The Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Person

Marie Meyer

The story is told of an elderly rabbi who listened as fellow rabbis reported that some people were saying the Messiah had already come. Without saying a word he rose from his chair, went to the window and looked out over the crowds moving about in the surrounding area. Turning slowing he shook his head. “Can’t be. If the Messiah had come, the world would be different, but nothing has changed.”

At the heart of what we confess about the Holy Catholic Church is that She is a community of changed people who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, have been turned from self to God. Thus, the mission of the Church to the whole person originates in the nature of a good and gracious God and in the human need for a radical change in our thinking and the object of our love. At the heart of the Mission Affirmation “The Church is Christ’s mission to the whole  person,” is the question, “How does the Church recognize and minister to the spiritual, physical and educational needs of persons within the Church as well to those who do not yet know the one true God.”

As moms and dads we recognize that our children have many needs. For this reason we willingly give of our self to care for the total child. Christian parents do not give second thought to bringing all the needs of their children before God in prayer. On any given Sunday LCMS congregations pray for the physical, emotional and spiritual well being of individual members. The assumption is that God cares for the people we know and love. Yet to some the Mission Affirmation “The Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Person” was heard as “Social Gospel” or as compromising the message of salvation. Others suggested that caring for the whole person is the responsibility of individual Christians rather than the Church. There was an underlying fear that if the mission of the Church is thought of in terms of the whole person, She will neglect or compromise spiritual needs.But what about the ongoing spiritual need of the LCMS as a church body to be turned from inner-directed thinking and perverted self-love? What happens when church institutions fail to recognize, or stubbornly resist, the work of the Holy Spirit in redirecting the institution as well as individuals from their perceived needs to their need to know the distinct nature of a holy and righteous God?

To address these questions we turn to the Lord’s Prayer, particularly the petitions, Hallowed be THY name, THY kingdom come, THY will be done. In teaching us how to pray, Christ establishes God’s agenda for the Church. Luther reminds us in the Large Catechism that these petitions direct us to God, yet we are also praying on our behalf that we not hinder God’s work in and among us. To understand how the Lord’s Prayer relates to the mission of the Church it is important to remember that it was spoken by the Incarnate Word who was with God active in the midst of Israel, the Word who knew the mind of God and understood His mighty works and will for mankind. Though spoken early in his ministry, Christ directs us through the cross, when it appeared the Kingdom of Satan would prevail, to His Easter victory over evil and to Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given to the Church enabling Her to live out that victory.

Our Father who art in heaven

The familiar beginning, “Our Father,” establishes a relationship. We acknowledge that we are children who have experienced God’s love for our total person.

Hallowed Be Thy Name

To understand the petition, Hallowed be THY name, we turn to the Old Testament where the holiness of God is not a passive attribute, but his active participation in the care and preservation of creation. The uniqueness of the Holy God of Israel was a relationship to His people marked by acts of mercy, righteousness and justice. His nearness to Israel was that of a husband to his Beloved. While totally other, the Holy God was not remote. He made Himself known by His work of salvation and his regard for the poor, the widow and the orphan.

The 8th century prophets, for whom holiness and salvation were interrelated, proclaimed the holiness of God in his righteous acts in their midst. Righteousness in the land was the visible effect of the Holy God working to reclaim and care for a faithful Bride. The message of Amos was clear: salvation and righteousness for His people demanded justice for the oppressed. Worshipping God while neglecting the poor was incongruous with the nature of the Holy One for whom righteousness was inseparable from his regard for all human need.

Luther, in the tradition of the prophets and the Psalter writes, “That man is righteous and blessed who continually works and strives with all his might to promote the general welfare and the proper behavior and who helps to maintain and support this by word and deed, by precept and example…. True holiness is merciful and sympathetic, but all false holiness can do is rage and fume… Now, this is one aspect of mercy, that one gladly forgives the sinful and frail. The other is to do good also to those who are outwardly poor or in need of help; on the basis of Matthew 25:35ff, we call these works of mercy.… At the Last Day, therefore, Christ will also cite this lack of mercy as the worst injury done to Him (Matt. 25:41–42).” Note how Luther links the forgiveness of sin and doing good for the needy.

The Old Testament prophets, the words and actions of Christ and the writings of Luther all associate caring for the whole person with the holy name of God. The holiness, righteousness and mercy of God are not abstract spiritual ideals; they are what God accomplishes here on earth.Thus in this petition we recognize our spiritual need for God to change us so that we keep His name holy in words and actions that originate in His mercy and righteousness. We ask that our God and Father restore all mankind according to His Holy Name. For the people of Israel, and for the Church today, understanding what it means to care for the total person begins with knowing the Holy one of Israel in His acts of mercy and righteousness.

