Marks of Love (Where Nails Have Been): Reflecting on the Third Mark of Mission – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

John 13:31-35

Throughout Lent and Easter tide this year, I’ve been praying with literature devoted to the Five Wounds of Christ. The meditative remembrance of Christ’s Passion was a profoundly meaningful practice in the spiritual lives of Medieval Christians, especially in England, and by the fourteenth century the visions and writings of saints steeped in such meditation concentrated with special intensity on the Five Wounds inflicted upon Christ’s Body: the nail holes in his right and left wrists, both of his feet, and the spear-wound in his side. These holy men and women saw the wounds of Jesus not as repugnant scars but as precious insignia testifying to the depths of God’s Love,as floodgates of Christ’s healing lifeblood, and as portals into the mysteries of Heaven. The seeds of such imagery are found in the Resurrection appearances in the gospels of Luke and John. When Jesus appears in the upper room, the disciple’s natural response is shock and fear, confusion and disbelief. Amid this rush of complex emotions, these distinctive marks clarify their vision and melt their hearts as they recognize the impossible: this is their Teacher, Friend, and Lord, crucified-and-risen.

This morning we continue our Eastertide meditation on five very different marks,the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission, five characteristic and interdependent signs by which the Church can be recognized as Christ’s hands and feet in the world. In this way, perhaps the Five Wounds of Christ and the Five Marks of Mission have a great deal in common: Both are concerned with means of recognition, marks of love legible to the hand and heart, marks real enough to appropriate and joyfully proclaim “I have seen the Lord!”[i] This morning, we take up again our consideration of the third mark: “The response to human need by loving service.”

Attentive listening and generous intercession form a dual movement that is crucial to our way of life as monastics. So if you were to ask me to bring the formation I have received as an SSJE novice into dialogue with this Third Mark of Mission, I’d say that deep listening is the foundation for all truly missional response to human need. Likewise, I’d say that intercession is the foundation for all truly missional service. This dual movement is embodied in the life, mission, and death of Jesus, which can be seen as one continuous act of listening to the deepest need of humanity and, in response, interceding with and to and in the Father by acts of prayer and prayerful actions. This cycle of listening and response on the part of Jesus was met by God’s listening to the Son of Man and God’s response of loving service to humanity by raising him from the dead – and us along with him.

I cannot assume that I know the nature of a person’s need – however obvious it may seem to me – until I have done the work of listening. I cannot assume that I am fully aware of my own deepest needs until I have listened to the desires of my own heart, the hunger and thirst of my own body, or the questions of my own mind. And I cannot do either unless I am continuously listening to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit guiding my steps. Jesus knew the needs of those around him because he looked deeply and listened intently. But he also knew that people experience the healing presence of God when they are able to listen to their own needs and are invited to name them, so he asked questions like “What do you want me to do for you?” and “What are you looking for?” I believe that listening is such a crucial first step in responding to human need because I have seen that Love listens. You have surely noticed the same, in the giving or receiving of pastoral counseling or spiritual direction, in your relationship with your spouse, or children, or parents, or friends, in your interactions with colleagues, and in your service to those in need.

In 2013 I lived for a year in an intentional Christian community in Jamaica Plain, in a house bought and renovated for that purpose by a member of my church. We residents of the house sought the aid of an outside facilitator to help us learn to practice non-violent communication, a set of tools for communicating observations, feelings, and needs and then formulating humble requests.[ii] For those new to this method, as I was, the transition from one step to the next can feel clunky and artificial, and there is a certain look of strained intensity behind the eyes that can accompany that initial observation. I most appreciated the time we took doing pair work in which one person simply spoke honestly about a challenge or difficult situation in their life, and the other person responded simply by mirroring back to them the feelings and needs they might be experiencing. Our prompt was “Listen for the feeling. Listen for the need.” In one way, this is deceptively simple. But if you are in the habit of listening to people, you’ll know the discipline it can take to remain centered in that primary stance of wholehearted presence and availability without succumbing to the secondary layers of our own commentary, our desire to rescue or problem-solve, or even the subtle temptation to augment another’s ego.

Mission malpractice – a trenchant and tragic pattern in the Church’s history – is mostly a failure to listen to and honor the unique feelings and needs of seekers as they are drawn into the Way of Jesus. Like medical malpractice, malpractice in the history of Christian mission is rarely intentional, but has had devastating consequences for entire cultures. When the Gospel is intertwined with the interests of colonial trade; when racist denigration of traditional wisdom becomes normative; when Western people and institutions are the sole mediators of God’s grace; when conversion becomes a spiritual requirement of colonial acculturation; in all these instances, mission malpractice occurs. The scar tissue left behind testifies to ancient wounds, long after the bleeding has stopped. But we have the chance, every day, to live into God’s mission differently by looking and listening attentively for signs that Christ is already active in a person, a place, a subculture, and responding humbly to Christ’s need in that moment and situation. The Church within these walls needs the Church where it is hidden but thriving in places we have not yet imagined.

