Easter 4 - May 11th 2014
Our first reading this morning came from the book of Acts. We hear about the devotion that many of the early Christians had to the teachings of the Apostles and Jesus. “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” “They ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” The apostles were the first people to hear Jesus’ words and act on them. Not always perfectly, but they did strive to apply them to their everyday life. In essence, they are the first missionaries.
Some 2000 years later, and here I stand as a current day missionary of the church. As a member of the Young Adult Service Corps, the Episcopal Church considers me to be a missionary. I have the wonderful opportunity to serve here at St. Paul’s this year, as well as an incredible experience working in the mountains of Lesotho last year with the YASC program. Both my time here and in Lesotho have given me great insight into the work that the church is doing in the world.
But a missionary? Am I a missionary!? Certainly not me.
At a training seminar I went to before leaving for Lesotho a few years ago, myself and all the other about-to-be-missionaries were asked to stand on a line based on how comfortable we were with being labeled as a missionary. I didn’t even have to think about it, I tried to get as far away from the term as possible. I couldn’t even begin to think of myself as a missionary. I had this idea in my mind of what a missionary was, which is an idea that many in our world can resonate with. My understanding of a missionary was someone that was sent out from their home, usually abroad, with the sole purpose of evangelizing and converting people to Christianity. Yikes… That’s what I thought of as mission work, and I tried vehemently to stay away from it and not own it.
While there is some truth in this characterization of a missionary, it really misses the point on so many levels. What I like about our reading from Acts this morning is that it talks about the importance of practicing our faith with concrete actions, not just words. Selling our possessions to benefit the needy, spending time in community with others, celebrating the many gifts given to us by God. But to be fair, this passage comes directly after the account of Peter converting and baptizing 3,000 people with one speech. If you can do that, more power to you! The Apostles evangelization and mission work is two fold. I think the reason Peter’s words were so effective is because they are backed up by the actions of the church and community forming around him.
The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion have 5 marks of mission that briefly define what the mission of the church is. They are:
-To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
-To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
-To respond to human need by loving service
-To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
-To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.
What I hear when I read those 5 short sentences is a balance between word and action. A single mark cannot define the whole mission. It is only together that they start to give a real picture of what we are called to do in the church. When I read these, I always question myself about where my initial fears of mission work came from? Why was I so scared to accept this term?
Before heading out to serve in Lesotho, I remember that I used the term missionary very selectively. I specifically remember never using it around many of my college friends, who didn’t have the same faith background as myself. I wouldn’t use it even in a church setting because when I did, it felt like there were a lot of predetermined expectations attached to the word that didn’t really define what I was doing. And these expectations are well founded. Unfortunately, mission work does have a nasty and ugly side. There have been some very dark times in the mission of the church; the crusades, the inquisition, and colonization to name a few. I have no doubt that these overtones played a huge part in my avoidance of the term.
What I’ve come to realize since those early days of my missionary experience is that when I don’t use the word, I am letting others define what the mission of the church is. By not owning the term, I am conceding to the negative influences that distract from our mission and our responsibilities in Christ. If you believe that the work that the church is doing is for the betterment of the world, then it is time that we reclaim this term and stop letting others define what our mission is and what our work can do.
Today’s gospel reading echoes this idea wonderfully. “Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” Jesus calls us his sheep. We know his voice, and he leads us. When we let others define our mission, we are listening to the thieves and bandits that are trying their hardest to get into the fold, to distract us, and to lead us away from God. The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but Jesus came so that we may have life, and have it abundantly.
What forces in your life are thieves and bandits, robbing you of your connection with God?
Thinking back to my college days, I avoided truly owning my faith when talking about why I was going to Lesotho. I found ways to describing what I was doing without fully divulging that it was my faith that was calling me to head out and volunteer for year of my life. I caved to my perception of societal pressures, and was robbed of an opportunity to practice my faith. In this case, the thief was my own fear of being accepted for who I am.
No matter what the thieves and bandits are in your life, Jesus reassures us today that we, as sheep, will run from the thieves and bandits because we do not know them, we know that their way is false. He doesn’t say that we will run from them immediately, but eventually we will return to the true path. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and like all good shepherds, he will not rest until all his sheep have returned to the fold.
Apostolic succession is a term used in the church normally to describe a continuous line of ministers back to the early Church. The Pope is a great example of this, as there is a direct and documented line from Pope Francis back to St. Peter. Although our line back to the apostles may not be as documented as the Pope’s, we do have a line, a connection, back to the Apostles and the early missionaries of the Church, and thus to Jesus. Someone nurtured you as a new believer, brought you into the flock, just as someone else did it for them, and so on and so forth. Documented or not, we are the successors of the first missionaries, each and every one of us.
If you still have doubts about your missionary status, that’s ok. It took me a long time to come to terms with mine. If you want to build a community where we don’t just preach peace and understanding, but practice it, you are a missionary. If you believe in continuing the tradition of teaching others about our faith, you are a missionary. If you want to acknowledge and address the issues in our world, countries, cities, and homes, then you are a missionary. If you want to let your faith in Christ shine forth and inspire others, then you are a missionary. The greatest thing about our calling is that we get to make the church the force of change that we so desperately need in the world. We are all missionaries, and I look forward to building this flock with you all.