The 1966 fresco by Fidel Trias Pages and Raimon Roca shows Jesus among the four evangelist symbols in the Santuario Maria Auxiliadora i Sant Josep Church in Barcelona, Spain. Renáta Sedmáková/AdobeStoc

Sent into the World

The Gospels are the beating heart of the Christian mission

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In his biography of Pope Francis, the English journalist Austin Ivereigh describes the preparatory meeting of the cardinals in March 2013 before entering the consistory to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. Each cardinal was given 10 minutes to offer their observations about the state of the Church and what kind of a pope was needed at this point in history.

When Jorge Bergoglio, the cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, spoke, he did not use all his allotted time but offered a unique perspective. He reminded his fellow cardinals of the quotation found in the Book of Revelation, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (3:20). This saying, he observed, had been often interpreted as Jesus standing at the door of the Church trying to get into a Church that needed to be more Christ-like. But Bergoglio suggested a different perspective: “Christ,” he said, “was inside the Church and knocking on the door to get out!” What the Church needed now, he concluded, was not to concentrate on its internal affairs but to renew its mission to the world.

That sense of mission dominates Pope Francis’ writings, urging in “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium, 2013) that Christians think of themselves not just as “disciples” of Jesus but as “missionary disciples.” In his latest encyclical, “On Fraternity and Social Friendship” (Fratelli Tutti, 2020), the pope reflects at length on Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan as an illustration of the Christian responsibility to transcend religious and ethnic boundaries in its mission to heal the world.

Pope Francis’ emphasis on mission is in deep harmony with the spirit of the Gospels and, in fact, with that of the entire New Testament. At a time when our world is wracked with war and violence; when ethnic, economic and racial boundaries are being accentuated; and when our parishes are emerging from the trauma of the pandemic and beginning to re-congregate, it is important to recall how profound and comprehensive is the scope of the Christian mission portrayed in Scripture, particularly in the Gospels. This Oct. 23, we celebrate World Mission Day. Hopefully, this brief reflection will help us as priests and ministers of the Gospel to celebrate this yearly feast with greater intensity.

Mission in Mark

Each of the four Gospels portrays Jesus explicitly empowering his disciples for mission. One could say without exaggeration that the central purpose of the Gospel narratives is to show Jesus’ own ministry as a model for the mission of the community. Mark’s Gospel is a prime example. Filled with the dynamic power of the Spirit at his baptism in the Jordan, the “beloved” Son of God is at once thrust into the desert to confront the power of Satan (cf. 1:12-13). There Jesus will be “tempted” by the power of evil and will prevail — this brief mythic scene concludes with Jesus at rest “among wild beasts” and as “angels ministered to him.” This is an anticipation of the way Mark will portray Jesus’ public ministry that begins immediately in Galilee, proclaiming the advent of God’s reign (cf. 1:14-15).

Jesus heals paralyzed man
Jesus heals a paralyzed man. AdobeStock

Mark’s narrative is intense. At the outset, Jesus enters the synagogue of Capernaum and immediately encounters a man wracked with seizures, an evil spirit holding him hostage. Jesus heals the man at once, commanding the destructive spirit to come out of him. The healing confounds the crowd. “What is this?” they exclaim. ”A new teaching with authority” (cf. 1:27).

This liberating healing characterizes Jesus’ entire mission in Mark. Jesus’ first day in Capernaum is described as nonstop healing (cf. 1:21-45): Simon’s mother-in-law sick with a fever, crowds bringing their sick family members to him and the cleansing of a leper. Jesus moves out into the wider Galilee region and the healings multiply: the healing of the paralytic let down through the roof of the house where Jesus was preaching; a man with a withered hand in a synagogue; in gentile territory, the Gadarene demoniac living a life of hell among the tombs; a woman suffering from a hemorrhage for 12 years; the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue official, on the brink of death; a blind man at Bethesda; the healing of an epileptic boy in deadly convulsions. To these can be added acts of healing power in feeding the multitudes and rescuing his disciples from a deadly storm on the Sea of Galilee.

The list can go on, but Mark’s narrative makes its point: Jesus is God’s Spirit-filled healer, come to rescue God’s children from the grip of evil and death — to pour out his life in loving service, even to the point of death on the cross (cf. 10:45).

This portrayal of Jesus’ life-giving mission is, for Mark’s Gospel, the model for Christian discipleship. At the very moment the first disciples are called, Jesus compels them to “follow me” and to become “fishers of people.” Both these elements describe the essence of Christian discipleship: following Jesus in faith and commitment; sharing in Jesus’ mission of “fishing for people.”

Twice in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus explicitly commissions his disciples to take up his own mission of healing. Early in the narrative, Jesus goes to a mountaintop “and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him. He appointed twelve [whom he also named apostles] that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (3:13-15). This mission instruction is repeated a few chapters later: “He summoned the Twelve … and gave them authority over unclean spirits. So they went off and preached repentance. They drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:7, 12-13).

