A Dangerous Mission, Last Sunday in Epiphany (B) – 2003
March 02, 2003
Today the whole church celebrates World Mission Sunday. This observance always comes on the last Sunday of Epiphany, and intentionally, as this is also the Sunday when we recall the Transfiguration of Jesus, just before he begins his final entry into Jerusalem. He has been out in the world, having emerged several years before from the wilderness, having been driven there by the Holy Spirit immediately after his baptism in the Jordan River. His mission lay before him: preach the good news of the Kingdom of God; heal the sick, relieve the poor and destitute, set the captive free; and proclaim Jubilee — the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus did that and reports of him and his followers had circulated throughout the area, always putting the mission at risk. We see him today on the mountain with John, James, and Peter. To be still and abide in his God. Not only does Jesus hear God, but so do the disciples. And in a mystical summit meeting of Israel’s major leaders, Jesus is joined by Moses and the Prophet Elijah. What to do next at this crucial stage in God’s mission?
So what does this magnificent vision have to do with world mission? It is the most important summit in the history of salvation, an absolutely crucial gathering of the Council of Divine Advice. And the outcome is Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the beginning of the Passion of our Lord.
Why has Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, knowing full well he will likely meet his death? He does it to fulfill God’s mission. That mission is the great work of reconciliation. For God was in Christ Jesus, reconciling the world to God and all its precious elements to one another. The lion shall lie down with the lamb; there will be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for all shall be one in Christ Jesus. God will be our God and we shall all be God’s people. And the earth will be full of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
In other words, this vision glimpsed by the disciples — this Shekinah (Glory of God’s presence) — will one day shine through the whole of Creation. Hard to envision from where we sit today. But Moses had absorbed that vision and it kept him going on his hard leg of God’s mission assignment in the Wilderness. Elijah had been surrounded by that presence as he stood at the mouth of his cave. It strengthened him to go and continue the work of reconciliation among the peoples who had so worn him down.
So reconciliation is the whole point of God’s mission in Christ and now it is about to be brought to climax. Dangerous work. Anyone who lifts the cross and follows Jesus down this road will definitely be at risk. Peter offered to build three booths, not by way of retreat from this mission, but rather to mark the Pilgrim Way through the wilderness. For something significant was happening here, worthy to be recalled. Again and again, Peter was, in effect, signing on for the next stage of the mission journey. He certainly knew it held grave risks, but he, too, was emboldened by the light emanating from his Lord. And he heard those words, words he had probably heard about in connection with Jesus’ baptism: This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to Him.
Time to get back on the mission road, sent on to Jerusalem. God had gathered Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, the Beloved. Surely this was the most effective Peace Summit in all recorded history. However, when we see it from the foot of the cross, as we will 47 days from now, it will look like a tragic failure. We will see Peter in shameful denial and feel for him. We will weep with the Mother of Jesus as she receives her son’s broken, naked body. We will at least understand the great fear that came upon those brave and hopeful disciples. We should become keenly aware of their vulnerability.
How could they have been so wrong? Where will they go and what will they do? But let us pause on this mountain with Jesus and absorb the glory. This is God’s glory that breaks into our timeline again and again. It names the entire season of mission we are bringing to a close today: Epiphany — God’s breaking into our time, appearing to us in Glory. All of history is transfigured by God’s purpose, God’s love, and the glorious light of God’s being in Jesus. It is the constant reality saturating our fragile earth — as real as air and water, as infinite as space — and more. We cannot chart God’s eternity, calculate God’s time, map God’s Mission. But we can recall the moments when God has transcended the boundaries of human history and finite reality. The Transfiguration was such a time.
From the perspective of the Transfiguration, God’s reconciling mission was fulfilled on that grim Friday and over the next three days. There is no more thrilling victory human tongue can tell. As Frank Griswold proclaimed in the sermon marking his fifth anniversary as our Presiding Bishop, “What would happen if God’s justice and peace were our heart’s desire, and the dignity of every human being our deepest concern? There would be a revolution, which is precisely what God’s work, God’s mission, is all about.” This revolution began during Jesus’ time on earth, and it has been turning the world upside down ever since. It is the revolution reconciling all of Creation. How differently we might order our daily life and long-range plans if we believed this. How different the nations and the poor of this earth might order their lives as well. The vision of God’s glory is the saving vision and the animating vision. And we, the church, are its curators. The church is also the Body of Christ commissioned to carry on this mission so extravagantly accomplished in the life of Jesus. There is plenty of work for everyone.
We hear many discouraging things about our church’s struggles: to recoup after stock market losses; to counsel and reassure in the midst of threats of war and continuing terrorist attacks; to understand and rightly control the mysterious power of human sexuality. If we are honest, we will confess our sins of omission and offer up to God our stubborn anxieties and selfishness. Yes, we may join Elijah, isolated in the cave of weariness and spiritual arrogance.
But we must also come out into the sheer silence of God’s Being. We will continue to gather to hear God’s Word. We will glimpse the glorious appearing of God in Christ and we will be revived and on the way of mission in God’s world. It is our nature as the church. If we are not on mission, we are not church.
Mission is a dangerous business. We will die again and again and then our bodies will die also. Missionaries have fanned out over God’s Creation throughout history, beginning with St. Paul and including the 225 Episcopalians, designated missionaries, who today live in communities of faith throughout the Anglican Communion, having been invited by local bishops and church leaders, and sent by our church. These brothers and sisters — young adults, retired professionals, clergy on sabbatical, entire families-are teaching Christian, Islamic, and Hindu children in rural Tanzania; reviving hospitals in northwestern Rwanda and western Kenya; ministering to spinal injuries and orthopedic calamities in eastern South Africa; providing continuing education and respite care for busy clergy in remote areas around the world; supporting the church in Africa, Haiti, and elsewhere as it ministers to those afflicted with HIV/AIDS. Some build new churches and support local evangelists who share the good news of Jesus with those who still have not heard the story. Missionaries of our church dig wells, engineer accessible energy sources, assist in reforestation projects, advise on international water rights, safeguard cultural treasures of music and liturgy, record and translate priceless stories of God’s redeeming presence in places rarely visited and less understood. They help establish small businessmen and women in micro-enterprises.
All around the world, God is in these friendships as people like you and me break bread and usher in God’s reign with one another. Across language, class, and ethnic boundaries, sacramental love transcends human divisions. In all of this we are transfigured as we behold, with unveiled faces, the glory of the triune God. “We are being changed into his likeness,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “from one degree of glory into another.”
Missionaries take enormous risks, but they also behold the glory of God transfiguring suffering and desolation into hope and love. Our church has programs and voluntary mission agencies that recruit, train, and support a growing number of longer-term mission personnel. Despite the cost, there are also thousands who travel each year to build houses, paint churches, develop nutrition programs, share hospitality, and, most of all, become friends with those whom God also loves. They leave the comfort and safety of home to move around God’s world at the impulse of a growing desire to engage God’s dangerous mission of reconciliation.
May we continue to turn the world upside down. Let us say as a whole and undivided church, “Glory to God whose power working through us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God in the Church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever.” Amen.
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