Welcome to Church! Do you know why you’re here? Do you understand what we’re meant to beand to do when we gather to worship and then disperse into the world?
Let me see if I can describe it for you. Let’s start on the biggest possible scale: let’s think about GOD. God is at work in the world. God has a mission and a purpose. In the beginning God created the world, but the people whom God created to inhabit God’s world have spoiled it and now it doesn’t look much like the world God intended it to be. God is working on that. In fact, God is reclaiming the world, renewing the world, reconciling the world and its people. In the words of N.T. Wright, God is “putting the world back to rights.” God has in mind a world in which each person is honored and treated with dignity and respect, simply because he or she bears the image of God; a world in which there is no hatred, oppression or violence, no suffering or deprivation, where people live peaceably with one another, and with all the creatures that inhabit the earth. God has in mind a peaceable kingdom, where God reigns in love, and where all may share in the abundance of the Divine Life. This is the eschatological vision of God, the way things were meant to be and the way God intends them to be once more. This is God’s work, the missio Deior “mission of God”: to renew and restore the creation.
And God invites us to join in this work, to support and contribute to it, to dream God’s dream and to help make it a reality. The Church is a community of people who have been liberated and called by Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to give themselves whole-heartedly to God’s unifying and transforming mission. “The Christian community is called into being in the service of God’s mission,” writes Andrew Thompson, “it exists to proclaim God’s Gospel of renewal and reconciliation of the world and to invite others to participate in God’s kingdom.”[i] The Church is not an end in itself; it exists solely to support and participate in God’s mission of reclaiming and transforming the world.
During this Easter season, we are looking at some of the ways in which the Church fulfills its purpose. The churches of the Anglican Communion have identified five “marks of mission” that describe the principal ways in which we participate in the mission of God. These five marks are listed in your bulletin. They are:
- proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom,
- teaching, baptizing and nurturing new believers,
- responding to human need by loving service,
- seeking to transform unjust structures of society, challenging violence of every kind, and pursuing peace and reconciliation,
- striving to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustaining and renewing the life of the earth.
This morning we’ll be focusing on the second mark: teaching, baptizing and nurturing new believers. If God’s mission is to radically transform the world, how does the Church participate in that mission by its ministries of teaching, baptizing and nurturing?
Let’s look at baptism first. In just a few weeks, on the Feast of Pentecost, two small boys, Charlie and Sam, will be baptized in this church. By this sacrament, they will be cleansed from sin and incorporated into Christ’s body, the Church. The Divine Life will be implanted within them, as they die and rise with Christ in the waters of baptism. They will be “sealed by the Holy Spirit… and marked as Christ’s own forever” (BCP, p.308). We do not engage in this sacramental act merely to add new members to the Church’s roster. We welcome these boys, brought to the sacrament by believing parents, to incorporate them into the Church so that they might someday share in the proclamation of God’s Good News and in the life of God’s Kingdom. We baptize them, not in order to increase the Church’s membership, but so that they can participate with God, and with us, in the transforming mission of God in the world.
We must never forget that the Church exists to further the mission of God and to bring about the reign of God on the earth. It does not exist for its own ends, but solely as an instrument to be used to accomplish the Divine will of reconciling and renewing the world. In baptism we are given a new identity in Christ and introduced to a new way of living that stands in contrast to the ways of the world, and embodies a very different set of values and goals. In baptism we are set free from the structures of society, and liberated from its dominant myths and patterns of behavior. In Christ we become new creatures, living no longer for ourselves, but for the glory of God.
It will be incumbent on these parents and on all of us, to teach and nurture these boys in the faith. We will introduce them to God’s mission as it has been made revealed to us in the person and work of Jesus, God’s Son. We will instruct them as to their new identity and the new way of living to which we and they are called. We will remind them frequently that they belong to God, that they have been “marked as Christ’s own forever,” and that God has a purpose and plan for them, one that is connected to God’s transforming mission in the world. We will instruct them not only in our beliefs, but in the ways we have chosen to live.
