mission Impossible?

If we are to believe many of the proponents and purveyors of mission and evangelism in today’s church, we simply have to get the ‘right’ message, packaged in the right way and conveyed to the right demographic to see people rushing through our doors, seeking salvation. To them, it is something simply waiting to happen, if only we can get the right ingredients. If we read what Jesus has to say, he would clearly beg to differ.

Long before we get to the ‘Great Commission’ in the Gospel record (Mt 28.18-20), we see at least two mini versions of what it would eventually entail. The first is when Jesus sends out the Twelve ‘with power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases…preach the kingdom of God and heal the sick’ (Lk 9.1-6). This was, according to Luke’s record, an extraordinary success. The impact of the disciples’ ministry caused people everywhere to wonder if John the Baptist had been raised from the dead, Elijah or some other Old Testament prophet had returned to life. And even Herod the Tetrarch – clearly still haunted by his having executed the Baptist – asked ‘Who, then, is this?’ (Lk 9.9). That first foray into the world of mission for the disciples was unexpectedly exciting.

The second mini version of what would eventually become the mission of Christ to the world through the church throughout the ages was a little different. We find it a chapter later in Luke and this time it involves 72 missioners sent out in pairs (Lk 10.1-24). Although, like its predecessor, this missionary venture met with unusual success – witnessed, not least by Jesus’ comment, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven’ (Lk 10.18) – the pre-briefing Jesus gave these disciples was more than a little ominous.

He gives a clue to the challenge that lay before them in the very first words he addresses to them by way of preparation: ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field’ (Lk 10.2). The 72 may well have thought, ‘But surely we know this will work – the Twelve have proved that already’. Why the need to pray? Certainly in all-too-many contemporary manuals on evangelism prayer is the one thing that is glaringly absent in the mix of ‘right’ ingredients needed for successful mission. But Jesus barely gives them time to wonder about the answer because he immediately tells them why prayer is so necessary: ‘Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.’

Jesus had already begun to feel the teeth of opposition to his ministry and message. And the fact it was being encouraged most by the religious authorities made it all the more worrying, Now he was sending mere disciples into the fray. There was every reason to be afraid and balk at the very notion of ‘going’ anywhere near it. So Jesus’ choice of words in terms of what to pray for was in no sense accidental. The ‘sending’ he had in mind was more akin to ‘thrusting’ his workers out – somewhat against their natural instinct of self-preservation.

Since those same natural instincts have lurked in almost every disciple of Jesus ever since then, it is not hard to see why praying for God to quell those instincts in his would-be servants is a hugely important component of the task.

If that was not enough, Jesus deliberately sends these people out with nothing – no ‘purse or bag or sandals’ (Lk 10.4). The very manner of their going was intended to make a statement: ‘We have no resources in ourselves’. There was no sense of their giving the impression that this was their way to make a living or that it was no great inconvenience to them. Rather, they were to venture forth with a conscious reliance on the God who had sent them, to put it into the hearts of others to feed and house them. The only thing the disciples had to offer was the message of the kingdom and the evidence of its King’s power to deliver from the curse of a fallen existence.

Although there are still some Christian mission agencies that seek to model this through their being ‘faith’ missions, it is more than likely that Jesus was impressing a deeper point on his followers. Their conscious dependence on him to supply food and shelter was a pale reflection of their need to depend on him for the even greater need: to faithfully communicate his gospel to a lost world.

We could explore other ‘obstacles’ to mission that are implicit in this passage. Although it was yet to be spelled out clearly in later New Testament revelation, the ‘harvest’ into which these workers were being sent consisted of people who were spiritually dead. They were blind to God, deaf to his word, oblivious to their need, hardened in their ways through spiritual rigor mortis and – humanly speaking – were beyond hope. Yet they were to ‘go’ and, when they went, they were utterly astonished by the outcome. They ‘returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name”’ (Lk 10.17).

What does this say to our generation of disciples – perhaps especially those of a Reformed persuasion, who at times may give the impression that evangelism is something Arminians do? It certainly tells us that the mission we face in our day – not least in the increasingly post-Christian West – is no different from what it was in the Middle East of Jesus’ day. It really is Mission Impossible, if we see it through human eyes. But the Lord of the harvest is no different today than he was in their day. We are still to pray to him and be prepared for his answer. Because the twist in this tale as we follow through Luke’s record of events is that when the disciples obeyed the command to pray to ‘the Lord of the harvest’ the very next thing they heard was to hear the Jesus who they had just learned to address as ‘Lord’ saying to them, ‘Go! I am sending you out.’ And, at the end of their pre-mission brief he opens their eyes to see what this means: ‘He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects you rejects him who sent me’ (Lk 10.16).

The church has indeed been sent on an impossible mission; but ‘with God, all things are possible’ and, in Christ, ‘we can do all things’ because he is the Strengthening One. ‘Therefore, go and make disciples…!’

Mark Johnston