Re-thinking Matthew 28 with Bonhoeffer

The paper I am due to give next week will explore the ways in which Matthew 28.16-20 became, not least through the writings and missionary practice of William Carey, a crucial text in the development of the western missionary enterprise.  Given the strength and persuasiveness of the postcolonial critique of such missionary ideology and practice, I appeal for a further look at the text and a ‘Renewing of the Vision’ in the light of its main indicative claim: that all authority has been given to Jesus as the vindicated Son of man.

The closing paragraph will now draw on Bonhoeffer’s critique of the dominant ‘two realms’ paradigm for understanding the relationship between the church and the world (and thus by implication mission as well as ethics, the focus for Bonhoeffer).  See my earlier post here, as well as Halden’s recent reflections on the Ethics here and here. The key is to recognise that traditional mission discourse often operates with spatial categories derived from Matthew 28: we (the church) go into the world (out there, separate from the church).  The world is here construed as a space that lacks that which the church possessed (the gospel; Christ etc. etc.), and thus as unredeemed space it must be the focus of the divine mandate to take it over, possess and claim it in the name of Christ.

Bonhoeffer challenges all this on the basis that in the incarnation God does not merely stake a claim on part of the world (as if after the incarnation there were now a few small squares of the world’s graph paper coloured in and marked ‘God’s’ with the rest left blank).  Rather:

When God in Jesus Christ claims space in the world … God embraces the whole reality of the world in this narrow space and reveals its ultimate foundation. So also the church of Jesus Christ is the place – that is the space – in the world where the reign of Christ over the whole world is to be demonstrated and proclaimed.

What then is the relationship between the space of the church and the space of the world?  Well an understanding of this relationship in spatial (Bonhoeffer calls it ’empiric’ terms) is deeply problematic in so far as it fails to do justice to the fact that in Christ there is only one reality not two and that to belong to Christ is at the same time to belong in the fullest sense to the world.

This is the sentence that then strikes a chord when we attempt to think through a re-visioning of our understanding and practice of mission.

It is not true that the church intends to or must spread its space out over the space of the world.  It desires no more space than it needs to serve the world with its witness to Jesus Christ and to the world’s reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ.

[this and the above quotation taken from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W Stott (DBWE 6; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 63.]