Mission in Matthew

Both Matthew and Luke draw heavily on Mark as the principal source for their own narratives, including Mark’s focus on Jesus’ mission of healing and his empowerment of the disciples for this same mission. But each of these evangelists adds their own nuance to this fundamental equation.

While Mark, too, portrays Jesus as a “teacher,” Matthew’s Gospel strongly emphasizes this aspect of Jesus’ mission. After the call of the disciples, Matthew places the inauguration of Jesus’ mission not in the synagogue of Capernaum as in Mark’s account but on a mountain in Galilee where Jesus proclaims his majestic Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5-7). The sermon is triggered by the flood of people in need who come to Jesus from all points of the compass. “Seeing the crowds” Jesus responds with the core of his Gospel teaching, climaxing in the command to love even one’s enemies. Later in the Gospel, Jesus affirms that the twofold command to love God and love one’s neighbor is the foundation of the Mosaic Law and the ultimate expression of Jesus’ own teaching (22:34-40). Through the inclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, which draws heavily on the values of the Jewish Scriptures, Matthew brings the profound ethical principles of biblical Judaism — compassion, justice, integrity — into the life stream of our Christian faith and as an essential component of the Christian mission to the world.

Sermon on the Mount
A 1906 fresco by Fritz Kunz of Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount in Pfarrkirche Liebfrauen in Bochum, Germany. Renáta Sedmáková/AdobeStock

Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus’ teaching as integral to the Christian mission is reflected in this Gospel’s version of Jesus’ commissioning his disciples. The evangelist prepares for the extensive mission discourse of Chapter 10 by his portrait of Jesus’ own ministry — his teaching in Chapters 5-7 and a series of healings in Chapters 7-9.

Matthew pivots to the mission discourse by a rich summary passage: “Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness” (9:35). That mission of teaching and healing in response to human need is the model and motive for the community’s own mission: “At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest’” (vv. 36-37).

What follows is the extensive “mission discourse” of Matthew’s Gospel (10:1-42), which begins with the commissioning of his disciples and includes instructions for the urgent mission to Israel. At this stage, Matthew’s Jesus confines the disciples’ mission (and his own) primarily to God’s chosen people Israel. With the turning point of Jesus’ death and resurrection, a new and decisive stage of history arrives, and the risen Jesus’ mission will, through his apostles, extend “to the nations.” The promise of Israel to be a “light to the nations” is now to be fulfilled.

This is proclaimed in the dramatic conclusion to Matthew’s Gospel — a scene that over the centuries has been understood as the Great Commission (28:16-20). The Risen Christ appears to his disciples on a mountain top in Galilee and sends them out into the world: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (vv. 19-20). The scene concludes with the promise of the risen Jesus’ abiding presence with his missionary community “until the end of the age.”

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Pope Francis’ Emphasis on the Call to Mission

The call to mission, to reach beyond ourselves and bring a message of love and service to the world beyond our familiar boundaries, permeates the New Testament and reflects the example and spirit of Jesus himself portrayed in the Gospels. Pope Francis’ emphasis on the Church’s mission to the world reflects that profound and enduring Christian consciousness:

“We know that the call to mission is not a thing of the past, or a romantic leftover from earlier times. Today too Jesus needs hearts capable of experiencing vocation as a true love story that urges them to go forth to the peripheries of our world as messengers and agents of compassion. He addresses this call to everyone, and in different ways. We can think of the peripheries all around us, in the heart of our cities or our own families. Universal openness to love has a dimension that is not geographical but existential. … To be on mission is to be willing to think as Christ does, to believe with him that those around us are also my brothers and sisters. May his compassionate love touch our hearts and make us all true missionary disciples” (Pope Francis, World Mission Day 2021).

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Mission in Luke

The very structure of Luke’s two-volume work — the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles — is a fundamental statement of the community’s mission. The ministry of Jesus is now, through the power of the Spirit, extended to the whole world. In a key verse at the beginning of Acts, the risen Jesus proclaims the unfolding universal mission of the community: “You will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Jesus and Lazarus
A fresco of Jesus and Lazarus in the Collegiate Church of San Gimignano, Italy. jorisvo/AdobeStock

As in the other Gospels, Jesus’ own mission is the compelling model for that of his followers. While Mark’s account begins with a healing in the synagogue of Capernaum and Matthew’s with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Luke presents the first act of Jesus’ mission in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth (cf. 4:16-30). In a scene filled with drama, Jesus chooses to read a passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, / because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. / He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives / and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, / and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (vv. 18-19).

With the synagogue congregation awed by Jesus’ presence, he boldly claims: “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21). His neighbors’ initial enthrallment turns hostile when Jesus asserts that his mission will not be confined to their familiar territory but extend, like that of the prophets Elijah and Elisha before him, to those in need in Lebanon and Syria — a clear sign of the expansive and inclusive mission Jesus will enact.

