[This is an excerpt from a talk that I gave a few weeks ago in my local congregation]
The fourth mission of the church
In the April 1982 general conference, President Kimball outlined the mission of the Church in a way that was familiar to me throughout my upbringing. “[T]he mission of the church,” he wrote, “is threefold: First, to proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people; Secondly, to perfect the Saints by preparing them to receive the ordinances of the gospel and by instruction and discipline to gain exaltation; Thirdly, to redeem the dead by performing vicarious ordinances of the gospel for those who have lived on the earth.”
The way that it was always taught to me is that the overall mission of the church is to “invite all to come unto Christ,” and the tripartite mission statement is a nice way of dividing up that work. Those outside of the church are covered by the church’s missionary efforts, those inside the church are covered by its programs like home and visiting teaching and family home evening, and the dead are covered by the work done in temples.
Many of you may remember that in 2009, the Church announced a fourth mission: Caring for the poor and the needy. I think that we are, as a church, still working out how this new (or perhaps renewed) emphasis will fit with the other missions of the church. In my remarks today, I want to suggest one possibility.
Through service, we bring ourselves to Christ.
Finding Jesus in the world
In Matthew 25, Jesus teaches:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
This is an interesting contrast to the message that we hear sometimes about service. For example, in a conference address several years ago, President Uctdorf told a story about a statue of Christ that lost its hands after a bombing campaign in World War II. Sister Esplin repeated this message in the women’s session of general conference. The message being that Jesus, being absent, depends on us to do his work in the world.
I don’t necessarily disagree with this sentiment, and it is nice as far as it goes, but I think it can also be helpful to see Jesus in those that we serve. In the scriptures from Matthew that I just read, Jesus identifies himself with the hungry and thirsty, the strangers and the imprisoned. This gives literal meaning to the words found in Mosiah: “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God.”
A god who pours himself into his creation
On the occasion of the last supper, Jesus said as he was giving the wine to his disciples that it represented his blood which was shed for us. Most modern translations use a more evocative word than “shed” used by the King James translators. In the New International Version, the translators render the Greek in this way: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (NIV Luke 22:20).
In Isaiah, the suffering servant is described as having “poured his soul out unto death” (Isaiah 53:12).
Most translations read Phillipians 2:7 as saying Jesus ‘emptied himself’ or that he was “poured out in emptiness” (International Standard Version).
I love this imagery of god being poured into the world. The poet Mary Karr in her poem, “The Grand Miracle,” put it like this:
That some creator might strap on
an animal mask to travel our path between birth
and ignominious death—now that
makes me less lonely. …
In the Book of Mormon, Christ’s love for the world is described in these words:
He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. … (2 Nephi 26:24)
Repeatedly in scripture, we are asked to imagine the love of God as being expressed in the embodiment of Jesus; a god clothed in flesh and walking among us – a god poured into the world. The Doctrine and Covenants describes the glory of God in these terms:
6 He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth;
7 Which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made.
8 As also he is in the moon, and is the light of the moon, and the power thereof by which it was made;
9 As also the light of the stars, and the power thereof by which they were made;
10 And the earth also, and the power thereof, even the earth upon which you stand.
If we take these scriptures seriously, we are led to the conclusion that we live in a world that is saturated with godliness. Again this is somewhat of a contrast to the ways in which we sometimes talk about “the world.”
I want to return to the idea that service – especially service to the poor and needy – is the means by which we bring ourselves to Christ.
In Alma chapter 7 we read, “And he [Jesus] shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.”
We usually talk about this verse as applying to Jesus’ suffering in the garden, or on the cross, or the things that he suffered throughout his life, but if Christ has been poured into the world and is “through all things,” and if Jesus has taken upon himself the pains, afflictions, temptations, sicknesses, hunger, thirst, impoverishment, and imprisonment of his people – all people – then our sufferings, and particularly the suffering of the most vulnerable, is the suffering of Jesus in the present tense.
He has suffused the world but he has also said that he is to be found most clearly in its pain and extremity. And when we offer relief and compassion to those that are suffering, we have the opportunity to be confronted by Jesus in the faces of those who we serve.
I want to close with a brief poem by Lucille Clifton that says what I would like to say about God being in the world better than I can put it. The poem is “spring song.”
the green of Jesus
is breaking the ground
and the sweet
smell of delicious Jesus
is opening the house and
the dance of Jesus music
has hold of the air and
the world is turning
in the body of Jesus and
the future is possible
It is my prayer that through service we will all be able to see Jesus in the world and in those around us.