Who, Me? A Missionary Disciple?

Some years ago, while searching for a textbook on the New Testament, I came across several that began by outlining the problems associated with studying Christian scriptures.  Problems weren’t my favorite way of introducing the gospels to a class of teachers.  However, I also discovered textbooks that offered a variety of perspectives on Jesus’ mission.  It seemed to me that each perspective reflected the author’s basic sentiment toward the gospels, rooted in their underlying intuition of God.  

As we know, by our baptism we are committed to carry on the mission of Jesus. To be genuine missionary disciples, we need to understand the gospels well so that his mission will be reflected authentically in our words and deeds.  The advice given to children, casual comments made to friends, words spoken to the sick and bereaved and spontaneous reactions voiced in times of crisis will express our particular way of continuing his mission.  While based on our understanding of the gospels, our words and actions spring even more fundamentally from our particular image of God.  In Part I of this series, 5 possible images were outlined.  In this article, further reflections will be offered on the gospel content that corresponds with each of these.

While the over-arching message of the gospels is the love of God expressed in the person of Jesus Christ by his life, death and resurrection, the light of the gospels will shine in our hearts through the filters formed by our predominant image of God. 

Thus, for those who connect most readily to God as teacher, the truths taught by Jesus will likely be their favorite passages.  Their main interest will be his teachings about God’s inner nature, will and plan of salvation. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as the living wisdom of God.  Scholars draw attention to his 5 great sermons that embellish the wisdom contained in the first 5 books of Hebrew Scripture.  The first of these is the Sermon on the Mount, which extends over 3 gospel chapters.  Beginning with the Eight Beatitudes, the sermon reveals Jesus’ spirituality.  Those disciples drawn to these teachings are likely gifted with the ability to outline clearly the truths contained therein.  This is their strength. They serve as “sharp pencils” of God, enlightening the minds of listeners with new insights.  The downside however, might be that they develop an intense need for certainty and present these truths as clear and convincing beliefs that touch the minds of listeners but not necessarily their hearts.  

For those whose basic intuition of God is that of actor in our lives, the gospels will be viewed as a drama of God’s great deeds as carried out by Jesus.  The central focus will be on his supreme act, the salvation won for us through his death and resurrection. The most attractive gospel passages probably will be the manifestations of the Lord’s saving power.  For some, the cosmic battle between good and evil, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark, will hold a particular attraction.  The stories of Jesus’ victory over Satan in the desert and driving out demons will offer reassurance of divine power over evil forces in the world.  These persons offer the gift of trust. For them, the gospel content is primarily that of Jesus demonstrating that God wills the liberation of humanity from all forces of evil and domination.  In his actions, Jesus upends systems of domination – the powerful over the weak, male over female, one race over another – and establishes systems of communion.  A possible downside for those who embrace the image of God as actor in human affairs might be that of regarding the gospels merely as depictions of Jesus as a social activist.  They might overlook the transcendent aspect of Jesus’ mission, who in his person establishes the reign of God on earth; a new reign modelled on the life of the Trinity and realizing its fulfillment in eternity.  

For those whose basic intuition of God is as inner presence, the gospels may be regarded primarily as God’s love letter to humanity.  The passages likely to be most meaningful are those where Jesus engages in conversations, sometimes rather intimate ones, as in the Gospel of John.  For example, he conversed with Nicodemus, to whom he patiently explained the meaning of second birth.  To the Samaritan woman he confided his true identity as the promised messiah.  As they meditate on Jesus seeking out the man born blind, these persons might feel themselves also “pursued” by the Lord.  They will draw confidence in the Lord’s faithful love as they reflect on his unmerited forgiveness of Peter who had publicly denied him.  They’ll regard the content of the gospels primarily as accounts of the Lord God’s marriage with humankind.  The strength they bring is that of being able to speak of God with a faith born of experience, as well as rooted in belief.  The downside is the possible assertion that their religious experience is the only authentic way to salvation. Claiming that they’re already saved, they might try to impose their brand of spirituality on others, rather than respect the infinite variety of ways that God touches individual lives.

A fourth image of God is that of divine judge, challenging us to grow.  At the intuitive level, these persons might feel keenly their unworthiness before the Infinite Majesty.  The gospels could be regarded mainly as a manual for reforming one’s life.  They’ll be aware that Jesus began his public life with the call to repent, a word which in Greek would translate more accurately as “Think with a high mind” (Mk. 1:15).  Thus, this message could be paraphrased as, Don’t harbor thoughts of anger, unforgiveness, resentment, etc., but overcome them and transform them into high-minded thoughts of kindness, compassion and love!  This is illustrated by Jesus in his blunt rebuke to Peter who wouldn’t accept him as a suffering messiah, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mk. 8:33).  Those who feel challenged by God might be drawn to passages such as, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk. 8:34) and “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life” (Mk 8: 36)?  The gift that they convey is that of their faithful pursuit of goodness.   They’ll cherish respect for holy things, events and places with a reverence that deepens a sense of accountability to God as judge.  The downside could be an over-emphasis on law, human sinfulness and guilt, thus diminishing the image of God as forgiving and our identity as beloved, forgiven sinners.

A fifth image of God arising from the intuition of Infinite Mystery, is that of God as unknowable.  Keenly aware of human limitations, these persons might experience their nothingness in profound awe before the Divine Majesty.  The gospel passages that ring with truth for them will be the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus and his declarations such as, “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30) and “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27). The 7 “I am” images in the Gospel of John will be inspirational as they are in accord with the divine revelation made to Moses through the burning bush.  One of the gifts of faith these disciples share with others is that of being able to grasp the inner significance of symbols and imagery.  Terms such as Light, Lamb of God, Son of Man are not taken literally but are recognized as metaphors pointing to deeper levels of meaning about Jesus.  The downside is that the gospels might be viewed primarily as poetic expressions of faith with little or no historical basis.  In the extreme, they could be considered to be so subjective that the resurrection of Jesus would be stripped of its history and regarded only as a private experience in individual human hearts.   

These then are some examples of the content of gospel-faith that correspond with the 5 selected intuitions of God.  They outline the way the gospels might be interpreted and indicate some passages that could hold particular appeal in each instance.  While ideally the disciples of Jesus are so familiar with the gospels that they relate to all 5 perspectives (and more), they might recognize one that touches them more deeply.  Perhaps readers will become more aware of the particular strengths they bring as missionary disciples of the Lord.  It could also be helpful for them to recognize the possible downfalls related to each perspective on gospel-content. These could shine a light on “growing edges” for readers to consider in their exercise of missionary discipleship.

In the next installment, some implications will be offered on the communication process between God and the individual, based on the 5 images of God under consideration.

(By the way, the textbook that was chosen began with 3 chapters on the resurrection of Jesus and the implications for early Christian faith. While the students donated or sold some of their other theology textbooks, many did not part with this one.  For them it was a keeper!)