The citation from Isaiah, with its emphasis on mercy and on the liberation of those oppressed, points to the particular focus of Jesus’ mission in Luke’s Gospel. The mercy parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son justify Jesus’ association with sinners and outcasts (cf. 15:1-2) and affirm the boundless merciful forgiveness of God. Parables unique to Luke’s Gospel such as Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man and his barns, and the good Samaritan, as well as Jesus’ encounter with the despised but repentant Zacchaeus, amplify the focus of Jesus’ mission on mercy, justice and inclusion proclaimed in his inaugural preaching in the synagogue of Nazareth.

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Teacher of Evangelization

“The New Evangelization is the context for missionary discipleship and begins with the encounter with Jesus. We look to Jesus, the master who personally formed his apostles and disciples. Christ himself teaches us how to evangelize, how to invite people into communion with him, and how to create a culture of witness: namely, through love, mercy, and joy. Christ gives us the method: “Come and see” (Jn 1:39); Follow me (Mt 9:9); Remain in me (Jn 15:4-6); Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19).” — “Living as Missionary Disciples” (USCCB, 2017)

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Mission in John’s Gospel

John’s Gospel has the final word. Here, as is typical of John’s theology in general, his perspective on mission is unique. John lifts the scope of Jesus’ mission from its roots in Galilee and Judea to a cosmic scale. As the prologue proclaims, Jesus is the eternal Word of God, a Word of infinite love spoken by the Father before all time and sent into the world. That Word takes flesh and “dwells among us,” living a genuine human existence in time and space.

Jesus washing feet
A painting of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church, in Vagharshapat, Armavir Province, Armenia. Gabrielle/AdobeStock

The different dimensions of Jesus’ mission described in the synoptic Gospels are compressed into a singular and profound description in John. The most frequently quoted passage from John’s Gospel is in the first discourse of the Gospel where Jesus encounters Nicodemus, described as a “Pharisee” and “a ruler of the Jews” (3:1). Although Nicodemus fails to grasp the full identity of Jesus at this stage of the narrative, he will return at the conclusion, along with Joseph of Arimathea, to claim the crucified body of Jesus and to anoint it for burial (cf. 19:38-42). Jesus describes his God-given mission in profound terms: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (3:16-17).

Here is the essence of the mission of Jesus and the model for the Christian mission to the world. As in the Synoptics, the ministry of Jesus in John is expressed in teaching and healing, but the ultimate meaning of Jesus’ mission is to reveal God’s love for the world. For John, that mission of love reaches its fullest expression in the death of Jesus. Jesus’ crucifixion was intended by his opponents as a decisive condemnation, but for the Johannine Jesus, it is a supreme expression of love: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’’ (Jn 15:13).

And just as John’s Gospel distills the mission of Jesus to a revelation of God’s love, so Jesus’ commands to his disciples are summed up in the love command: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” (15:12). John’s Gospel narrates Jesus’ enactment of that love in the unique incident of the foot washing at the Last Supper. “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (13:14-15). The disciples’ love for one another becomes a key component of the community’s mission witness: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35).

Similarly, the Johannine Jesus condenses the mission commissions of the synoptic Gospels into a singular formula in the climatic prayer of Jesus to his Father: “As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world” (17:18; cf. 20:21). Jesus was “sent” to proclaim and enact God’s redeeming love for the world, and for this same mission, too, are the followers and the community of the risen Jesus sent into the world.

Even this brief survey illustrates that “mission” is the beating heart of the Gospels. To be an authentic disciple of Jesus is to be a “missionary disciple.”

FATHER DONALD SENIOR, CP, is a professor of New Testament and is president emeritus and chancellor of Catholic Theological Union

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Paul the Apostle

The emphasis on mission in the four Gospels is more than matched by the focus on mission in Paul’s letters. As he testifies in his Letter to the Galatians, Paul was convinced by his initial visionary experience of the crucified and Risen Christ that he was called to proclaim the Gospel to the gentiles.

In virtually all his letters, Paul begins by reaffirming his role as an “apostle of Jesus Christ,” one sent to bring the good news of salvation to the gentiles. A mission that some estimate led Paul to travel over 10,000 miles, most of it on foot. When writing to the Christian community in the imperial capital Rome, a city and a community Paul had not yet visited, he is particularly emphatic about his role: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God. … Through him we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles” (Rom 1:1-5).

Paul paid the price for his missionary zeal. In a famous passage in 2 Corinthians 11:22-29, he catalogs his missionary wounds — shipwreck, rejection, floggings, imprisonment, betrayals, ceaseless toil. And he adds, in the words of a pastor, “And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches” (v. 28).

Despite setbacks and contention, Paul never lost hope. In one of the most soaring passages of his letters, he exclaims: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

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