The Fire of Mission

Friday, August 3, 2012 — Week of Proper 12, Year Two

George Freeman Bragg, Jr., Priest, 1940

William Edward Burghardt DuBois, Sociologist, 1963

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 977)

Psalms 69:1-23(24-3-)31-38 (morning) 73 (evening)

Judges 5:1-18

Acts 2:1-21

Matthew 28:1-10

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Reading today’s account of the fire of Pentecost and recalling some of the General Convention conversation about the structure of the church, I’m reminded of the late John V. Taylor’s fine book “The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit & the Christian Mission.” Here’s how he opens his chapter titled “Growing: The Evangelical Spirit and the Structures of Mission”:

‘The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.’ It is not by chance that Emil Brunner chose that great biblical metaphor of the Spirit and his mission. Jewish teachers had taken the burning bush to be a symbol of the ideal Israel on fire with God’s purpose and action in the world, yet unconsumed. The true church also exists by being the inexaustible fuel of the Holy Spirit’s mission in the world… While they burn together the branches and twigs are fire, yet they do not in themselves constitute the fire. The fire, rather, contains them, living around them in the interstices, and if a twig drops to the ground the fire that seemed to be in it soon vanishes. Only in their togetherness can Christians remain alight with the fire of the Spirit. That is the sole purpose of our visible fellowship — to be the fuel upon which the fire is kindled in the earth. The church must be shaped to carry out that purpose or it will be as frustrating as a badly laid fire. The question we have continually to put to the organization and structure of the church is this: does it bring Christian face to face with Christian in that communion which is the sphere of the Holy Spirit’s presence?

Our theology would improve if we thought more of the church being given to the Spirit than of the Spirit being given to the church. For if we phrase it in the second way, although it is the New Testament’s way, we are in danger of perpetuating the irreverence of picturing God’s Spirit as a giant superhuman power or guidance, like a fairy sword or magic mirror to equip us for our adventures. Unless all I have said so far is utterly mistaken, the promised power from on high is not that kind at all. …The primary effect of the pentecostal experience was to fuse the individuals of that company into a fellowship which in the same moment was caught up into the life of the risen Lord. In a new awareness of him and of one another they burst into praise, and the world came running for an explanation. In other words, the gift of the Holy Spirit in the fellowship of the church first enables Christians to be, and only as a consequence of that sends them to do and to speak. It is enormously important to get this straight. Being, doing and speaking cannot in practice be disentangled, but if we put our primary emphasis on preaching or on serving we erect a functional barrier between ourselves and our fellow humans, casting ourselves in a different role from the rest… Hence the professional jealousy of Christians, so often disconcerted when other humanitarians undertake the same service and other faiths propound the same truths.

The Holy Spirit is given to enable ‘the two or three gathered together’ to embody Jesus Christ in the world…

The mission of the church, therefore, is to live the ordinary life …in that extraordinary awareness of the other and self-sacrifice for the other which the Spirit gives. Christian activity will be very largely the same as the world’s activity — earning a living, bringing up a family, making friends, having fun, celebrating occasions, farming, manufacturing, trading, building cities, healing sickness, alleviating distress, mourning, studying, exploring, making music and so on. Christians will try to do these things to the glory of God, which is to say that they will try to perceive what God is up to in each of these manifold activities and will seek to do it with [God] by bearing responsibility for the selves of others… Christ-like evangelism consists in the passionate serving of the personhood of [humanity] in protest against all the depersonalizing pressures of the world… To point to the cross is to point to one for whom people mattered supremely and whose very presence in silent suffering brought a hard-bitten non-commissioned officer to look twice at what seemed commonplace and to rise to a more truly human personal response.

John V. Taylor, “The Go-Between God,” Oxford, 1972, p. 133f

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