One of the classic themes in the season following the Feast of the Epiphany is mission. Two of our Sunday gospel readings narrate Jesus’ call of those who would become his apostles; the very word means “one who is sent”–sent, presumably, on a mission. In the old Mission: Impossible TV series, and in the succession of feature films of the same franchise in recent years, before the leader of the Impossible Mission Force learns the details of the proposed mission, he is reminded that he has the option of taking a pass: “… should you decide to accept it.” As we consider the question of mission in the Diocese of Springfield, then, we do well to ask: Should we decide to accept it, what does it involve?
The first thing to keep in mind is that, before the Diocese of Springfield, or any of its Eucharistic Communities, has a mission, God has a mission, and our mission as the Church only makes sense in the light of God’s own mission. The heart of God’s mission is reconciliation, the reconciliation of all things to himself. Human beings are “divided and enslaved by sin” (this language is from the collect for Christ the King). We are alienated from God, from one another, from creation, and from our own selves. God’s mission is that we be “freed and brought together” and placed under “the most gracious rule” (same collect) of Christ our King. Everything we do, mission-wise, needs to line up with that overarching objective.
Within that context, then, what are we supposed to be up to if we “decide to accept” our mission (and if we’ve taken baptismal or confirmation vows, or ever participated in the public renewal of those vows, we have, in fact, accepted such a mission)? Among other things, most likely, I would suggest at least these two:
First, our mission is to model what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. (“Kingdom of Heaven” is Matthew’s preferred language, and we will be hearing it a bit in this Year A of our lectionary cycle; Luke and John use “Kingdom of God,” but the terms are basically interchangeable.) We certainly do this in our lives as individuals and families, but, most significantly, we do it in our life together as the Church, as the community of the disciples of Jesus. Our vocation is to so live together that the outside world looks at us and sees something different, something remarkable, something compellingly attractive. The second century church father Tertullian, in a defense against certain accusations that had been made against Christianity, wrote: “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See how they love one another,’ they say, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; ‘how they are ready even to die for one another,’ they say, for they themselves will sooner put to death (The Apology, ch. 39).”
How do we handle disputes in our communities? How do we respond to hurt feelings? Do we inject our own egos, our own desire to be in control, onto our life in community? Do we cultivate the practice of costly forgiveness? Do we follow the counsel of St Paul as he writes to the Christians in Rome?: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality .”(Romans 12:9-12) Can outsiders look at our community life and see something they don’t see elsewhere? If not, we are not being faithful to our mission!
Second, our mission is to announce the coming of God’s kingdom. The scriptures repeatedly remind us that it is not our job to confect the Kingdom of Heaven, to “usher it in” or in any other way “make it happen” by means of our own striving. We pray constantly “Thy Kingdom come,” in the knowledge that God is the one responsible for fulfilling that petition, and there’s nothing any of us can do to either advance or impede it. God is sovereign! It is, however, our job to shot from the metaphorical rooftops, “Listen! God is on the loose! God is up to something big. Wrongs will be put right and tears will be wiped away. Perfect justice and love will prevail. Get ready!” This is our message to the world. Most of the time, the world will think we’re nuts. That’s OK. We can only control the message, not the response it evokes.
Within the context of both these elements of mission, then, at some point we need to “go retail.” We can (and should) publish books and articles and Tweet and post on Facebook. Eventually, though, we have to look a neighbor (remember the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”) lovingly in the eye and invite them to join us in following Jesus. (I’m not talking about inviting them to come to church with us; this is something much more fundamental.) Of course, we can’t do this with a stranger. It presumes a relationship of mutual confidence that already exists. We have to earn the privilege of talking to someone about such an intimate subject as their spiritual life. And this is a move that most Christians in our culture, especially Episcopalians, are hugely uncomfortable with. We need to get over it. Our faithfulness to mission depends on it.
When the leader of the Mission: Impossible team learns of the proposed mission, and is reminded that he can accept or reject it, he is told, “If you or [anyone on your team] are killed or captured, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” Here’s where you and I have an advantage. The One who calls us to our mission–his mission, actually–will not only never disavow us, but will aid and support us constantly with his Holy Spirit. We need have no fear in accepting our mission.