The over-use of the word ‘mission’ by institutions, not least of education (where goodness knows, it is simple enough), is so familiar that it tends to blind many to its origin in Christianity. Where Islam set out to conquer the world by the sword, that was not Christianity’s way; where Judaism looked forward to a Messiah who would restore the kingdom of Israel, Christianity’s Messiah had already come and had died for his people – which wasn’t at all what the Jews thought was going to happen. Where Hinduism was part of the social structure of Indian life, Christianity was subversive of existing social structures in so far as it did not think they are what life was about. The Romans though the Christians ‘pagan’ because they would not support the cult of the emperor as god, which was simply one of the ways in which Rome encouraged social solidarity in its vast empire. Our individualised, rather protestantised Western society can see the mission of Christianity in terms simply of the relationship of the individual with jesus, but historically that was simply a starting point, not the end point, and that relationship was not privatised, but rather a communal one; men and women were baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but they were baptised into the Church. Early Christianity knew of individuals claiming inspiration from the Spirit, but unless what they said they had been taught corresponded with the teaching of the Apostles, such individuals were treated with caution.
Paul bears eloquent witness to this truth. Until he had seen the representatives of the early church, his teaching was not approved, and we can see by the number of times he emphasises that he really was an ‘apostle’, that suspicion of him in some quarters lingered. You can see why. One moment he was a pharisee of the pharisees, on a mission if extirpate the church, and the next he’s claiming he saw Jesus in a vision – and arguing that men are saved by faith in Jesus alone and do not need to keep kosher or be circumcised. Paul fought his corner, but not by stigmatising others, but by showing to the assembly in jerusalem that the Spirit was leading him as he was leading the rest of them – or at least, if we believe theSpirit leads councils of the Church, that is what we must conclude from the result.
Paul’s mission took him across the Mediterranean world, and the same impulse took St Thomas to India, and in the end, the Gospel to the ends of the world. The mission is to bring mankind to God. For that, it needs not just a set of ‘saved’ individuals’, each arguing over their own personally infallible definition of what the Gospel is – had that been the case Jesus would have had no need to found any church – but a church – a collection of men and women called out from the godless mass surrounding them. Called out to live in a kind of internal exile in this world – permanent strangers in it, loyal to the teaching which descends from the Apostles. Religion is no more than the Latin word for a ‘rule’, and any man who imagines that God’s care begins and ends with him, and that God has provided no rule for his people, so that they can know the truth from fiction, isn’t remembering what Paul told Timothy: ‘the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth’ – there is a pillar, there is a foundation – that is the Church, which is, as they say ‘mission critical’.