In the creed we confess that there is one HOLY Catholic Church. If the holiness of God is made known on earth through His work of caring for the whole person, it follows that the Church, as well as individual Christians, keep God’s name holy when they are Christ’s mission to the whole person.

Thy Kingdom Come

Thy kingdom come! Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, God’s breaking into the world with His rule, power and authority. “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God … because that is what God sent me to do” (Luke 4:43). “The time has come, he said, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Good News” (Mark 1:14–15). Throughout his life Jesus displayed how the power of God changed people, relationships and events. Everything he said and did was directly related to the coming of the Kingdom. He reversed the consequences of our sin as he encountered disease, guilt, empty religion, scarcity of food, exploitation and death. Jesus tells disciples to tell John what they have seen: the blind receive sight, the lane walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news preached to them.

Thus, responding to the needs of the whole person is rooted in the ministry of Jesus, a ministry that was by its very nature a sign that the Kingdom of God was breaking into human life, dethroning the power of evil. The Kingdom for which we pray is an extension of God’s nature and character. The coming of the Kingdom is GOOD NEWS for the whole person and for the world. It is a new order that touches every aspect of human life, a present reality and a future expectation. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we claim citizenship in the Kingdom of God and ask that God extend His kingdom through us. It is not a prayer to be taken lightly, for our King will return and judge us according to our use of His gifts to extend His Kingdom—an awesome thought. Ours is a spiritual need for God to work in us so that His righteousness will be made known in an unrighteous world. Our salvation transforms us in the totality of who we are. Our Savior is a King who hates evil and loves righteousness, mercy and compassion.

Note how Luther links the Kingdom of God with righteousness. He writes, “This kingdom has a righteousness of its own, a righteousness different from that in the world, since it is a different kingdom. Thus it refers to the righteousness that comes from a faith that is busy and active in good works.… The kingdom of God proves its presence in deed and in power as St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 4:20, ‘The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.’ That is what we call the Gospel with its fruits—doing good works.… He (Paul) uses ‘righteousness’ here in a general sense for the whole life of the Christian in relation to God and man, including both the tree and the fruit” (LW, 21:205).

Luther loved the Psalter. Among the many that refer to the righteousness of God’s Kingdom are Psalms 72, 145 and 146. In each the psalmist recognizes the concrete reality of God’s everlasting kingdom in His will and power to satisfy our basic needs, to uphold justice and equity, to judge in favor of the oppressed, to give food to the hungry, to protect strangers, to set prisoners free and to help widows and orphans. If, as the psalmist claims, the material world is the place of God’s activity and His concern is for the total person, can the mission of the Church be anything less? It is the world that has been overtaken by evil; it is the total person who is under the control of sin.

Among the mysteries of the Kingdom is that our King is a servant who willingly emptied himself of any claim that belonged to His nature as God. He is a King who gives spiritual and material gifts, not to separate but to unite people. In His kingdom people recognize their spiritual need to have the mind and heart of their King. God’s answer to the prayer “Thy kingdom come” begins with the gift of the Holy Spirit who brings us to repentance (Gal. 5:22–23; Romans 14:17). We have a real spiritual need for the Spirit so that God can rule in our hearts and minds and love resulting in good works becomes a reality. As a changed people, we are God’s instruments of change in a world that does not recognize or understand His Kingship. Rather than withdrawing from the world to preserve our holiness, we permeate the world with our King’s sacrificial love and concern for the whole person. While the fullness of God’s Kingdom will not be realized here on earth, the free gift of citizenship empowers us to be self-emptying servant who proclaim the good news of salvation, and serve the needs of others.

Thy Will be done

Claiming to know the will of God easily leads to spiritual arrogance, but Luther offers valuable insight into knowing the will of God for which we pray in the petition Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. He writes, “How can one know God better than in the works in which He is most Himself? Whoever understands His works correctly cannot fail to know His nature and will, heart and mind. Hence to understand His works is an art.” Luther turns to Jeremiah 23 to identify the works where we know God and His will for mankind: “But let him who glories glory in this, that he understand and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices kindness, justice and righteousness, for in these things I delight” ( LW 21:327). Here, as elsewhere, Luther’s study of the Old Testament provides insight into the nature of God and His will that His holiness, righteousness and mercy be the standard for His people. While the prophets spoke of God’s will in the present, they extended it to Israel’s future deliverance. Luther, in turn, extended God’s will made know in His works of mercy toward Israel to the Church. Commenting on Zechariah 8:17 he writes, “Thus Scripture everywhere requires mercy and not sacrifice: that we do good to each other; that one help the other with action or with advice. But the Lord wants especially to commend to our care those who have been oppressed and afflicted. For such people He says He has regard, as Scripture everywhere tells us. The eyes of the Lord have regard for the poor” (LW 20:86).

