In John 4, Jesus is on His way back from Judea to Galilee, and He “had to go through Samaria.” John 4:5-9, quoted below, begin to tell what happened next:
So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
The meeting ends well. The woman gives Jesus water, and He explains salvation to her, and reveals Himself to be the Messiah. She then tells her townsfolk, and many of them become believers. But we shouldn’t gloss over the ugliness of those bold verses. The woman felt totally alienated from Jesus because she wasn’t of the right background. As the woman alludes later (John 4:20), much of the debate was over silly and unimportant things, like whether proper worship had to be in the Temple proper. The offense is all the worse when you remember that the Jews were blessed to be a blessing for the world. Genesis 12:2-3 is explicit that the choosing of Israel is not for Israel’s sake alone, but for “all peoples on earth.” Israel is to be an instrument of God’s Mercy, which as Christ notes to the Samaritan woman, reaches its fulfillment in the ultimate gift of Mercy, Christ Himself (John 4:21-26). Christ is both the King of the Jews and the Messiah of the world. Peter uses this theme, even quoting Genesis 12:2-3, in explaining to the Jews of Jerusalem how Christ came through the Jews for everyone (Acts 3:24-26). Peter, and the rest of the Jewish Apostles of Christ then carry His Good News into the lands of the Gentiles.
This sets the tone for how the Church is to be. We don’t exist for ourselves, but for others, and the higher one is in the hierarchy, the humbler they’re called to be. To wit:
- 1 Peter 2:5 describes every Christian as a sharing in the “holy priesthood” of the Church, offering sacrifices to God. Romans 12 fleshes this concept out, explaining that these services are serving the Church and the world humble.
- In 1 Peter 5:1-4, St. Peter instructs the presbytery (clerical priesthood) to serve the flock humbly.
- Jesus instructs His Disciples to serve, just as Christ Himself served, in John 13:14-17, after washing the Disciples’ feet. The incredible mark of God’s humility, in washing the filthy feet of His servants, is to characterize how Christians, and particularly those in authority, are to behave.
- Peter in particular is called to serve, and instructed by Christ to “strengthen thy brethren” in Luke 22:32. Since Peter is to be the chief Apostle, he’s to serve the other Apostles, just as they serve the Church, and the Church serves the world.
It seems to me that multitudes of Christians have missed the simple idea that the church exists for others. We are called to be the incarnate presence of Jesus, by the Spirit working in us as God’s people (John 20:31). This is at the very center of what it means to be missional. The church exists not for itself but for others.
A missional church is not the same as a church doing missions or programs for mission. This is one reason why the term missional is such an important theological and practical development in the 21st century. The church is made up of “sent ones” that God has designed to carry out his mission of gospel mercy and compassion in community, through shared presence. Mission is God’s before it is ever ours. The whole Bible makes this abundantly clear from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22. God is a missional God and the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth is mission in human form. The very purpose of creation and redemption (which should not be radically separated as evangelicals are prone to do) is to complete the cosmic mission of God for all creation, resulting in the new heavens and new earth.
The church is for the world. This is a powerful concept. We have been raised in an atmosphere (especially since 1976) which has taught us that the church exists to oppose the world. Millions of people now sincerely believe that we are the company of the naysayers, the negative opponents of all cultural change and modern development. We are out of touch, reactionary and angry. We do not deserve all of this hostility. Some of it comes from reactionary atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But a great deal of it we have clearly earned by how we have responded to the world by rejection and anger.
What then is the answer to this problem? Cardinal Suenens suggests we must overcome our “inner tensions so as to be able to fulfill [our] mission in relation to all men . . .” I think he nails it. We are filled with inner tensions that make us emotionally unhealthy and, sometimes, severely unbalanced. We are, to use Paul’s words, “immature.” We have become more like the church at Corinth than we realize. We think we are mature but in fact we are proud and weak. The way forward is to acknowledge that we exist for others and not for ourselves. We are for the world! Indeed, we are the best real hope the world has if you stop and think about it.
That last part was a connection I’d overlooking in thinking about this issue. Cardinal Suenens’ suggestion, taking seriously, is that genuine ecumenism between Christians – working to repair the wounds of the Reformation and move forward as one Church, and to heal the wounds even within the Catholic Church Herself – is indispensable to serving the world, just as loving your spouse is the first step of being a good parent. Of course, once I pieced that together, it was obviously correct. After all, isn’t that what Jesus is praying for in John 17:20-26?
“I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.
And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.
Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
Righteous Father, the world also does not know you, but I know you, and they know that you sent me. I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.”