Votive Mass: For the Mission of the Church—Ephesians 2:13-22, Luke 10:1-9, Isaiah 2:2-4
This is what’s called a Votive Mass—that is, there’s no feast day on the calendar, so whoever’s in charge of the liturgy can choose from a variety of different liturgical “themes” listed in the deep “basement” of the Prayer Book—this is a Votive Mass “For the Mission of the Church.” The idea of mission can be a little scary at times. When I was a child, one of the things that prevented me from telling God without reservation that I would be whatever he wanted me to be and go wherever he wanted me to go was the prospect that he might call me to be a missionary in some place where I would be plagued by mosquitoes and have to take quinine tablets and learn how to defend myself from wild animals. And if you’re already uneasy about mission, the situation is not helped by the gospel reading from the Votive Mass for the Mission of the Church. In Luke Chapter 10 we read of Jesus sending out 35 pairs of missionaries, who were supposed to walk into a town, find lodging with whomever would put them up, eat whatever was put in front of them, heal the sick, and announce that the Kingdom of God was very near. Does that sound appealing to you? I didn’t think so.
So, we are understandably resistant to the idea that we, as members of the Eucharistic Communities in the one church of the Diocese of Springfield, are called to be missionaries. We resist in many ways, some active, some passive. One of the ways we resist is by domesticating the missionary endeavor to something that, for the last few decades, Episcopalians have customarily called “outreach.” We collect canned good for a food bank, or help out at a soup kitchen, or collect Christmas toys for the children of imprisoned parents, or write checks to agencies that help those who are hungry or the victims of natural disasters, or any number of other really good and worthwhile things that I’m not suggesting in any way that we back off from, and we comfort ourselves by including all that under the category of “mission.” This sort of social outreach dances around the margins of mission, but, just by itself, never gets to the heart of it. Social work and community organizing do not become mission by being cloaked in beautiful vestments and liturgical ceremonies.
The Prayer Book Collect for Feast of Christ the King, which happens about a month from now, I believe, puts our focus where it needs to be. It talks about those who are “divided and enslaved by sin” being “freed and brought together under his most gracious rule”—the gracious rule, that is, of Jesus the Christ. In our catechism, there’s the question, “What is the mission of the Church?” to which the response is, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ.” In Christ. Not by trying to build the ideal society or enact the ideal laws or just spread love all around, but in Christ; through repentance, faith, baptism, Eucharist, and discipleship in the communion of his Holy Church.
Now, so you don’t think I’m just talking in abstractions, let’s make it concrete. What evidence is there that the peoples of the earth are divided and enslaved by sin? Have you heard about a city called Aleppo, in Syria? Do you know about how the people who live there—or who no longer live there either because they’ve been killed or they’ve fled for their lives—do you know about how the people of Aleppo have been caught in the crossfire of a civil war and have had their lives torn apart? They are the victims of the division of those who are enslaved to the sin the pride, with an assist on the play by envy, greed, and anger. Do you know about the problems arising from the refugees from that conflict, and other conflicts in that part of the world, trying the migrate into Europe? There is division and enslavement to sin on multiple levels. Do you know about Sudan and South Sudan, and particularly the region of Darfur, and the combination of forces that has perpetuated violence there for years on end? Many of the victims there are fellow Anglican Christians, so it starts to get quite personal for us. And I’m sure there’s no one in this church this afternoon who is unaware of the racial tensions in our own country that just won’t seem to go away despite the best intentions of a whole lot of people, driven by a chain of events, each of which seems more surreal than the one before. We are divided and enslaved by sin. The list, of course, could go on. Even within the nuclear and extended families of those present in this room, there is ample evidence of division and enslavement to sin. But I think I’ve made my point.
Into this morass of suffering and anxiety comes St Paul’s message to the Ephesians, the appointed epistle reading for this Votive Mas for the Mission of the Church. The Apostle is speaking to Gentiles who are familiar with Judaism and have experience living among Jews dispersed throughout the eastern Mediterranean world. Strictly observant Jews, of course, have as little as possible to do with Gentiles. To have contact with a Gentile is to become ritually unclean. This is the social context into which Paul is speaking. The verses immediately preceding the passage that we heard read make this clear. “You Gentiles,” Paul says, in effect, “were once on the outside looking in.”
Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
Now there’s a description of division and enslavement by sin if there ever was one, right? Paul then continues with a very important part of speech that is not a noun and not a verb and not an adjective but a particular kind of conjunction called an “adversative,” and the most common adversative in English is the word “but.” “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off”—that is, you Gentiles—you who were far off “have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
That image of a “dividing wall of hostility” being torn down is one that I find particularly compelling. Those of us of a certain age can remember what it was like to watch a quite literal and physical dividing wall of hostility get torn down in Berlin. It was an unforgettable moment. As a result of that moment, while I was walking the Camino, I met several young adult Germans who have their entire lives known of nothing but a united Germany, a Germany that, in some provisional measure, at least, has been “freed and brought together” by those dramatic events of 1989.
The gospel we bear is a word of hope—hope for peace and hope for reconciliation among peoples. This is our message, this is our good news, of hope for the world—hope for peace across national borders, hope for peace across racial and ethnic divides, hope for the subsuming of all identities into the “one new man,” the one new person—that is, instead of using race or ethnicity or nationality or any other sort of identity by which to know ourselves and make ourselves know, we embrace the identity of those who have been buried with Christ in a death like his in order to be raised with Christ in a life like his.
Our calling as Christians is to speak these words of hope for reconciliation and peace courageously into the environment of mistrust, fear, suspicion, and anger that surrounds us. The work of this Synod in revising our constitution and canons is ultimately not about technicalities and nomenclature and processes and procedures and policies; it is about nothing other than positioning us more effectively to pursue this very mission of reconciliation and peace.
But we cannot do this, we cannot offer our message of hope to central and southern Illinois, with credibility as long as there are public and ugly divisions among those who call themselves Christians. For this reason, reconciliation is paramount at every level of our common life—within our Eucharistic Communities in this diocese and among the Eucharistic communities of this diocese, within the larger community of Episcopalians and especially between Episcopalians and communities of people who, until recent years, also called themselves Episcopalians, constantly tearing down dividing walls of hostility before they get so tall we can’t see over them. And this is why the work of ecumenism must always be on the front burner. You may have heard about events in Rome earlier this month, events that I participated in on the fringes, where the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury exchanged symbolically important gifts testifying to their ongoing commitment to pursuing the goal of our Lord’s high-priestly prayer in John 17 “that they all may be one.” Before we can speak words of reconciliation and peace to the world at large with full conviction and integrity, we must be able to demonstrate the practice of reconciliation and peace within the household of faith.
All of this, of course, is in service to the bracing and inspiring vision articulated by the Prophets of the Old Covenant, with Isaiah leading the pack in the first reading for this liturgy:
For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.