Taking my cue from our rule of life, I would define intercession as the practice of standing in loving solidarity with one who is in need, whether in active prayer or prayerful action or both.  Here’s a portion from our rule on the mystery of intercession:

Our intercession does not call down the divine presence to come to the place wherewe have seen a need, for the Christ who fills all things is already in that place. It is hisSpirit who calls us to join him there by offering our love in intercessory prayer and action, to be used by God for healing and transformation.[iii]

There is much pseudo-service in our prevailing culture. The word appears in phrases like “customer service” and “self-service,” in which efficiency, speed, and satisfaction – however momentary – offer alluring promises of deeper fulfillment. We see the lie here, but we don’t often see the ways such an attitude leaks into and tarnishes other modes of authentic service, or practices and institutions that serve people, such as medicine or education. Christian service is an act of love, and the need it seeks to meet is the human need for love. That gift of love is often the most valuable gift in any act of service. You have probably noticed the difference between a doctor or nurse who is brusque, aloof, or impersonal – even if efficient and accurate – and a doctor or nurse who brings patience and kindness to their work with a patient. Love re-humanizes a world fragmented by consumer capitalism and virtual interaction, where people are often reduced to functions, numbers, profiles or resumes. Each time we feel more empowered, more dignified, or more understood in our encounter with another person, part of our humanity is restored. The restoration of our humanity and the restoration of our divinity – the image of God within us – go hand in hand. To offer loving service is to participate in the divinization of humankind, the manifestation in our lived experience of the deep, underlying reality that, in Christ, “all things hold together.”[iv]

An old-time gospel tune I love has a haunting, beautiful chorus: “By the mark where the nails have been / by that sign upon his precious skin / I will know my Savior when I come to him / by the mark where the nails have been.”[v] The host of the heavenly banquet is that Savior, the one who, in that poignant image from the Revelation to John, is “a Lamb standing that seemed to have been slain.” That is how we will recognize him in eternity. And as followers of the Lamb, we are to be recognized by the same marks of loving service: “You must love one another,” Jesus says, “as I have loved you. It is by your love for one another that everyone will recognize you as my disciples.”[vi] Medieval meditation on Christ’s Five Wounds was intended to stir contrition for the ways a person had wounded Christ in others and in herself. It was intended as well as a preparation for the gift of contemplation. But it was also a primary catalyst of compassion: for Christ in his passion, and for the passion of Christ as it unfolds in the suffering and joy of each creature. If our response to human need by loving service swims in the lifeblood of Christ’s compassion, people will probably notice its indelible stain on our character and choices, our words and our silence. And if someone should ask how it is that we love and serve as we do, we might humbly reply, as true missionaries: “Maybe the love of Christ has begun to makes its mark on me”

[i] John 20:18.

[ii] See the work of Marshall Rosenberg, esp. Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life (2003).

[iii]The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. Chapter 24, “The Mystery of Intercession,”  p. 49.

[iv] Colossians 1:17.

[v] The contemporary bluegrass artist Gillian Welch sings a lovely rendition.

[vi] John 13:34-35.

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  1. Joan Thelin on June 30, 2023 at 18:38

    Thank you Br. Nelson for enlightening me to realize God is present in the need I just found and realized I need to pray.

  2. Bobbi on June 24, 2023 at 09:07

    Thank you, Br. Keith, for bringing to light the SSSJ rule on intercession. As a person called to intercessory prayer, I have focused on directing God to help the person or situation in need. But NO, God is already there! God is God, I am me, a human called to co-create with God, not the other way around.

  3. Cynthia Nott on May 15, 2021 at 07:35

    Oh my. Thank you from my heart. So much to ponder. Thank you.

  4. William Winston on May 11, 2020 at 18:27

    Happy belated birthday to Br. Jim.

  5. Elizabeth Hardy on May 11, 2020 at 10:51

    Br Nelson: What an excellent homily this is. I have re-read many parts. Well paced, reasoned and informed. Active listening is the most difficult skill for anyone (especially clergy who are eager to problem solve) to master. This provides me with a thoughtful blue-print to renovate my abilities in that area.
    As for ‘mission malpractice’, what an apt phrase that I shall shamelessly plagiarize. Thank you so much for this. God Bless. Elizabeth Hardy+

  6. Linda Bissell on May 11, 2020 at 07:50

    I find your words particularly relevant to the current situation we are experiencing; especially your comments about “mission malpractice”, and “pseudo-service in our prevailing culture “! That’s hitting the nail right on the head.

  7. Tia St.Clair on April 8, 2017 at 15:52

    Br. Nelson, This is an amazing, uplifting writing. I myself have found that the Lord lives within us. I have a peace I never thought possible. I have been blessed with the gift of new life. I find that the closer I am to Jesus Christ, the more love fills my heart, and I am thankful, grateful, and find beauty in all things. I hope to gain more knowledge from your writings. Thank you. I hope you are well and your heart is light. Much love, Aunt Tia

  8. Anthony Reynolds on April 29, 2016 at 09:39

    Empowering, understanding, dignifying another helps restore his humanity. Restoring humanity and divinity go hand in hand. What a marvellous insight. Thank you.

  9. John R. Dawson on April 28, 2016 at 19:21

    Dear Br. Nelson……as a septuagenarian I have for many years been in a long and very slow process of being drawn into a spiritual relationship with my creator and savior. All of what you have written in regards to the 3rd Mark of Mission has been enlightening, and uplifting, and as you have written “maybe the love of Christ has begun to make its mark on me.”

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