought to go out from this place as if we were from some sacred shrine, as those who have descended from heaven itself.”
—John Chrysostom (347-407AD), from the sermon “To Those Who Have Not Attended the Assembly”
Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News by Jeffrey Bilbro (InterVarsity Press, 2021)
This is my newest favorite book to recommend to people. It is essentially a practical theology of the news. Bilbro, the editor in chief of the magazine Front Porch Republic, goes deeper than merely citing the familiar dangers of social media, political polarization, and addictive attachments to digital devices. He explores how these realities detach us from God and holy living. One theme is consistent with my reflection above: “improvements in communications technology have increased the temptation to sympathize with distant events and ignore ones nearby.” They have also increased the temptation to ignore people whose views will challenge us leading us to congregate digitally in like-minded but increasingly fragile and angry blocs.