Saturday, July 30, 2011

Reading the New Testament Missionally: Starting the Conversation

A missional reading of the New Testament recognizes the diversity of the biblical material but recognizes that they center on the life of a missional community that exists to reflect and carry the Gospel to the world. According to the New Testament, the risen Jesus sends forth God’s people i.e. the Church to announce the good news of the Gospel to the nations.  

The New Testament records the advance of God’s mission in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Each of the New Testament documents seeks to shape a missional identity and ethos in the communities that originally received them. Recognizing this is the goal of a missional hermeneutic of the New Testament.

The death and resurrection of Jesus marks the creation of the Church as the fullest expression of God’s people. The decisive difference between the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God is the universal empowering of all God’s people through the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit cleanses and equips the Church to function fully as the people of God as they embody the Gospel and testify to its good news in anticipation of the coming New Creation. It is the Spirit that drives the advance of the Gospel.

The principal story of the New Testament is the full engagement of the nations with the Gospel. If the missional ethos of the Old Testament was essentially a preparatory one of a non-engagement and “come to” model, then the New Testament represents a shift as God’s people now practice a true missionary model by carrying the good news about Jesus the crucified and risen Lord across the Mediterranean world. Within the canon, the book of Acts functions to narrate this movement by tracing the Gospel’s travels from Jerusalem to Rome. Provocatively Acts concludes in an open-ended fashion. Acts 28 reports that Paul arrived in Rome and lived under house arrest for two years. During that time, he taught openly about the Kingdom of God and Jesus. Interestingly, the book of Acts ends abruptly. The reader does not find out the outcome of Paul’s stay in Rome nor of any other advance of the Gospel. Scholars do debate the ending of acts.[1] But one key effect of the ending is to suggest that the work begun by the original apostles continues in the lives of contemporary disciples. The story of Acts 29 and beyond remains one to be written by Jesus’ followers today.

The letters of Paul[2] and the General letters represent messages written to discrete communities of faith across the Mediterranean world. A missional approach to these letters reminds us that they are concerned primarily with shaping communities of God’s people into outposts for the advancement of the gospel. Doctrine and ethics are central only as they serve to enhance the mission of God in that particular city. D. Guder has been on the forefront of emphasizing this aspect. He writes concerning the NT documents:
… NT communities were all founded in order to continue the apostolic witness that brought them into being. Every NT congregation understood itself under the mandate of our Lord at his ascension: “You shall be my witnesses.” …To that end, the NT documents were all, in some way, written to continue the process of formation for that kind of witness. They intended the continuing conversion of these communities to their calling—and that is how the Spirit used (and still uses!) these written testimonies. (“Missional Pastors in Maintenance Churches,” Catalyst 31.3 [2005] 4)

[1]The issues turns on the meaning of “ends of the earth” in Acts 1:8 and the extent to which the Gospel reaching Rome represents the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.
[2]Meaning the full Pauline corpus and not merely the critically assured minimum of authentic Pauline letters.

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