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The reason for getting stuck in

by
24 March 2016

Theology and mission are inseparable, argues Michael Lloyd

DeAgostini/SuperStock

Inseparable: St Amand in Paradise surrounded by two virtues, love of God and love of neighbour (11th c. French miniature)

Inseparable: St Amand in Paradise surrounded by two virtues, love of God and love of neighbour (11th c. French miniature)

ALL we have to offer is God. Only God can give what human beings need. Only God can give significant meaning, infinite lovedness, and ultimate hope. Anything else we offer is a mere rearrangement of deckchairs on the cosmic Titanic. It is God towards whom our restless hearts and our pining world are orientated. So, if we offer people anything less than God, we are not just short-changing them — we are conning them with counterfeit coins. All we have to offer is God.

It is God we have to communicate, by our deeds and by our words. And the communication of God is theology. So mission is theology. Some Christians are impatient with theology: they want, quite rightly, to get on with the job. But the question, “What is the job to which we are called?” is a theological one. And sometimes the Church itself becomes impatient with theology (and its cost in terms of time, and therefore money), and just wants its clergy to be skilled pastoral practitioners, and trained leaders and administrators, who will grow the Church.

But pastoral practice means connecting people with the reality and resources of God; and every pastoral practice assumes a particular understanding of what it is to be human. Growing the Church will mean presenting people with, and deepening people in, the knowledge and love of God. And all of this is theology. So, to quote Mike Hill, the Bishop of Bristol, a missional Church needs more theology — not less.

The question, of course, is, What is this God like, whom we are to communicate? What sort of God is it, whom to know brings meaning, lovedness, and hope? And it is here that the events of Holy Week and Easter are decisive. As Tom Torrance wrote: “In the resurrection the Father owns Christ as his Son, which has the effect not only of confirming all that Jesus had taught and done, and indeed had claimed, up to the crucifixion, but of acknowledging that his [Jesus’s] activity in life and in death was his [the Father’s] very own” (Space, Time and Resurrection, T&T Clark, 1998/1976).

If the words and deeds of Jesus were the words and deeds of God, then we are not left to guess what God is like: he is like Jesus. As Bishop John Taylor was fond of saying, “God is Christlike, and in Him there is no unChristlikeness at all.” So we have no authority to say anything about God that we do not see in Jesus, or that has not been viewed through the lens of Jesus. What does that mean?

 

FIRST, it means that God is not a god who keeps himself to himself. He is not a god who remains remote from human experience and human pain. He is a God who pitched his tent among us (John 1.14). Ruth Burrows writes of “the unutterable wonder that God too had a human birth: he came into the world as we come into it; he came to drink with us the bitter cup of humanness. He drank it to the dregs and thereby transformed its bitterness. Bitter it is, and yet sweet, for his lips meet ours over the brim” (Before the Living God, Hidden Spring, 2008/1975).

The God who sends us, the God we have to communicate, is God who moves, not away from those who suffer, but towards them, in compassion and healing — a movement we are to mirror, or, rather, to participate in.

Second, it means that God is a God who is not behind the suffering of his world, but against it. Jesus does not seek to explain, let alone justify, suffering. He does not tolerate it for the good that will come from it — he assaults it. The healing and nature miracles of Jesus forbid us to acquiesce in the suffering of God’s creation; they mandate us to fight it, wherever and however we can. That was the mission of Jesus, so that is the mission of his Church.

So, when churches set up food banks, or when clergy pay hospital visits, or when Christians write Amnesty International letters, we are not engaging in acts of random social utility — we are joining in the mission of Jesus. We are fighting the poverty, sickness, and injustice that defy his lordship. A distinctive theological vision (based on the person of Jesus) underpins the social mandate of the Church.

Third, the Christlikeness of God means that God is not a god whose holiness thwarts his longing for relationship with the morally messed-up. He is not a god who waits for us to clean ourselves up before he will let us return. He is a God who runs to meet us. He is a God who lines up with those who need to repent. He is a God who eats with sinners, who lets himself be touched by prostitutes. He is a God who so associates himself with sinful people that He dies.

The Church is called to holiness — but to holiness that shows itself, not in separation, but in approach and acceptance. So our vision of what it is to be human is based upon the humanity we observe in Jesus. Our conception of goodness is not some generic conglomeration of admirable qualities — it comes from prolonged, prayerful, corporate, and critical reflection on the life of God in the person of Christ.

Christian ethics is not mere human thought about human experience, it is human thought that presumes and invites divine inspiration about the apostolic experience of a human life that was uniquely divine. It is open to being informed by all human experience, of course; but it is theological (because Christological) through and through.

Fourth, it means that God is the God of life. Easter reveals God as the One who opposes, hates, and defeats death. God never says, “Let there be death.” It has no positive place in his purposes. It does not belong in his world. Death, in biblical thought, is that which God assaults. Death is enemy. The mission of the Church is not to make friends with what God regards as enemy. It is not to soften its cruel and aberrant nature. It is not to serenade it as “most kind and gentle death”. It is to proclaim its overthrow in the resurrection of Christ. It is to fight it, and delay it by prayer, by medical care and medical research, by feeding the hungry, by working to reconcile warring parties, by campaigning for safe working conditions. It is to comfort those who grieve. It is to put historical and theological ground under the feet of those who find that, even in a secular age, they cannot quite bring themselves to let go of hope in the face of death.

 

AND, last, it means that God is love. In Season 2 of The Big Bang Theory, there is an interesting conversation between Sheldon (the brilliant physicist) and Penny (the beautiful would-be actress). It is occasioned by the fact that their friend Leonard is dating Sheldon’s arch-enemy, Leslie Winkle.

Penny: If you are really Leonard’s friend, you will support him no matter who he wants to be with.

Sheldon: Wait a minute — why am I doing all the giving, here? If Leonard is really my friend, why doesn’t he have to support me in my hatred of Leslie Winkle?

Penny: Because love trumps hate.

Sheldon: Oh, now you’re just making stuff up!

Is Sheldon right? Is Penny just making stuff up? Well, I suggest she would be, if it were not for the doctrine of the Trinity. She would be, if the love of the Father, Son, and Spirit for one another were not the basic fact of the universe. But the Trinity means that love does trump hate, because it is prior to hate. Love is eternal in a way that hate is not. Love is deep down things, in a way that hate is not.

People need to know that. People need to know that their instinctive knowledge that love is the most important thing in the world is not just a bit of clichéd folk wisdom — it is a clue to the meaning of the universe. People need to know that the most important thing about them is that they are infinitely and eternally loved. People need to know that, though human history is blood-stained, and though cosmic history is violent, yet there is an older history, a truer truth, a deeper magic, a more fundamental fact — that they, and all people and all things were made by Love, and were made for Love.

We only have that information in the doctrine of the Trinity. Without theology, we would not know that. Without theology, we would have nothing to say about God. Without theology, we would not know what our world is for, or what we are for. Without theology, we would have nothing to offer the world.

 

The Revd Dr Michael Lloyd is the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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