“This is a time when we believe … the Spirit is calling us forward to new things and back to the hope in the Gospel of Jesus”
These words from the Major Strategic Review (MSR) Report to Synod 2016 caught my attention. They reflect the Synod’s resolution to journey “with an openness to the renewing work of God’s Spirit in our life as a Church”.
The quote contains a strange, yet inviting, balance of forward and back.
Recently, I immersed myself in studies centred upon the history and formation of our Basis of Union. The Joint Commission on Church Union’s 1959 and 1963 reports to the uniting churches were resolute in holding back and forward together. This profound vision ultimately flowed into our Basis of Union and the words from our current MSR report continue this resonance. In calling us back, the Basis acknowledges our inheritance received in Biblical Witness, in Creed, and in Reformation Witness. We stand upon the faith and unity of the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church, which is “built upon the one Lord Jesus Christ”. Yet at the same time, in calling us forward, the Basis describes the Church as a pilgrim people moving toward God’s promised goal. It is a divinely appointed end decisively announced in Jesus – his life, death and resurrection. Along the way, Christ constitutes, rules and renews the Church as a fellowship of the Spirit.
To put it another way, we stand on a God-gifted foundation and remain open to a God-promised future. The Church lives in a time of the already and the not yet. We are a people of God who praise the great blessings of grace already received, and we are a people of God who strive with a living hope in the divine promise not yet fully realised.
I believe we have captured this critical life-giving duality in our adopted Synod Vision and Mission Principles. In following Christ, our vision acknowledges our essential foundation and confesses that our mission as Church is not our mission at all. Rather, it is God’s mission that in Jesus Christ, God calls us into being, and guides us in the Spirit’s power that we ‘may not lose the way’. In a complementary way, the seeking character of the vision declares a faithful openness that reflects the Basis of Union’s sense of a Church that ‘does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come’.
The mission principles acknowledge this forward-back duality as we seek to live out the marks of mission of Christ’s church.
We live this creative tension of forward-back every time we come together in worship as communities of God’s people. We gather back again and again to encounter God’s story – to be informed and formed by that story, to be summoned by the Christ who calls “follow me”, to be reminded of our place by grace at God’s table. And we are sent forward to live out who we are and whose we are – to be people invited to share in God’s mission in the world, to serve with the transforming love of Christ, to seek in visible ways the promised future that is God’s purpose for all creation. We sing the “old, old story”, yet we sing with hope that “God gives us a future”.
Across our life as the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania, there is a call to us. It is that our contemporary expressions of mission, words and deeds, are sustained and renewed by the Spirit for our continuing participation in the mission of God in the world. The hope of the 2016 Synod is that the Vision and Mission Principles help us discern how “the Spirit is calling us forward to new things and back to the hope in the Gospel of Jesus”.
In 2017, we strive to deepen our response to the Synod’s call to live out the Vision and Mission Principles in every part of our life together as church. From our agencies’ work with young mums and babies to the palliative care offered by AgeWell staff; the volunteers in our op shops or flipping pancakes on Shrove Tuesday; the life of congregations in homework clubs, worship, breakfast clubs, Bible studies and community gardens – we don’t have to look far to see the Principles embodied in a rich diversity of life-giving ways.
Throughout the year, we hope to celebrate your stories with the wider church. I invite you to take the time to share your stories of how the Vision and Mission Principles are helping you discern God’s mission in your context. We will soon share An Introduction to the Vision and Mission Principles, a resource that explores ideas to invite discussion and give focus to how we live out the renewing work of life in mission.
In faith, we trust God is near and watching over us, and we pray that we might participate faithfully to fulfil our part in that wondrous story of God’s love for all creation.
Rev David Withers is the synod’s strategic framework minister. To share your stories with the wider church, contact David: firstname.lastname@example.org