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Mission in the First Testament

All Saints Day: 3rd November, 2013
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

The issue of mission which we are considering over the next four weeks is one which makes many Anglicans feel squeamish — especially that part of mission called evangelism. Bishop Stephen Cottrell has said that many Anglicans think that 'evangelism is what other Christians do in other churches, but it is not for us'.

In the first place, talking about our faith with others raises the angst of those of us who have been influenced by modernity's reserve over religion. Michael Jensen rightly observes that: 'it is considered bad manners to raise the subject. One's faith is a private and a highly personal matter — as personal as one's sexual preferences or taste of music. The old cliché about not mentioning religion, sex, and politics in polite company is very much a reality of modernity'.

And secondly, post-modernism has made us squeamish about metanarratives or grand narratives which attempt to tell a single story about the whole of human history in order to attribute a single and integrated meaning to the whole. Post-modernists pose the question: 'is not the church's attempt to evangelize the world by universalizing the biblical story, nothing more than an oppressive power play?' The typical post-modern person is highly suspicious of 'totalizing' narratives that make universal claims. In place of universal pretensions, post-modernism opts for particularity, diversity, localism, relativism.

For both these reasons, many Catholic Anglicans have ceased to give much attention to the evangelistic implications of our faith. What the various religions believe about God belongs to their particularity rather than to God's universality. God is universal, religion is particular. That is the typical Western relativist stance. All the different religions are a different path to the same God. Any truth is as good as any other. Particular religions represent different ways to approach the same universal God. There is no single truth or unitised coherence.

My purpose in this first sermon in our series on Catholic Evangelism is to attempt to show how the framework of the First Testament embodies a movement from the particular to the universal. I am therefore going to focus on the First Testaments view of mission by exploring this important issue of universality and particularity. I intend to do this by:

First, looking at how the Old Testament presents the identity of God,

Second, looking at how the Old Testament presents the shape of mission

Third, looking at how the Old Testament presents the scope of mission.

First, the identity of God in the Old Testament

If the God we are speaking about is not merely an arid philosophical concept but the God of the Jewish Scriptures, then, as Richard Bauckham has rightly insisted,

...we must say that God is both universal and particular. In the Old Testament God is both the God who made heaven and earth and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; both the God whose loving purpose is at work in all the nations and the God who chose Israel alone and chose to identify himself actually to the other nations as the God of Israel; both the God who fills heaven and earth and the God who dwells in the midst of his own people. It is not at all that the universal aspect applies only to God and the particular only to religion. Both are genuinely true of God. We do not find God by abstracting God from the particularities of God's history with Israel and New Testament Christians would want to add, the particularity of the God made known in Jesus.

It is this particular identity that God gives godself in the particular story of Israel and of Jesus which drives the narrative towards the universal realization of God's Kingdom in all creation. God's identity is what gives shape to the mission that we must now go on to consider.

Second, the shape of mission in the First Testament

The shape of mission can be seen in many ways but it is laid out initially in what has been called the 'Abraham principle'. In chapters 10 and 11 of Genesis, the ancient authors give an account of the nations of the world and then in chapter 12 they zoom in on one particular individual — Abram.

Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. ... and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed".

The key word in this Abraham narrative is the word, 'BLESS'. From ONE man, Abram, God's blessing will overflow to ALL.

If the book of Genesis singles out Abraham, the book of Exodus singles out Israel, the unique nation God creates from a rabble of slaves in Egypt. The exodus establishes this nation to make known God's name among the nations. In the book of Joshua, we read that YHWH dried up the Jordan for Israel to cross, 'so that all peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty' (Josh 4:24).

During the period of the exile in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah envisages a new exodus: 'The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God' (Isa 52:10). God's new act of salvation for his unique people in bringing them home from exile in Babylon will prove to be also salvation for all peoples.

And just as YHWH singled out one deeply flawed person Abraham and the one nation Israel, so he also singled out one place — mount Zion. From all the places of the world and all the places of the land of Israel, God selected one place as his own dwelling. Zion is the seat of God's universal rule. The cherubim in the holy of holies of Solomon's Temple constitute his throne, a kind of earthly equivalent of his throne in heaven. Many of the psalms celebrate this theme: 'The Lord is King; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! The Lord is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples. Let them praise your great and awesome name.' (Psalm 99:1-3). God's universal kingdom is centred in the particularity of mount Zion. And alongside that, YHWH singled out David and installed his descendants as rulers in Jerusalem and of great David's greater son, the New Testament says, 'every knee shall bow and every tongue confess him King of glory now'.

Mission is a movement from the particular to the universal. From the particularity of one person; one nation; one place and one King; the universal mission moves toward the new future of God.

Of course, the Old Testament is a sprawling collection of narratives. The story is not a straightjacket that reduces all else to a narrowly defined uniformity. There are all kinds of smaller narratives embedded within this great overarching perspective of the mission of God. Nevertheless, to read the Old Testament keeping in mind the plan and purpose and mission of God from creation to new creation, is to read with the grain of this whole collection of texts that constitute the canon of the Jewish Scriptures. It is not just an isolated text here or there that provides some gems to support the idea of mission. It is the thrust of the central message of the Bible. In the Old Testament, the story leads up to the coming of the Messiah. In the New Testament, the story leads on from the Messiah.

  1. The identity of God as the universal 'creator of heaven and earth' and the particular 'God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob'.
  2. The shape of mission as the movement from one particular man, Abraham; one particular nation, Israel; and one particular place, Zion; to the future universal blessing of all nations.

Third, the scope of mission in the First Testament.

Of course, we must understand that the point at which the fully universal is reached, is the end of the biblical story. It cannot therefore be portrayed in historical narrative, because it is still in the future. It is however, portrayed in a rich variety of metaphors and images, especially in the prophetic literature.

Take for instance, the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 10:33-11:9 where the prophet paints a beautiful picture of the shalom (peace) and justice in the 'new heaven and a new earth'.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. ... They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea' (11:6-9).

The scope of this prophetic future includes the harmony that God's intends for the entire created world — domestic and wild animals, wolves and lions and snakes as well as lambs and little children. God's future involves the transformation of this world in a way which is wholly unprecedented and therefore totally beyond our capacity to understand. We can only use imagery and metaphors in speaking about it. But what these images and metaphors convey is that the scope of the church's mission includes not just individual souls but wholes — it's a 'whole humanity' and 'whole creation' perspective that includes individuals, the neighbourhoods in which individuals live and the environment of the entire world.


So to recap and conclude: Many people take the view that the Old Testament is narrowly concerned with ethnic Israel and antithetical to the Gentile world. But I hope that we can see that Israel's election was not a rejection of other nations but was explicitly for the sake of all nations. In the major plot of the Old Testament we can glimpse something of tremendous hope that lies behind both the shape and scope of God's mission.

In its shape, it involves the movement from one to the many, from Israel to the 'innumerable multitude that no one can number' and in its scope it offers the good-news of salvation through Jesus Christ to individuals, neighbourhoods and the environment. It is a global mission of the global people of a global God. Any church that is governed by the Bible cannot evade the missional thrust of God and the gospel revealed there.

The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann once said that Christian conversion is 'the re-storying of one's life in the grand story of the Bible'.

If that is the case, may we at St Peter's, find ourselves more and more converted, as our mission catches us up in a movement from the particular to the universal.

As we sing, as we so often do at the end of our psalms and canticles, 'Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be, world without end' may it not simply be a dull liturgical convention. May we instead sing it as a missional perspective on history past, present and future which will one day be the song of 'All the Saints' and the whole creation.


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