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Finding God in Difficult Situations: Mission of the Church

Olav Fykse Tveit offers a keynote address for the mission consultation of the Church of Pakistan. Although Christians in Pakistan country are a small minority, their contribution to the peace and development of Pakistan has always been highly significant through their Christian witness to the Gospel.

09 October 2011

Keynote address

Mission Consultation, Church of Pakistan

9 October 2011

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
General secretary
World Council of Churches

I am delighted to be able to offer a keynote address for this important event – the mission consultation of the Church of Pakistan. Although Christians in this country are a small minority, your contribution to the peace and development of Pakistan has always been highly significant through your Christian witness to the Gospel.

I also commend your contribution to the ecumenical movement. The Church of Pakistan is the result of the union of four denominations: Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian, which took place in 1970. This ecumenical endeavour has inspired many churches around the world on how to serve God’s calling to be one. The Church of Pakistan has been able to be an active partner of God’s mission because you are united together as Jesus taught us to be one so that the world may believe in Him. (John 17:21).  Mission is inseparable from our call to unity.  The call to unity is inseparable from our call to witness to the truth of the Gospel.

Mission belongs to the very being of the Church. There is the well-known and powerful comment – as a fire exists by burning, so the church exists by mission. Proclaiming the word of God and witnessing to the world is essential both for individual Christians and for the institutional Church. It is of course also important for mission both to work according to the gospel principles, with full respect and love for all people, and  to adapt to the  particular context in which a church and Christians are living and witnessing.

One fundamental aspect of Christian mission is its barrier-breaking and boundary-crossing quality. This is a pattern which is found throughout the Bible – and is exemplified most strongly in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, when the fundamental barrier was smashed wide apart and, through the cross of Christ, the relations were established between earth and heaven, and the barriers between groups of human beings were taken away:  He is our peace (Ef. 2).

Just as to be church is to be involved in mission, mission is to be church, for example as we today gather in prayer, celebrating as the people of God.  This church dedicated today reminds us that God is always meeting us in prayer wherever we are (The Cathedral of the Praying Hands).

I offer these reflections to this meeting which includes representatives both of the Church of Pakistan and other churches in Pakistan as well as from organisations from other parts of the world that partner with this church in its mission. Thus, this meeting – through its commitment to partnership across countries, churches and continents – is itself a bridge-building expression of mission. I will be sharing with you four facets of mission that are, I believe, relevant to the context of the church here in Pakistan, as you have described it in the title given to me: “In difficult situations”.  You know better than I, what they are – even if we in other parts of the world receive a lot of information about some of these difficult situations through the media.

1. Mission and Evangelism

Christians believe that what God has done in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is the good news of salvation for all. There is nobody we can identify as somebody for whom the gospel is not a good message. The act of evangelism is the communication of the whole gospel to the whole person in the whole world. The goal of evangelism is the salvation of the world, to the glory of the triune God.

Evangelism is sharing our faith and conviction with other people. Such sharing is to take place with confidence and humility. In each generation the church must renew its commitment to evangelism as an essential part of the way we express God’s love to the world. There is no greater gift we can offer to our fellow human beings than that of introducing them to the love, grace and mercy of God in Christ. Evangelism is the inevitable fruit of genuine faith.

Meanwhile, we acknowledge that the good news has at times been distorted and lost its credibility because some Christians have forced ‘conversions’ by violent means or the abuse of power, particularly during the colonial times. But we know that conversions are not always coming from the heart. Authentic evangelism is done with a respectful attitude and in the context of dialogue, and it promotes the healing and reconciling message of the Gospel. Witnessing to Christ can only happen with the attitudes of Christ.  Our words and deeds together shape our Christian witness. Authentic evangelism reflects the biblical call for justice and righteousness in society, and love for the whole humanity. It addresses the powerful political and economic structures, and promotes the direct involvement of those who are marginalised and powerless in society.

The following life-affirming principles undergird evangelism in the recent joint statement by the World Council of Churches, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Evangelical Alliance, Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct:

1)      Rejection of all forms of violence, unjust discrimination and repression by religious and secular authorities

2)      Freedom of religion and belief, and freedom to practice and profess one’s faith without any fear of reprisal and or intimidation, recognising that all human beings have rights and responsibilities.

3)      Mutual respect and solidarity which promotes justice, peace and common good for all. This recommendation includes interreligious cooperation.

4)      Respect for all people and affirmation of human cultures, while also discerning the elements in our own cultures that are challenged by the Gospel.

5)      Renunciation of false witness. Listening in order to understand in mutual respect; Christians are to speak sincerely and respectfully.

6)      Building relationships with believers of other faiths to facilitate deeper mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation for the common good.