Interestingly Luther lifts up Mary as someone who was taught by the Holy Spirit to recognize God’s will in His works of showing mercy, breaking spiritual pride, putting down the mighty, exalting the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away. The holy God is the Helper of Israel whose will it was that the helpless ones of the earth be rescued from oppressors.

Clearly the will of God revealed throughout Scripture is that those who recognize God in His works are called to do likewise. The problem is that His ways are not our ways. Luther’s understanding of God’s will and ways is, to say the least, radical. “Now look at the kind of life we have led hitherto. We have … built churches, paid masses and forgotten our neighbor; this now is the wrong side up. The Lord, however, here says, ‘Go and take the money with which you were about to build a church and give it to thy neighbor. Look to your neighbor, how you may serve him.’ It is not a matter of moment to God if you never build him a church, as long as you are of service to your neighbor” (as quoted in George Forell, Faith Active in Love, p. 110).

In a sermon on Matthew 21:1–9 Luther says, “You shall give yourself up to him altogether, with all you have…. Thus it is not your good work that you give alms or that you pray, but that you offer yourself to your neighbor and serve him, wherever he needs you and every way you can, be it with alms, prayer, work, fasting, counsel, comfort, instruction, admonition, punishment, apologizing, clothing, food and lastly with suffering and dying for him.” In another sermon we read, “Love does not consider its own reward or its own good, but rewards and does good. For that reason it is most active among the poor, the needy, the evildoers, the sinners, the insane, the sick and the enemies.”

There is no doubt that Luther concluded it was the will of God that His people care for the spiritual and material needs of others.

Give us this day our daily bread

Give us this day our daily bread. This petition seems superfluous to those of who live in a land of great wealth and ample food. I admit to the reality that I usually say these words as nothing more than lip service to the idea that God has anything to do with the food and material goods I enjoy. Not only did twenty years of living in an upscale community become a barrier to recognizing my own dependence upon God for daily bread; it redirected my eyes from those who lack daily bread. Because it’s not natural for me to see the reality of human need in other parts of this country and throughout the world, I need the institutional church to redirect my vision. How can individual Christians connect the abundance of their daily bread to needs of others unless pastors regularly teach them that doing so is the will of God? Will pastors teach how giving from our daily bread keeps God’s name holy unless they are taught this the seminary?

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

The juxtaposition of the petition, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, with the petition asking for daily bread is no accident. Christ teaches us to come before God for our material and spiritual needs. He knows that our Father in heaven is not limited to one or the other. If God does not put boundaries on His care for individual Christians and His Holy Church, can either do anything less?

Lead us not into Temptation

Having asked God to satisfy our material and spiritual needs we pray, Lead us not into temptation. Our Lord knows the hard reality that good received from God can be a subtle temptation to be turned inward to self. Because we are people easily tempted to trust in the gifts rather than the Giver, we pray, “Dear Father, be with me so that your good and gracious response to my material and spiritual needs do not tempt me to stay focused on myself and my family. Help me to receive and use your gifts in a way that keeps your name holy, extends your kingdom and accomplishes your will.”

Satan does not have the power to prevent God from being a gracious Giver, but the Evil One can and does work through what we receive from God to separate us from God and our neighbor. The plentiful gifts God has given to our nation are not responsible for the materialism of our culture. As Christians we acknowledge that God has blessed this land with incredible material gifts, but do we recognize how these gifts tempt us away from God and our neighbor? Without the Holy Spirit the gifts we receive from God may make us immune from the material needs of our neighbor. They can tempt us to confuse our needs and wants. Another wise rabbi once said, “I never needed anything until I had it.” Thus we pray, Lord, change me so that your good and gracious gifts do not lead me into temptation.

If the strongest temptations you and I encounter originate in our potential to misuse good received from God, might the same not true for our church body, the LCMS? Are we so preoccupied with perceived threats from outside that we fail to recognize why we need the Holy Spirit to avoid misusing His good and gracious gifts? If the greatest gifts we receive from God are spiritual, and we acknowledge that they are, are they the gifts most likely to tempt us toward inner-directed thinking?

But Deliver us from evil

Jesus was a realist. He knew that in the coming of God’s Kingdom, evil would be defeated, but the Evil One would not concede defeat, and so we pray, “Deliver us from evil.” The prayer of the Church is “Dear Heavenly Father, do not let us be partners to evil in the world. Be with us so that we keep your name holy by caring for the spiritual, emotional and material needs of all those for whom you have regard.”

