Sunday, November 18, 2007

Homily for Parish of Canning Retreat, 17-18 Nov 2007

Luke 10. 1-12, 17-20

I read the other day a comment that the best thing the church could do, if it really wanted to take mission seriously, would be to try to remember its own past. [1]  I don’t mean the good old days of the 1950s or 60s, when Sunday schools were overflowing and no matter what you did or didn’t do, parishes more or less worked because the Church as an institution was part of the fabric of society.  That’s the model of church that we call Christendom, Church as status quo, a largely unchallenged part of how life was lived by the great majority of folk.  No, this writer suggested we needed to look just a bit further back than that, to the very, very early Church, in fact, because there’s a surprising statistic.  In the year 200AD, by all the best estimates, there were about 20,000 Christians.  That’s in the whole world.  Admittedly, the population of the world was probably a bit smaller then but to put it in perspective we Anglicans reckon there’s about 10,000 of us, just in Perth.  But then a century later, 300AD, which is just before the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, so for this whole century the Christian church had been living under persecution – the population of the world had increased over that time by maybe six or ten percent, but the number of Christians had increased more than a thousand-fold, because in the year 300AD there were more than 25 million Christians in the world, which is more than the total population of Australia right now.  And this writer said, rather than looking around us now and saying, ‘what’s gone wrong’, maybe we should have a good look at what the church was doing back then and say, ‘what went right?’.

I’ve heard it argued that sort of comparison isn’t quite fair, after all, the apostles were super-men and women, it was the age of miracles, the Holy Spirit was still fanning the flames back then in the heroic age of the church.  They weren’t just ordinary folk like us, they didn’t have all the pressures of modern living.  What they did have was zeal – they actually believed that what they were saying about Jesus’ death and resurrection was the most important message the world had ever heard.  Except deep down we really do know that the apostles were not-so-super-men and women like Peter the fisherman and Mary of Magdala, like Polycarp of Smyrna, fairly ordinary folk who were a bit flaky half the time, reluctant heroes at best.  Deep down I think we also know that the age of miracles never did finish, and on a good day we’re pretty sure we believe that the message of Jesus Christ is pretty important to a hurting world as well.

But actually, we don’t need to go quite as far back as that at all.  We’ve got another pretty special textbook example a whole lot closer to our own time, which is the Church in mainland China after Mao Tse Tung came to power in the Cultural Revolution of the 1940s.  This was right when the Western Church was cooking on gas, and the Communist government in China said, ‘not here, you don’t’.  Every single bit of Church property was confiscated, priests and lay leaders, Sunday School teachers and missionaries were all rounded up and either expelled from the country, imprisoned or executed.  And then the Chinese government proceeded to impose one of the harshest and cruellest persecutions of Christians on historical record.  That lasted through till the death of Mao and the lifting of restrictions – some of them – during the 70s, and a few foreign missionaries cautiously went back into the country for a look.  They expected to find nothing at all, at best a few weak and furtive groups of Christians who had forgotten how to be a proper Church.  But what they did find was a Church that had flourished, a Church that now numbered about 60 million, a Church that was vigorous and energised.

And when I read these two examples last week I had to chuckle, because they’ve got something in common – they were both underground Churches, both Churches growing in hostile soil, both Churches without Church buildings meeting secretly for the most part in private houses, both Churches without formal clergy as we know them, without budgets, without even Bibles – the early Churches had hand-written copies of a few letters each, house Churches in China used to boast a page or so of the Scriptures each, swapping them around when they could – and the writer said, here’s the thing – the Church of God goes to sleep when it’s safe, loses its passion when it’s middle-class – the people of God forget the fire of the Holy Spirit when they’ve got too many well-fed priests doing their theology for them, forget the precious gift of the Holy Scriptures when they’ve got too many copies on the bookshelf.  Christians are just ordinary folk, whatever age we live in, we all get the collywobbles and the pressures of life take their toll on all of us.  But there’s something special we can’t overlook, so this writer, Alan Hirsch, said, and that’s like a sort of DNA the Holy Spirit has built into the Church – sometimes we lose sight of where it is and we feel like we can’t unlock the code any more, then other times when the resources are fewest and the threats are the gravest Christian women and men remember the gift of the Holy Spirit they’ve had all along.

I chose this reading from Luke’s Gospel for this morning because Bible scholars tell us it more likely represents the missionary practices of the very early Church, than the sending out of missionaries during the historical ministry of Jesus himself.  This passage isn’t even found in Mark, the earliest gospel.  And there’s something very particular about the number of missionaries that get sent – seventy, according to about half the early manuscripts, seventy-two, according to the others.  Which happens to be the exact same as the number of countries people thought there were in the ancient world – seventy, according to Hebrew manuscripts of the book of Genesis, seventy-two, according to the Greek Septuagint version.  In other words, go everywhere, ‘make disciples’, as Matthew’s gospel puts it, ‘of all the nations’.  So that’s the first thing about mission that we really need to notice, the universality, the idea of being sent not only into all the nations but all the cultures and sub-cultures of the city we live in.  Mission isn’t about waiting for other people to come to us, not even about putting on really, really interesting worship services with pop music and strobe lights and multimedia in the hope that the bright young people will all of a sudden want to come here instead of to a nightclub – mission is about being sent out of our comfort zone, about engaging with other people in their own territory and on their own terms.  Holding loosely to our own culture and learning someone else’s.  There’s a word for this aspect of what mission is about, and it’s called ‘incarnational’, because we understand that that is how God comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ – God doesn’t wait for us to all of a sudden start understanding God’s language, but instead learns ours.

And the second thing to notice about this early Church version of missionary life is that you travel really light.  You live off the land, or more precisely, you accept the hospitality that’s offered along the way.  Don’t go taking any extra kit, not even the back seat full of books I brought with me this weekend just in case.  I think, to translate it into our own terms, the message is, ‘don’t rely on technology – don’t over-prepare or you’ll never get started – don’t think you have to be an expert or able to cope with every eventuality.  Mistakes are OK, and you can give yourself permission to make them.  Trust God, and trust in the goodness of the people you meet along the way because they too are made in God’s image.  Relationships are more important than research or equipment or methodology.  The most important thing is to build relationships and to learn to rely on them.

And then this story tells us the three most important building blocks of mission – which of course are also the three most important building blocks of our life as a Church.  Remember Jesus’ instructions to the seventy?  The missionary agenda was not very complicated – eat whatever they give you, heal the sick, and announce the kingdom.  These are like the three strands of the rope that when you plait them together are unbreakable.  Eat together - the age-old practice of turning strangers into brothers and sisters by the simple act of offering and receiving hospitality builds communities of mutual trust.  Heal the sick – attend to the physical needs of those who are marginalised and downtrodden, offer practical ways of healing and restoring health and integrity.  Proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God – the observation was once made to me that after church on a Sunday the one thing you’ll never hear Anglicans talking about is God.  Let’s overcome our awkwardness, take a risk, commend the faith that is in us.

Living incarnationally in the cultures and sub-cultures of our city; trusting in relationships and the attractiveness of God’s Holy Spirit rather than in buildings or traditions or strategies; plaiting the three stranded rope of hospitality, healing and the preparedness to give an account of ourselves as God’s people.  That’s it, really.


[1] Alan Hirsh, The Forgotten Ways: Re-activating the Missional Church, (2006, Strand Publishing, Sydney)