Sometimes when I hear a confession or when I’m leading a retreat I ask people to do something that nearly always results in head-scratching—sometimes even some resistance. I suggest doing a kind of examen, that is, a review of conscience, or consciousness. When we do this in preparing for confession, what we usually do is make a list of our sins. That we sin is, of course, true. But it is only part of the truth about us. If we were to confess the whole truth we would have to say more. We would also need to acknowledge, or confess, the ways in which God’s love has indeed been active in and through us. So I will ask people to confess their goodness to others, their kindness and generosity, to confess the ways in which God’s love has been manifest in and through them. It’s looking through the other end of the telescope.
Most people are either reluctant to do this, or confused by it. And yet, it is part of the whole truth about us: yes, we are sinners, but, yes, a good deal of the time we are living responsibly in relationship with God and neighbor, fulfilling our mutual obligations, often with considerable kindness, graciousness and love. And this is the power of God working in and through us; this is the power of God working in and through us so subtly that we are often not aware of it, or we take it completely for granted. In Colossians Paul speaks of the glorious mystery hidden throughout the ages, but now revealed, and this mystery is “Christ in us”. [Col. 1:26-27] The Gospel of John makes much of Christ’s being in us. Christ is the Word of God, the power of God, the love of God, the wisdom of God, the creative energies of God. Why are we so reluctant to acknowledge this power, this love, these energies, working in and through us? I’m not sure.
But this may be behind my discomfort with the Anglican Communion’s “Five Marks of Mission” that is the topic of this series of sermons. My discomfort, at least, with how they are worded:
- To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
- To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
- To respond to human need by loving service
- To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
- To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth
This can come across as a kind of “to do” list, or a list of things we really should be doing better or doing more of. Another reason for my discomfort is that there are only five: I think there’s one more that is more important than any of those, which I’ll come back to. Speaking for myself, I resist being given a “to do” list or a list of what I should be doing more of. I would rather begin by looking through the other end of the telescope.I want to begin by acknowledging, recognizing, confessing, what God is already doing in and through his people. It’s crucially important to realize that we’re actually already doing all the things on this five point “to do” list.
Let’s take, for example, the subject of this evening’s sermon: “to respond to human need by loving service”. This is what we’re doing already, each in their own way. We hardly need to cite examples, but think of all the things you yourself have done, your generosity, your kindness, your volunteer work, your financial contributions, your carrying on with the ordinary responsibilities of life even when you might prefer to be doing something else.If there’s anything for our “to do” list, the first thing we need “to do” is to recognize the very present reality of what is happening already. This power in us can seem to ebb and flow; at times we seem to be better conduits of God’s love than at other times. So be it: it does not change the fact that it is there, within us—and doing stuff within and through us.
And this is where I think the contemplative tradition can be helpfulin understanding what’s going on. Which brings me back to what I think is the first and primary “mark of mission” that is missing from that list of five. The first and foremost sign or mark of God’s mission is that we are called into relationship with the Living God, both as individual human beings and as a body, as a corporate entity, which we call the Church or the Body of Christ. And this Body of Christ, this Church, this Beloved Community is called together in prayer and worship of the Living God. The New Testament word for church is ecclesia: literally a gathering. And, here we are—as you can see.
We are called together into relationship with the Source of all being, and from that relationship, from that connection, flow all the particular fruits of that relationship. The Five Marks of Mission are, in a sense, the fruits of that primary missional activity of God. It is from our prayer, from our worship, from our lives before God, from our relationships with each other in God, that everything else flows. It is in our prayer and in our worship that we connect and reconnect with the Source of the energies that become manifest in all the particular things God is doing in and through us. There is within us, as it were, “a spring gushing up to eternal life”, to use an image from the Gospel of John [4:14]: our prayer and our worship open us up to that spring and to the eternal energies that it offers. All that we do in Christ flows from that.
It is from this awareness that I think we should begin—this is the end of the telescope to look through first. The monastic tradition, and the contemplative tradition prioritize this beginning place. We begin with the source, because the source, the spring gushing up within us, is the impulse to do, to embody, to incarnate, to make concrete in earthly terms. The source, the spring within us is Christ himself, the living Word of God. Christ calls us into relationship with him and expresses his own being, his own life in and through us. In that sense, we “participate in the divine nature”, as 1 Peter puts it [1 Peter 1:4]. Loving service to others is one of the marks or signs of God’s mission, one of the embodiments of God’s mission, God’s working in and through us.
I want to emphasize again the ordinary, mundane ways this often happens. Remember he said that he is “gentle and lowly of heart” [Mat. 11:29]; remember his washing of the disciples’ feet. Much of what we do is “lowly” and no more glamorous than foot-washing. And often seemingly unremarkable: much of what we do doesn’t seem the least bit heroic–we’re not all Mother Teresa. But, Mother Teresa didn’t do a lot of the things you’re doing.
And we shouldn’t be surprised to discover our motives are not always absolutely pure. God knows we have complicated psyches (God ought to know), but God works in and through us anyway, using even our mixed motives to get things done.
So, even now a spring within us is gushing up from eternity and to eternity. We’ve gathered to know him and worship him: the spring of living water within us is not some impersonal force, but the living God, the Risen Christ, the very breath, the Spirit of God. Christ has done much and is doing much in and through us and will continue to do much. If my theory is correct, recognizing and embracing, knowing and loving, worshiping this Christ opens the tap, as it were, of the spring of living water within us—which may very well result in more things happening in his name. It could be five or fifty or five hundred “marks of mission”. He is the “fount of every blessing”—and blessings usually come through people—and that would be you!
I guess what I’m saying is, “first things first”: come to know and love and worship the Lord Jesus Christ and the rest will follow.
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