What conclusions can we draw from the Lord’s Prayer regarding the Affirmation, The Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Person?

  Being Christ’s mission to the whole person originates in the nature of God and the relationship our Heavenly Father establishes with the Church through His gracious act of forgiveness in Christ.
  The Church is a community of persons with the spiritual need to “return to the Holy One of Israel” known in His merciful act of salvation and righteous regard for the needy. Not unlike ancient Israel, the Church needs the prophets to be reminded that God judges those who do keep His name Holy in their dealing with the poor and oppressed.
  The Good News of the Kingdom of God includes the message God’s judgment over every form of evil, alienation and oppression. For this reason the Church, not just individuals, ought not fear denouncing evil, disunity and injustice wherever they exist. The words of our Lord in Matthew 25 are the judgment of a righteous King upon those who fail to recognize him in the hungry and naked.
  Luther’s understanding of faith active in love seems radical until we recognize that in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit the Church accomplishes God’s will when She and Her children are Christ’s mission to the whole person. Luther’s emphasis on the ongoing need of individual Christians for the Holy Spirit to change the direction of their heart and mind deserves greater attention by the LCMS.
  God invites the Church to know Him intimately and experience the fullness of His loving response to their need for daily bread and forgiveness. God gives the Church the means to love as She is loved. (God is not a stingy tightwad.)
  Being Christ’s mission to the whole person is ultimately a spiritual concern for church institutions and individual Christians.

Bread for myself is material concern
Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual concern.

Personal Reflections……

Shortly before the Daystar conference, I was asked why the Mission Affirmations were being resurrected? Aren’t they “old stuff?” It’s a legitimate question, one that prompted me to ponder what they say to me, a Christian woman, in the year 2004. The more I studied the affirmation, “The Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Person,” I realized that I needed to hear this particular affirmation more today than when it first appeared.

This paper was prepared in the midst of purchasing gifts and preparing meals for the Christmas gathering of children and grandchildren. The pantry was stocked, the freezer full, the wine purchased and the tree surrounded with numerous gifts. The year the Affirmations appeared we had a Charlie Brown tree, ornaments made of felt scraps, a few gifts and a simple meal. Then it was so much easier to focus on the gift of God’s Son. Now the blessing of increased material wealth crowded out the Christ Child. As I read the prophets, the words of our Lord and Luther, I was forced to ponder whether or not my celebration of God’s love in Christ was hallowing God’s name, extending God’s kingdom and accomplishing His will. Were Bill and I meeting the spiritual need of our family to receive material goodness in a way that reflects God’s concern for the whole person? As my husband and I discussed this we realized how much we needed to restudy all the Biblical references in this affirmation, teach them to our family and, by example, act upon them.

Expanding this affirmation to the Lord’s Prayer was also sobering for me as a member of the LCMS. The words of our Lord directed me back to the relevance of the prophets for the Church of today. I wondered whether the LCMS was keeping God’s name holy according to their message to the people of Israel? Reading Luther on the Old Testament, I discovered how he emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in directing the Church and individuals from self to God. I was previously unaware of how he calls attention to the reality that the cosmic struggle between God and Satan goes on in the world and in the Church, in the secular and in the sacred. I admit to being fearful of God’s judgment on the percentage of our resources that are used for institutional concerns. Faith active in love was more than a pious slogan for Luther. He does not recycle justification as we are prone to do but moves on to the work of the Holy Spirit enabling us to “see” Christ in the neighbor and to empty ourselves as Christ emptied Himself for us.

Today, the affirmation regarding the whole person speaks to me as a woman in a way I did not recognize when the Affirmations appeared. I suspect Dr. Martin Kretzmann did not think it might have particular meaning for LCMS women, but I have come to think it does. The New Testament refers to the Church as the Bride of Christ. The Confessions think of the Church as the mother who bears us all. Luther adds the idea that the Church is the daughter of the Word. Thus, the question before the LCMS is not the role of women in the Church, but what does it mean that women are the Church? What do women bring to the table in understanding and carrying out Christ’s mission to the whole person? If the Church is the Daughter/Bride/Mother to whom God gives His work of reclaiming a fallen world, then women, no less than men, are recipients of all that God gives to the Church to carry out Her mission. LCMS women have to ask themselves what their responsibilities are in ministering to the spiritual needs of the whole person, particularly the spiritual needs of their brothers in Christ. When men bind the power of the Word to their maleness rather than to the Word, does this reflect a spiritual need to be turned from self to God? Study of the affirmation, The Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Person, prompts me to probe more deeply into what Scripture teaches about who I am as the Church in mission to the whole world, to the whole society and to the Church.

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