Through evangelism, Christians participate in God’s work of reconciling the world in Christ and in inviting others into the new community inaugurated by Jesus. Evangelism, therefore, is intrinsic to the life of the disciple. It is a display of the results of the hope and love that we have by virtue of being in Christ. We cannot but share the story of hope in Jesus, sometimes through active proclamation, sometimes through silent service and presence in a difficult situation.  Sometimes people find God easier by what we do not say.

2. Mission and Diakonia

In their mission and evangelism, Christians are called to love their neighbour as themselves (Matthew 22:34-40; John 14:15). Imitating Jesus Christ, Christians should conduct themselves with integrity, charity, compassion and humility (Galatians 5:22). They should act justly and love tenderly (Micah 6:8). They are further called to acts of service and to serve others as Christ.

Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Mathew 25:40 teaches that any act of love his followers do ‘to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Any failure, on the other hand, is a failure to love him. Selfless acts of love, especially towards those whom society usually excludes, demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ working in and through the lives of his followers. This is particularly important in this broken world.

Authentic Christian witness is not only in what we do in mission but in how we do it. More than a simple mission strategy, we need to develop a spirituality of diakonia. The church in mission can only be sustained by spirituality, deeply rooted in the Trinity’s communion of love. The way of koinonia of the Triune community is diakonia, sharing and serving each other (diakonia Dei).

Therefore, diakonia is a divine mission given to the church, modelled in Christ’s service and teachings. The term diakonia refers to service as a permanent activity of the church throughout its history. It is not merely a specialised ministry of development agencies. In the Pakistani context, the church is rather the most active and significant partner of diakonia Dei.

Diakonia is the embodiment of our faith in Christ, following His footsteps and the way of Christian life in the world. Finding God in a difficult situation means finding what God is doing in the detailed context. Where is God and what is He doing in the Pakistani context today? Perhaps, God is silently feeding hungry children, healing the wounded hearts and bodies, breaking down the wall of divisions, and reconciling torn communities.  Through your Christian presence in this country you witness to the presence of the loving God.

On the other hand, it is equally important to equip the church for prophetic diakonia. Diakonia in mission is not only an act of charity. It also addresses and tackles structural issues in order to transform the root causes of poverty, violence and injustice. Therefore, it is essential to develop the dimensions of empowerment, advocacy and transformation in the diakonia mission of the church. I hope that this will be one of the most important agenda items for your discussion in this consultation.

3. Mission and Kenosis

Reflecting on Mission and Diakonia leads naturally to reflection on Mission and KenosisKenosis is a Greek word which means ‘emptying’. It is drawn from the reflection of Paul in Philippians 2:

Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death-
even death on a cross.

The word ‘emptied’ is in Greek the verb Kenoo – from which we get kenosis. So kenosis refers to the self-emptying of Christ in the incarnation and offers a pattern for Christ’s disciples to follow. As Paul’s words make clear, kenosis and cross belong together, the former leads naturally to the latter. And both are also linked to the ministry of service – diakonia. Perhaps the gospel passage that makes this most clear is the request to Jesus by James and John for ‘the best seats in heaven’. (Mark 10.35-45) In Jesus’ response to the disciples stating that he cannot guarantee such ‘best seats’, he introduces  them instead with a pattern modelled by himself – which involves both humility and service and in which the shadow of the cross is very clear.

However, the cross is also the sign of light and life, as it is also giving hope in difficult situations. Sometimes we see the light of the cross only in darkness.

For a Church such as this one in the context of Pakistan, this is an enormously important dimension of mission. It is a form of mission in relation to which Christians in more comfortable lands have much to learn from their brothers and sisters here. Let me be quite clear: mission as kenosis is not only directed to the hungry, the poor and the oppressed – though it includes them. It is also mission offered by Christians who are hungry and poor and oppressed themselves, and who, through their hunger, poverty and oppression, can reflect more transparently the likeness of Christ. It is mission in situations where the church is not simply for the poor – but also of the poor.  The cross is the proof that we can find God everywhere, even in difficult situations, even in death.

You do not need me to give you concrete examples of this: both in terms of history, background and present reality, lowliness and poverty is the lot of the great majority of the Christians of Pakistan. And I suspect that the current situation – and the internal strife and tension in your country - is probably exacerbating this.  Yet this can provide important opportunities for mission. Through self-emptying, Christians are filled with Christ and his love for a suffering world. This type of witnessing does not imply that Christians are to be a doormat of the world but are called to serve as the footstool of God.  The Cross shows that God identifies with those who suffer injustice, but not that injustice is to be accepted. The resurrection shows that the cross is a sign of how God overcomes injustice.  Sin and evil shall not have the last word.

