A Reflection on Acts 1:6-8
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
By Muthuraj Swamy
Re-imagining Christian mission is an ongoing task. The idea of ‘world missions’ or ‘cross-cultural missions’ during the last few centuries in the colonial context has often reduced Christian mission to ‘reaching out’ or ‘sending out’. However, from its inception, Christian mission has been witnessing to the Gospel in one’s own context as well as crossing boundaries to proclaim the Gospel in other contexts. Thus while reaching out to ‘non-Christians’ might be a popular approach in the modern missions, re-imagining mission in the post-colonial 21st century will have to go beyond that. A reading of the encounter of Jesus’ disciples’ with him just before his ascension in the Book of Acts, in the light of many challenges facing our global context today, can offer us some important insights for participating in God’s mission.
Acts 1:6-8 is a Lukan version of the Great Commission, if we can see it that way. While it shares many of the perspectives set in the Matthean version, there are some important differences to which I am often attracted. The most significant among them is the use of the phrase ‘you will be my witnesses.’ In the context of mission, this implies a continuous change, growth and learning from Christ that would be required on the part of those who witness, even as they expect a change among those whom they witness to. For me, the Lukan Great Commission helps to see Christian mission as learning, connecting and reconciling.
Witnesses in Jerusalem. The very setting of this text is significant. It begins with rather a foolish and dangerous question that the disciples ask Jesus. The question is all about themselves and the power and kingdom they wanted to receive as the result of Jesus’ mission on this earth. Jesus teaches them a lesson. He replaces the kingdom power that they were seeking with the power of the Holy Spirit.
What I like most about the setting is its dialogical/conversational mode. The disciples expressing a foolish question and Jesus correcting them. It is a good start for doing mission! Mission is not something that we have received from God at once, and then we immediately think about how to change the world – often a change in others. Rather it involves a continuous learning on the part of those who witness – ourselves. It involves a constant dialogue with Christ. It involves allowing Christ’s vision of God’s mission to take over our own thinking which is often limited, like that of the disciples. ‘You will be my witnesses’ implies more of a learning environment: continuous learning from Christ and learning from the context.
One of the most significant themes in the text for me is that Jerusalem is not excluded from the scope of mission. Jerusalem also needs mission. The ‘modern Jerusalem’ (the West) worked for centuries to send missionaries far away, often forgetting to take care of its own backyard! The West needs mission. It needs to learn. It is more important now than ever.
In Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In the traditional sense of mission, the focus is often on expanding and adding more numbers/converts. What is often overlooked is that in the witnessing of the disciples of Christ, these very different, distinct and faraway places are connected with each other. As a young theological student learning about Paul and his missionary journeys, within a context of particular theological worldviews, I was taught only about how Paul converted heathens and planted churches. Reading him and his work again, now I am drawn not only to his mission to the ‘Gentiles’, but also his various efforts for connecting the Christian communities and encouraging them to engage with each other and with the wider society.
In the 21st-century context of Christianity and Christian mission, connecting with each other is the most important task. Building bridges between Christian communities in the Global North and South is more important than ever, especially in the context of persecutions against Christians in some parts of the world. Working for better relationships between Christians and neighbors from other religions and Christians constructively engaging with wider issues affecting society are also important aspects of our participation in the missio dei.
Judea and Samaria. One may read these three words in passing. But for me Jesus’ particular reference to Judea and Samaria conveys an important message given the historical context in which Jews and Samaritans found themselves. Jesus, in his entire life, persuaded Jews and Samaritans to overcome their divisions and boundaries, reconcile with each other and work for a better and just world. This reconciling aspect of Christian mission has a significance for our current context today more than ever as many issues are dividing our communities and threaten the wellbeing of the world. Healing of the wounds of divisions, the task which is closely connected with establishing just and equal structures in our societies, is a crucial part of Christian mission today.
The Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide (CCCW) is engaged in working on these dimensions in Christian mission. Even though originally founded (as the Henry Martyn Trust was) to do mission in traditional ways, as the context has changed CCCW has also changed and has been evolving and learning to serve the contemporary needs of our society. We facilitate learning environments where learning from each other is important. In the current context the ‘modern Jerusalem’ needs the mission from the Global South. It needs to learn. It needs to be educated. CCCW’s role is crucial here in facilitating such learning. CCCW’s commitment and unique call lies in its efforts to connect people, connect communities – starting with connecting different Christianities. Such connecting involves also directing our energy and resources to work for peace and reconciliation between communities by inviting them and equipping them to engage with each other and engage with the wider society.
Muthuraj Swamy is director of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide in England.