[Sermon preached on Sunday, January 28, 2018 (Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul [trans.]) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN]
Jesus said, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Matthew 10:16 (NRSV)
God’s church does not have a mission. God’s mission has a church.
If we look at the arc of scripture – pick it up and examine its cut, its color, and its clarity – we will discover that God’s mission is clear: to gather the lost, guide the wandering, comfort the afflicted, repair the broken, reconcile the divided, heal the hurting, and restore life to the dead.
God’s church does not have a mission. God’s mission has a church.
This mission has been threatened by invasion, questioned by modernity, subverted by power, undermined by schism, co-opted by the conniving, and ignored by the unbelieving or apathetic; yet, it has never been deterred from its ultimate objective. Like the relentless flow of the seasons, God’s mission doesn’t wait until we are ready, until it is convenient, until it is easy. God’s mission waits only for the fullness of the time, the right time, and that time is always right now.
God’s church does not have a mission. God’s mission has a church. To serve that mission, God calls ordinary, fallible, frail, and fumbling human beings, people like you and I, into divine service.
In the latter part of the 5th century, a man was born in Nursia in central Italy and educated in the city of Rome. His name was Benedict. Benedict came of age in a very uncertain time. Just four years before his birth, in the year 476, the city of Rome fell to Germanic tribes signaling the end of a political regime that had brought peace and stability to Western Europe for over 1,000 years (even if they brought devastation and oppression to everyone else). Social mores, political norms, and economic expectations were faltering. Nothing seemed to hold. This was the wrong time to build a movement.
But somewhere around 525 and 530 CE, Benedict, who had retreated into monastic seclusion some years earlier to avoid what he saw as moral depravity in Rome, took a few of his disciples and moved south to establish a community. In 540 he wrote his now famous Rule of Saint Benedict. In a time where the social fabric of society was disintegrating, Saint Benedict pioneered a new way of spirituality. Through the rhythms of prayer and work and sustained by values of hospitality and the search for wisdom, Benedict invited people into a countercultural way of living in an unforgiving and harsh world.
It was created at the wrong time and had no reason to grow. But it did. He was called forth in mission, and so are we.
In the early to mid 1800s, a woman by the name of Harriet Starr Cannon founded a monastic order called the Communion of Saint Mary. She was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1823, but after a yellow fever epidemic left her orphaned, she moved Bridgeport, Connecticut. In 1851, she entered the Sisters of the Holy Communion, a religious order that operated out of Church of the Holy Communion in New York City. During her years of service with the Sisters, Cannon served as a nurse.
Something inside Harriet Starr Cannon wanted more, so she and a few others moved to form a new order, the Community of Saint Mary. While their original scope of ministry was centered around women’s healthcare, Mother Cannon and her sisters eventually adapted their ministry to providing schools for the poor and education for young women. This small movement, built on the desire of one woman to go deeper into her spiritual life, gave birth to a movement – a collection of hospitals, clinics, orphanages in New York, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
She was a woman in the 1800s and raised as an orphan. There is no reason her movement should have worked. It should not have even been begun. But it did and it was. She was called forth in mission, and so are we.
In 1906, a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Germany. By 1930, when he was 24, he had published his doctoral thesis called Sanctorum Communio. Three years later, the Nazi regime came to power in Germany. Bonhoeffer protested the rise of the Nazis in Germany while pastoring two churches in London. In 1935, he was appointed to organize a community, a seminary of the Confessing Church (the chief protestant resistors of the Nazi regime) in Finkenwald.
Bonhoeffer was concerned about a Church that had sufficiently made Germany both “Christian” and “Lutheran,” but had not taught enough about the cost of discipleship – the walk with Jesus Christ that, over a lifetime, molds us more and more into his compassionate image. He taught his students about a Church that stood opposed to abusive political power, a church that defended the defenseless, a church that taught about compassion, and justice, and fellowship.
In 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in Berlin. Two years later, on April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer was killed for his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
He was part of a tiny resistance movement against the powerful Nazi regime. In the end, his work cost him his life. And yet, as he told another prisoner when he was being arrested, “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.” His work in creating a community of Christian resistors to the Nazi regime shouldn’t have worked. It would’ve been easier to say and do nothing and look the other way. But he didn’t. He was called forth in mission, and so are we.
Hope says that “yes, I may have much to be afraid of, but I have so much more to believe in.”
Somewhere in Tarsus, a man named Paul, or Saul, was born. He received the best Jewish training he could receive at the time, studying under Gamaliel, the most famous rabbi of his day. His zeal for his native faith grew so fierce, that he turned it outward on the faith of others, namely a fledgling movement called “The Way.”
One day, while on the road to Damascus, Paul was struck by a beam of light that caused him to fall from his horse. As he groped around in the darkness, he heard a voice that summoned him to the higher way of love. Immediately, as a result of this conversion experience, the zeal that he had to destroying the faith of others, he turned to draw others into relationship with Christ.
This upstart movement of Christ-followers, Christians, had no reason to grow. Up to this point, it only had a small following of Jews scattered around the Mediterranean. But when Paul began to preach this message of love to the Gentiles, the movement exploded. Whole families, whole villages even, were baptized and brought into the new life in Christ.
This movement had every reason to fail. There were so many other new faiths popping up left and right, and this whole business of a resurrected Messiah was just crazy talk. But Paul kept preaching it anyway. He was called forth in mission, and so are we.
What all these stories have in common is this – people, in love with the Lord Jesus Christ, saw a world in need of compassion and healing and, rather than waiting on someone more qualified, or someone with more money, or someone with better ideas, they rolled their sleeves up and set about pursuing the mission of God. Oftentimes, they went forward armed with nothing by a conviction about Jesus and an utter reliance on hope. This hope was not a pie-in-the-sky, head-in-the-sand, finger-in-the-ear refusal to face the facts of life. No. This hope was something infinitely more profound. In the words of Rowan Williams, “hope is not just a confidence that there is a future for us; it’s also a confidence that there’s a continuity such that the future is related to the same truth and living reality as the past and the present.” Hope is the belief there is something in the unknown beyond that will feel familiar and true and because that is present, I can grope my way through the darkness until I get there. Hope says that “yes, I may have much to be afraid of, but I have so much more to believe in.”
Shifting geopolitics, uncertain future, the perception of decline and scarcity, and the discomfort of trying something new do not absolve us of the responsibility to join the previously scheduled mission of God already in progress.
When we encounter doubt, we are to pray. Trial? We are to press on. Obstacle? We are overcomers. Uncertainty? We are innovators.
We are ambassadors of God; apostles of the heavenly commonwealth; fragile, fumbling, flawed human beings called to carry a Gospel too big and wonderful for us to carry and share, but entrusted to us anyway by a God who believes in us when we can’t even believe in ourselves.
Saint Benedict. Saint Harriet. Saint Dietrich. Saint Paul. They were called forth in mission, and so are we.
 Rowan Williams. Being Disciples (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2016), p. 28-29.