Christ the King, Normal--Acts 16:16-34, John 17:20-26
This is, if anything, the age of mission statements. Every group from Fortune 500 companies to the sixth grade classroom at the local elementary school has one, and many of you have, I’m sure, spent hours of your life at work—hours that are now lost and gone forever—hammering out a mission statement for your department or other working group. I don’t mean to sound too cynical here. I am myself responsible for subjecting many people to mission statement development processes, and sometimes they actually accomplish their intended purpose, keeping a group focused, and empowering its members to say No to attractive distractions.
As Episcopalians, our overarching mission statement is provided for us in the catechism of the Book of Common Prayer:
Q: What is the mission of the Church?
A: The mission of the Church is to reconcile all people to God and one another in Christ.
Simple, direct, clear. One might also argue, impossible. We’ve been given Mission: Impossible. Can we bring the design group back together? Aren’t mission statements supposed to be realistic, doable? Well, actually, the Prayer Book didn’t make this one up. It pretty much comes from Jesus himself, and it’s called the Great Commission: “Go into all the world and announce the Good News … “ In the vows we take at baptism, vows that we renew pretty regularly, we promise to proclaim the Good News in deed and word, in what we say and in how we live. We undertake to do this as individuals in our daily lives, in our daily environments, and we undertake to do this together, corporately, as local church communities.
And just what is the good news that it is our mission to announce in all these various ways? There are any number of correct and appropriate ways to answer that question, but here’s my answer today: Whatever divides us, Jesus unites us.
Whatever divides us, Jesus unites us.
Human beings are divided—alienated, estranged, cut off—from one another in more ways than we can count, but let’s just hit a few of the high points. We are divided by ethnicity. A century ago, American cities were torn apart by animosity between Italians and Irish and Germans and Poles. Later it was Caucasians and African-Americans—do you remember the 1960s? Where I lived in California between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, there was deep tension in the schools between Southeast Asians and Latinos. As long as we find our identity in our ethnicity, there will be tension and discord and the constant threat of violence. But Jesus has a better idea, which is that we find our common identity in him, that “Christian” is the label we wear, and the sign of the cross is the only gang sign by which we mark ourselves. In a world of ethnic alienation, our impossible mission is to announce the good news that Jesus has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.
Human beings are also divided and alienated by national boundaries. Now, I want you to know that I love my country. When my Brazilian cousins teased me in 1970 over America never having won a World Cup soccer championship, I proudly pointed to the moon and asked them, “What flag flies there?” That pretty well shut them up! But I also want you to know that being an American is not where I find my sense of who I am. It just happened that way. I’m very blessed as a result, but it just happened that way. There is no passport in the world I would rather carry than my U.S. passport. But the United States is not the holy land, and Americans are not God’s chosen people. God does not love us any more than he loves Greeks or Laotians or Bolivians. And the good news it is our mission to announce is that God doesn’t see national boundaries and that Jesus has called us out of every nation and formed us as one new people and issued us passports from the Kingdom of Heaven.
Human beings are also divided by class, by wealth, by education, by musical and literary taste, and by what sports teams we cheer for. And in each of these categories, it is our mission to announce the good news that these sources of estrangement do not have the last word; God has the last word, and that word is reconciliation and peace in Christ.
So, what is hindering us in our witness? What is preventing us from being more effective in announcing the good news of reconciliation with God and with one another in Christ? Well, beyond our own lack of conviction and faith, perhaps, I would suggest that it might be our own disunity. Think about it: There are multiple brand names and multiple messages among those who claim to be Christian. You know, a company like, say, McDonalds, which undoubtedly has a mission statement somewhere … McDonalds knows who their competition is. It’s other fast food chains that are competing for the same consumer dollars, and McDonalds adjusts their menu and their pricing and their advertising in order to stay ahead of their competition. Do we know who our competition is? We think we do, but, sadly, we probably think it’s other brand names, other kinds of Christian churches. That’s what I hear as I go around the diocese: “Bishop, the megachurch down the road has stolen all our young people!” Do we see what a huge scandal this is? Probably not, because it’s so huge that it’s all we see. We don’t know any other world; we don’t know any other way. The scandal is not that the megachurch down the road is stealing all our young people, but that there is a megachurch down the road! The Christian community in Bloomington-Normal does not speak with one united voice; it speaks with a hundred different competing voices. Can you imagine how non-Christians in McLean County interpret this lack of unity? I think you can, and I think you know how it impedes our mission of announcing the good news of reconciliation, when we who are making the announcement cannot even be reconciled among ourselves.
Can you picture one of those Facebook infographics that ends with the tag line, “Things Jesus never said”? Well, this is one thing Jesus never meant to have happen. How do I know that? How can I say it with such confidence? Because of Jesus’ own prayer on the night before his passion. Listen in:
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
What did Jesus pray for? That all his disciples be one. Why did he pray for that? That the world may know that he is sent from God.
I want to end by sharing with you an example of the sort of attitude and behavior that is necessary if we are to be motivated and inspired to face into our divisions with courage and realism—all, of course, for the sake of our mission, our mission of reconciling all people to God and one another in Christ. As we read in the sixteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and Silas were in city of Philippi doing their usual missionary thing. They ran afoul of some of the local merchants, who ginned up the civil authorities to have them thrown in jail. So they’re spending the night with their hands in chains and their feet in stocks, passing the time by, of all things, singing hymns. They face a trial in the morning, and the possibility of more severe punishment, even death. Then, in the middle of the night, there’s an earthquake. Their chains fall off, all the doors in the jail swing open, and the only thing between them and their freedom is their willingness and ability to move their own feet.
Then they encountered the jailer. He was distraught. He was going to get blamed for a massive jailbreak, and he was about to take his own life. He sees Paul and Silas and pleads with them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved.” This is an incredibly awkward moment of decision for these two missionaries. Do they blow off the jailer and run, literally, for their lives? Or do they respond in love to a man who sees his life as hopeless and is desperate to hear good news, at the risk of putting themselves right back in chains and stocks? We know, of course, what they did. They chose Door #2. Out of commitment to their mission—that is, for the sake of the jailer, the one who had been the very instrument of their own suffering—for the sake of their mission, Paul and Silas were willing to surrender their freedom, which had just fallen into their laps as a gift from God. “[Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.” There was a moment of “mission accomplished.” Everyone was reconciled to God and to one another in Christ.
This, my friends, is what it will take. The refusal of Paul and Silas to walk out of that jail and leave the jailer helpless is driven by a level of faith that produces the sort of unity that will impress the world. Nothing less will do. Alleluia and Amen.