Epiphany, as you probably know, is the missionary and evangelistic season of the Church Year. It’s a time of year when we remind ourselves of what we prayed for in this morning’s Collect: “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works…”
In other words, just as Jesus called Peter and Andrew, James and John and the other disciples to “fish for people” as we heard in this morning Gospel, so we too are called – by virtue of our Baptisms — to reach out to other people, to share the Good News of God’s love, and to invite them to join us in the communion of Christ’s Church. Christianity, like Islam (and un-like our parent religion Judaism and most Eastern Religions) Christianity… is a missionary religion!
That doesn’t always sound so good to our 21st century ears. Missionaries, for some, bring up images of high pressure, guilt-producing evangelists whether on TV, in pulpits, or in parking lots. And, because we’re a little more knowledgeable and perhaps more honest, about our history as the Christian Church today, we are aware that terrible atrocities have been committed by Christian missionaries in our past…and all of it in the name of Jesus!
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “When the missionaries came, we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray’ and when we opened our eyes, we had the Bible, and they had the land!” So it’s no wonder that “missionary work” or even “evangelism” have become dirty words for many people today – including many who are faithful members of the Church.
But, even if we can convince ourselves that those bad images are caricatures of true mission and true evangelism, and that real mission and evangelism simply mean sharing the Good News that God is Love, and that all people are invited into a relationship with that good God which also entails loving those other people and working to make this world a better place…even so, the work of evangelism is not so easy!
Seems like it was pretty easy for Jesus. He just said “Follow me” and they did! (Actually, it may have been a little more complicated than that. He may well have had a prior relationship with Peter and Andrew and the others, and our story today may just have been a snapshot of that moment when his faithful mentorship of them finally paid off). But, after all, he WAS Jesus!
Yet for us, evangelism – sharing the Good News and getting other people to accept it – is not so easy. Never has been! For one thing, the Church – which is supposed to be the base camp and launching pad for all effective evangelism sometimes gets in the way. The Church can actually be excess baggage that keeps people away from Christ instead of inviting them in. I know you’ve had some difficult times in the not-so-distant past here at Emmanuel and you’re using this interim period to do some much-need healing. Word has it you’re doing really well and the healing and recovery process is well underway.
Please know that you are not the “Lone Ranger.” Almost every congregation I know has passed through times of struggle and trial, argument and disagreement at some point. And that didn’t start with liturgical revision or the ordination of women or gay folks. Hear again the words of a missionary bishop to one of his congregations in about the year 55:
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no division among you…For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…!” Duuu-aahhh! Christians quarreling? Imagine that! And good old Chloe – engaging in some of those parking lot vestry meetings and tattling on the mischief-makers to the Bishop!
Yes, the Church is a flawed instrument, dear friends. Because, in addition to her divine calling, the Church is a human institution made up of human beings like us and, as long as that is the case, it will not be perfect. Not perfect…but it is essential. You cannot be a “solo Christian.” You can believe in God, accept that Jesus Christ is who he said he was, say your prayers, and even be a good person on your own.
But Christianity is, and always has been, a communal affair. Jesus called those twelve disciples as a first order of business. The earliest image of the Church was that of a Body, made up of many members. It was also called the People of God, the New Israel, a holy nation, and a royal priesthood. All of those are corporate images, images of a family (even if it’s sometimes a dysfunctional family!) but living and working together!
So the work you are doing here, during this interim period, is very important. You are doing what bishops and priests, deacons and lay leaders find ourselves doing a lot of the time – you are binding up the wounds in the Body of Christ! You are healing Christ’s Church! And why are you doing that? So that this portion of that Body may be an ever more faithful and effective base camp and launching pad for one of the primary vocations of the Church – mission and evangelism.
For as St. Teresa of Avila once reminded us: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on the world. Yours are the feet with which he walks about doing good.”
That’s real mission and real evangelism, beloved. And I’m glad that we’re in this…together!