As Episcopalians we talk about five “Marks of Mission.” To think of these as five marks of love seems to me to be a helpful reframing. God is love. And whatever mission is or is not, it is about the God of love. Indeed, we might say that mission is who God is and what God does. Christians think of God, in God’s being, as burning “with an unchecked Flame, red hot, incendiary. God does not have Love any more than He has Knowledge or Power: He just is these things.” God is love. Love without object or act (Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology Volume 1, 489, 485).
God is love. Too often we skim over such words as a rock skitting across water thrown from a boat to a shore. We touch the truth for a passing moment. We fail to plumb the depths. If, by the power of Christ’s Spirit, we could begin to experience and encounter the depths of divine love we would avoid much of the misunderstanding and malpractice that passes for mission in the Church. God is love.
God is mission. Let us begin there as the first mark of mission. To be marked for mission is to be marked by the dazzling flaming reality beyond all that passes for real – God is love. It is, of course, right to be hesitant and suspicious of “attractional” models of mission these days. However, central to the witness of the Church should remain this desire to prayerfully search the scriptures, engage the traditions, and listen to testimony that opens hearts and minds to the singleness and uniqueness of divine love. Communities possessed by such mission will surely attract, intrigue, bemuse, and/or anger the world.
Because God is love, God does love. Christians think of God as the fierce and compassionate creator who is ever for us and ever for God’s creation. Christians think of God as the source of all gifts. For the life God gives to the world overflows from the nature, choice, and will of God. God’s choice in creating and loving others opens up new dimensions as creatures are created by love and for love.
The boundary between the divine and the creaturely makes distinct and present the call of love as the call of God. We might say, therefore, that mission is crossing boundaries for life. It is what God does in creation, and re-creation, and it is the call of God’s Church. This boundary crossing is not simply between creator and creature; it is also between love and hate. It is the boundary crossing love of God incarnated in Jesus Christ. “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The boundary between the love of God and the rejection of God’s love is, quite literally, crossed in the body of Jesus. Christ is our peace.
Indeed, the Church is nothing less than the community that has met this peace in the crucified, resurrected, ascended Lord. In Christ the Church is a foretaste of God’s future (Ephesians 2), and the Church is only ever the Church to the extent that it takes part in this mission of God. It is only ever the Church to the extent that it crosses boundaries for life. To be marked by the sign of the cross, in baptism, is to be marked for mission. Just as the being of God cannot be separated from the doing of God (God is love; God does love) so the being and doing of the Church cannot be separated.
God’s mission does not depend upon the Church. On the contrary, the Church depends upon the mission of God. The Church is created by the mission (love) of God in Christ and lives only to the extent that it takes heed of this love and turns to the world in love. Mission is not, then, social program, charity, or pity. It does not arise because of want or wealth. It is a vision of God. It is being marked by such a vision. It is the very way in which the Church exists in outward-turning love – commending, and contending for, a vision and experience of love that is divine.
It is only when one begins to appreciate that the marks of mission are themselves marked by love that one can appreciate the gift of the marks to the Church. The five marks are proclamation, formation, service, justice, and sustainability. It is because of the love of God that the first mark of mission (to proclaim the good news of the kingdom) must remain first. Proclamation of the reign of God is the Church’s first call. It is what distinguishes the Church from the world. It is what defines the rest of the marks of mission. Acts of formation, service, justice, and sustainability arise and are sustained by a vision of God’s love. They are a means for turning the Church outwards to the world and are always a declaration of the kingdom of God that has come and will come in Christ.
Questions for Reflection
- In your own life, when have you been particularly aware that the very being of God is love?
- What scripture passages particularly speak to you about the nature of God as love?
- Are there images or ways of speaking about this love that have been powerful in your life? How might you share such vision with others?
- How might beginning with “God as love” affect the priorities and practices of your faith community?
- If the first call of the Church is proclamation, how does this change the ministry you are involved in or support?
Robert Heaney is Associate Professor of Christian Mission and Director of the Center for Anglican Communion Studies at Virginia Theological Seminary.