We are here at the very distinctive heart of our Christian faith and its understanding about the nature of power. God’s power, as Christians believe and as St Paul assures us, is made known in weakness. Perhaps one of the most crucial differences between Christianity and Islam lies in the different understandings about the nature of power.  The power of the cross is not the power of any crusader or coloniser.  The power of the cross is the life-giving power of the seed – the life given to others. So this vision of the kenotic Christ is part of the gospel you have to offer. It is the sign of what is the truth.

4. Mission and Dialogue

This fourth aspect of mission is perhaps the most contentious – and often misunderstood. But in a context in which Christians are a minority, it is an important aspect of mission.  Dialogical engagement with others is written into the fabric of our scriptures, particularly the New Testament. A process of dialogue can build up trust and allow for mutual witness. If mission is barrier-breaking and bridge-building, then interreligious dialogue is an essential aspect of this.  Dialogue can also be a means for Christians to grow themselves in faith, sometimes in unexpected ways – and to view in a new light the truths about our own Christian faith. Dialogue does not require people to relinquish or alter their beliefs before entering into it; on the contrary, genuine dialogue demands that each partner brings to it the fullness of themselves and the tradition in which they stand. As they grow in mutual understanding, they will be able to share more and more of what they are with the other. It is often the manner in which partners in dialogue come to the table, rather than the specific issues they bring to that table, which speak most loudly to the other. If people come with an open and patient manner, they are witnessing to Christ through the attitude and grace displayed.

Of course it is also important to say that dialogue cannot be at the expense of issues such as truth, memory, repentance, justice, forgiveness and love. Such concerns may need to be addressed before dialogue is possible. The comment has been made to me that the experience of Christians in Pakistan, particularly in recent years, has become a factor which is re-shaping our Christian theology of interreligious engagement.  That is right and proper – because all Christian theology needs to be worked out in relation to incarnational contexts. Interreligious dialogue is also not an instrument to resolve problems instantly in emergency situations – although the relationships built up painstakingly over months and years between partners in dialogue may provide a backcloth to enable the process of reconciliation to begin.

One of the most important biblical paradigms which explores the relationship between mission and dialogue is the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well of Samaria recounted in John 4. It is perhaps therefore no accident that this (I am told) is one of the most beloved New Testament passages among Christians in Asia, particularly in South Asia. Interreligious dialogue is sometimes seen as having a four-fold structure; the dialogue of life, the dialogue of social action; the dialogue of theological engagement and the dialogue of spirituality. This passage is remarkable for the way in which – beginning from the real human needs of both Jesus and the woman – it leads us through this four-fold pattern. It is also worth noticing this interreligious encounter is the first time in John’s Gospel Jesus uses the key phrase ‘I am’ of himself (John 4.26)... ‘I am, the one who is speaking to you.’  So this passage, which is intensely Trinitarian in focus – drawing in the persons of the Father and the Spirit into the discussion and proclaiming the divinity of Jesus Christ – offers us an understanding of dialogue which takes us into the heart of the life of the God who is Trinity.

Concluding remarks

In concluding, let me take this opportunity to once again express my deep respect for the mission of the Church of Pakistan and the global ecumenical mission partners for their commitment and solidarity for God’s mission in this country.

Mission begins in the heart of the triune God. The love which binds together as the Holy trinity overflows for all humanity and creation. The missionary God who sent His Son to the world calls the church in Jesus Christ, empowers it by the Holy Spirit to be a partner in God’s mission and invites all God’s people to become disciples of Christ.

Christian mission involves a holistic understanding and practice through evangelistic and diaconal work to reach out to people who are experiencing exclusion, brokenness and hopelessness.  Christian mission is exactly for the times of difficulties, to establish justice and peace, with God and with one another.  It involves the dialogue, empowerment, affirmation and renewal of people in their hope for fullness of life. (John 10:10)

The missionary God sends his people to cross all frontiers and to enter into the unknown work of Him in this world beyond our comfort zones of life. Therefore, we must commit ourselves to be witnesses and seeds of the Kingdom of God in every place and in everyday life.

Living and witnessing to God in a difficult and marginalised situation can  provide not only disadvantages, but also its own advantages like the cross born by our Lord Jesus Christ. Those on the boundaries are the frontiers in mission who can provide a vantage point for a new mission thinking that generates creative alternatives. Therefore, your efforts and witness to God in your marginalised context is a great asset for the global church in participating in God’s mission.

I convey my best wishes for the success of this consultation and on-going partnership to carry out the vision established here. May God bless the mission of the Church of Pakistan and its partners! The Risen Christ assured us, “I will be with you always, until the end of time” (Matthew 28:20), even in your difficult situations.