Sunday, April 28, 2013

Being Sent:
the book of acts and a theology of mission

True story: by the time Easter is over, finals will have ended. Becca will be graduated. Summer will have found you. The moral of the story, as always: Easter is really stinkin’ long. That Easter is really long is a really good thing. I pray you never get bored of Easter - of the Good News that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

The Easter season - all fifty days of it - has its markers in our worship. The most obvious is the resounding, “Alleluia!” - in as many places as we can fit it. Also, there is the Paschal candle, the light of Christ that broke the darkness at the Great Vigil of Easter some five Saturdays ago. Of course, the white vestments. Another, perhaps more subtle, change: in place of the Old Testament reading, at the Lectionary’s direction, we read from the book of Acts. Importantly, the Old Testament is not omitted entirely - we continue to read from the Psalms; so this change should not be read as a statement of the larger place of the Old Testament in the Church’s tradition. But we read from the book of Acts during Easter because the Good News of Easter is seemingly inseparable from the telling of the Good News of Easter. “Go and tell,” Jesus told the women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Go and tell. Acts is the story of those who went and told the news that Jesus is risen from the dead.

This past week, one of you called the book of Acts the fifth gospel - “the gospel without Jesus,” you said. That’s not far off, I think. In the opening scene, Jesus ascends; a moment later, the Holy Spirit descends. And the Spirit’s descending means the birth of the Church in a rag tag bunch of fishermen. Acts is the gospel of the Church, and the Spirit is to be her life. And as we read through the story of Acts, we learn that the Spirit that ignites and animates God’s Church is about sending. 

Sixty times in the book of Acts, the word send or sent comes up. And that’s not counting first-person words like “Go!”, which of course is a word someone uses to send. Acts is the story of sending because Acts is the gospel of the Church whose life is the Spirit whose work is to send. The Christian Church is the Sent Church. The Spirit descends and immediately sends the followers of Jesus. They are not sent because they have the answers for the ones to whom they’ve been sent, but they are sent because the Spirit sends. 

In our lesson today, Peter is sent, and, by the end of the lesson, it is not clear at all if the conversion that occurs belongs 1) to the Gentiles who receive the Holy Spirit or 2) to Peter who receives the Gentiles. Both are sent. Both are transformed. Both embody in their new relationship with God and one another the reconciliation we’re told the resurrection makes possible: says St. Paul, “For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” 

Still, it was not obvious to the early Church that reconciliation like this was a good thing - at least not in the beginning. They are uneasy. Reluctant. They ask Peter, “Why did you go?” Go and tell - that’s what the first witnesses to the resurrection had heard. But now, hear their reluctance, “Why did you go?” Peter says (in so many words), “The Spirit sends.” And this sending changed the Church.

A year or so into college, I was sent on a summer internship to a government housing project in a small town outside of Pittsburgh. I was sent, along with another twenty-year old, white, middle-class Episcopalian intern to an impoverished, predominantly African-American government housing project, with the task of beginning a ministry. 

Our first day, we stood there in the middle of the street, standing under the sun, looking out at the homes and then at each other, pretending not to hear the catcalls of the neighbors wondering how the honky kids had gotten lost. They were right. Without a friend in the community, we resorted to prayer. We walked the community, praying silently. I remember asking God to help me see this community as he saw the community. We did this for several days.

Finally, we decided it was time to break the ice. We organized an ice cream social, to take place at a nearby park in the early evening - after parents came home from work but before the shootings started and everyone went indoors. I went to the church office and put a flyer together on Power Point - Power Point was a big deal back then - and printed off seventy copies. We returned to the familiar sidewalks and began to look for signs of receptive faces. 

A few handouts into the project, a five year old girl on a red tricycle rode up to me. I had given her some flyers a few minutes before, but now she was back. “I want some more flyers,” she said. “I remember I gave you a few already, but here are some more,” I said. She looked at the additional fliers, unimpressed. “More,” she said. I looked at her suspiciously. “How many more?” “All of them.” “All of them? Look, this isn’t a joke. I put this together on Power Point! I used Clip Art!” Silence. She seemed to stare holes through me. “You look,” she said. “Do you want folks to know about your party or not?”

I wish I could say I gave her all of the copies. I kept one in case I needed to make more copies later. Within minutes, everybody in the neighborhood knew who we were. And they were smiling. Laughing. Introducing. Our “ministry” had begun.

That was my first conversion. The second conversion came in days ahead as neighbors and interns got to know one another. As it turns out, the community was largely Christian already - these were friends of incredible faith and determination. Over time and through patient listening, my friend and I learned that this new community didn’t struggle to know God; they struggled to know that the others who knew God would stand with them in their struggles. Standing with them was the call for which we were sent.

In a wonderful book called Why Go to Church?, the author and theologian Timothy Radcliffe suggests that, if Christians are sometimes reluctant to be sent, it is because we understand that being sent “means dying to whom we have been.” This was certainly the case for Peter and, by extension, the Church he represented. Says Radcliffe, 
[When we are sent, we] are not recruiting people to adopt our views and our identity, like the Pharisees, whom Jesus accused of crossing ‘sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves’ (Mt 23:15). We are sent on mission to discover who we are in and for those other people.
If it is the case that we discover who we are in the sending, it means that, in the work of mission, it is not just the salvation of “those others” that is at stake. Peter found his own salvation, caught up with the others. When God sends us, we may rightfully question the good we can do for the others, but this question - this excuse - may turn out to be the very reason for our being sent, as we learn that we are not the heroes of every story - or even of most stories. Rather, it is God - and not our goodness, our greatness - that brings hope to transform the future; that brings hope to transform us.

After Easter, faith is being sent precisely when you don’t know what for. 

So remember that Acts is the story of sending because Acts is the gospel of the Church whose life is the Spirit whose work is to send. Remember that the Christian Church is the Sent Church; that faith is being sent. And thank God the Spirit sends.



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