Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
It is wonderful to be with you all, the people of God at St. Edmund’s in Arcadia. When Fr. Jim asked me to serve today, I was thrilled to be able to share with you a little about the ministry I am doing in the Diocese, and to hear from you, how God is moving through your ministry, here in Arcadia. As the new Diocesan Missioner, our Bishop has sent me out to collaborate with and support clergy and laypersons in our diocese, who have a passion for a mission field we may not readily recognize, but one that is definitely located in our own back yards, and for people with whom we come in contact each and every day.
The religious landscape of our culture has been, and is changing at an unprecedented pace. In 1989, 8% of the American population claimed no religious affiliation. In 2009, that number jumped to 16%, and as reported in a 2012 Pew survey, a startling 20% of the population, now claim no religious affiliation. This new ministry in which I am engaged, is focused on creating safe spaces for the “religiously unaffiliated,” to have an opportunity to experience the “Way of Jesus,” through the lives of those who are willing to step out of their comfort zones, and meet folks where they are.
My missionary vocation is to identify, encourage, train, and support folks who are willing to go out, and create safe spaces for Christian community to emerge and in places, where it was unlikely before. I believe there is a great hunger for spiritual connection in our culture. I believe it is in community that we come to recognize who Jesus is, that Jesus is the manifestation of God’s work of love in the world, and it is by living the “Way of Jesus,” people can experience joy, peace, love, reconciliation, and grace in Christ. Making Christ known in the world is not merely a mission of the first followers of Jesus, it is our vocation in the world today. We share a lot in common with those first century followers, and we hear about their struggle to understand the identity of Jesus, and why that truth is so important for the story of God’s saving work in creation.
In today’s gospel, we hear about an event in which, the religious leaders challenged Jesus to come out, and reveal his true identity. This confrontation took place in the temple, on the “Feast of Dedication,” also known as Hanukkah. This feast was observed to celebrate the re-consecration of the temple, which had been desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes (168 B.C.), as a part of his attempt to obliterate all Jewish religious practices. Antiochus was the king of a dynasty, created by Alexandria the Great, and his name literally means “God manifest.” Antiochus, through his oppression and destruction of temple worship, his oppression and murder of the Israelites, undermined God’s work of love in and through the people of Israel. It is ironic that at the “Festival of Dedication,” a feast celebrating the overthrow of a false “God manifest,” that the opponents of Jesus, pressed him to reveal his true self.
Jesus said, “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” One of my mother’s favorite sayings was, “you can judge a book by its cover.” She usually used this little saying, when she confronted me about my occasional bad attitude or behaviors, which were less than that of a young, Christian boy. In other words, if I did my chores versus, just being lazy and sitting in my room watching TV, the outward signs and actions in which I engaged, reflected something about my true character. I believe the works (miracles, teaching, and self-giving love), Jesus demonstrated and embodied, was a perfect reflection of the character, and a complete image of the very presence of God in the world. The Father and the Son are united in the work they do, and these are indistinguishable works. For instance, God gives life/Jesus gives life, God judges/Jesus judges.
Jesus identity makes God’s presence in the world tangible, profound, and demonstrable. God is revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Christ, God is palpably available to the world, and it is through the lives of we who trust in Jesus, the world sees Jesus’ work in us, and thus, they see God’s work of restoration, love, mercy, and grace. Our mission is to make Christ known in the world.
For the past several weeks, I have been spending my Friday’s in a coffee house east of Tampa, in an area called FishHawk. Friday is one of my “mission field office” days where I like to write, reflect, update my blog, prepare a sermon, or just “be” with people. The best part of these “mission field” days, is that I get to know people where I “hang out,” and I get to establish relationships with folks, whereas I might not otherwise. In this little coffee place, I came to know all the baristas who work there. They share their stories with me, and I share mine. We have established trust with each other, and we all look forward to chatting about the news, sports, of the previous week and yes, we talk about faith.
The other day, I asked the one of the baristas, a twenty-something young woman majoring in business at a local college, whether she ever had a church experience, and what that was like for her. She said, “Yes, I was Roman Catholic, and I really felt that the space at church was holy and sacred.” I asked, “Do you go to church now?” She said, “No, I really think each person should find their own way, and I’m not sure I believe you need church to do that.” “Besides,” she said, “I’m not sure folks who claim Jesus, really reflect Jesus’ teachings.”
I have to be honest; this was difficult for me to hear. She went on to say, “I do believe we should care for others, and I want to go and take care of the homeless myself, in downtown St. Pete someday.” I said, “If you found a group of people whose mission was to serve the least, lost, and lonely; people who in all they do, they focus on going out and serving the broken and destitute, would you consider hanging out with folks like that?” She said, “Absolutely!” I thought, “so where is the disconnect between her early church and experience, and this model of church she seems to long for?” My young friend wants to experience the way of reconciliation, mercy, grace, and love found in the way of Jesus, the way of serving others. We the church must show Jesus to the world, through sharing the work of Jesus in our own lives.
Jesus is more than, and other than, our traditional expectations of Messiah. Jesus is more than a good teacher, a bearer of good morals. Jesus is the very presence of God’s saving power in the world. Jesus is the bringer of light into a world imbued with darkness. Jesus is the purveyor of love into a world filled with disdain, detachment, and evil. Jesus is the transmitter of life into a world that moves in the shadow of death. Jesus is the source of grace, in a world where grace is both unmerited and undeserved. Jesus work of reconciliation is the work of God, and Jesus’ work, is the work of each of us, who claim him as Lord.
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Are we listening? Are we bringing light, purveying love, transmitting life, and sharing grace? Our mission as the Church is “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ.” We, who have experienced the reality of Jesus’ work in us and are thus transformed, become the revelation of Jesus, for the entire world to see. Our mission is to make Christ known, those who come to our doors seeking him, and those who may never darken our doors. As our culture continues to become less and less “religiously unaffiliated,” the Master’s voice is becoming muted by the noise of other enticements. If we are truly on a mission “to bring all people into unity with God and each other in Christ,” may in all we do, in all the ministries we engage, in all the gatherings of our community, become an opportunity to demonstrate God’s reconciling love, for the entire world to see.