We are teachers, all of us. And though many of us may never stand in front of a classroom or deliver a lecture, we are, all of us, teaching the world what it means to belong to God and to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. We do this by our words and by our actions. We show the world a different way:
- by offering our lives in selfless service rather than climbing over others in a mad scramble to get to the top,
- by exercising forgiveness and practicing reconciliation rather than seeking to retaliate, dominate or defeat,
- by honoring the dignity of every human being rather than giving in to hatred and prejudice.
Writing a century ago, missionary Roland Allen argued that it was the lives of Christians, more than any doctrinal teaching, which new believers found compelling: “[W]hen [people] see a change in the lives of their neighbours,” he wrote, “[t]hen [they] are face to face with the Holy Ghost.”[ii] The goal of education in the Church, then, is to form communities of believers whose lives witness to God’s eschatological vision, whose words and actions model the Kingdom of God.
Thus, the mission of the Church, writes Thompson, has to do with “the formation of a community capable of discerning God’s action in its own context and responding with a common life that affirms and testifies to that action.”[iii] God’s mission is to radically transform the world. Our task, then, is to discern how we can be a radically transforming community in the world, embodying God’s values and giving the world a glimpse of God’s eschatological vision. In effect, “the Church’s job is to discern ‘what God is up to’ in a given situation and what it can do to contribute.”[iv]
To this end we will teach and nurture believers in the new life.
Do you see how fundamental community is to God’s mission and our participation in it? God intends this community, the Church, to live in the radical openness and universality of God’s reconciled future. But it is not the Church alone that does this. God’s mission extends beyond the Church and includes all whose lives testify to God’s transforming and reconciling intent for the world, whether they are members of the institutional Church or practitioners of other faiths.
Communities of faith fall short of the radical nature of God’s eschatological community when they perpetuate biases and conform to the existing power dynamics of society. To truly be part of God’s transforming mission, they must always be pushing against society’s boundaries and challenging its assumptions. This is what Jesus did so effectively, by eating with “sinners and tax collectors,” by engaging women and foreigners with dignity and respect, by challenging the assumptions of the religious elite, by undermining laws and practices that discriminated between those who were “in” and those who were “out,” those who were “acceptable” to God and those who were not.
The Church reflects the mission of God in the way it cares not only for its members, but for those outside the Church as well. I recall a wonderful example of that kind of witness, following the tragedy at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, in 2006. You may remember how in October of that year, a man, Charles Carl Roberts, entered an Amish schoolhouse and murdered five Amish girls before taking his own life. The world was shocked by this senseless act of violence, but it was even more shocked when “the Amish forgave Roberts for imprisoning their children, for maiming and murdering them, and even for intending to molest them while they were helplessly in his power.” They forgave him because they believed that that was what Jesus had told them to do. And they “matched their words with deeds. They invited Roberts’ widow to the funerals of their children, insisted that some of the money raised to help them be used to help her, and even attended the graveside service of the man who had so cruelly wrested their children from them. In doing so, they gave the world a brief glimpse of a peaceable kingdom, where the lion lies down with the lamb, where swords are beaten into plowshares, where violence ceases and a gentle magnanimity reigns.”[v]
Welcome to Church, the community of those who have been liberated and transformed by God in Christ, and who now set themselves to participate fully in the renewing and transforming mission of God in the world. It is a high calling, and possible only when we put our whole trust in God. Offer yourselves, then, to be transformed, and to be agents of God’s radically transforming work in the world. May God’s Kingdom come, and may God’s will be done, on earth as in heaven. Amen.
[i] Thompson, Andrew; “The Second Mark of Mission: To Teach, Baptize and Nurture New Believers;” in Life-Widening Mission: Global Anglican Perspectives; edited by Cathy Ross; (Oxford: Regnum Books International, 2012), p.33.
[ii] Allen, Roland; The Ministry of the Spirit: Selected Writings of Roland Allen, ed. David M. Paton; (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960), p.100.
[iii] Thompson, p.41.
[iv] Ibid, p.40.
[v] I am indebted to David C. Steinmetz, whose article, “Forgiveness Springs from their Faith,” published in The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC) is the source of these reflections and of the quotations I have borrowed.
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