A Mission From God

Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers….  Fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.  (Acts 2:42-43)

Although you probably remember it more for the spectacular car chases and the wonderful soundtrack, the 1980 cult film The Blues Brothers had another important element.  One of the brothers, Jake, has just been released from prison.  He and his brother Elwood, embark on their epic journey in and around Chicago for a purpose: in order to raise $5,000 to pay the Cooke County Tax Assessor the back taxes owed by the orphanage in which the brothers grew up.

The film is a little unclear about why a Roman Catholic orphanage – which would surely have been a tax-exempt organization – owes back taxes.  There is, however, the suggestion that the archdiocese wants to shut down the orphanage and sell the property.  In any case, the nuns who raised the boys refuse to accept ill-gotten money from Jake and Elwood, and the brothers are challenged to redeem their checkered lives by doing the right thing.  And throughout the film, as the Blues Brothers veer from adventure to adventure to put their old band back together and raise the money, their explanation is a simple one: they are on a mission from God.

As it turns out, the Blues Brothers’ mission was a mixed bag: in the end they earned the money honestly to save the orphanage – by putting the band together and giving a benefit concert.   But their several traffic violations in the process land them back in prison by the end of their journey.  A mission from God can be a tricky thing!

The Blues Brothers had something in common with Saint Mark’s, for we, too, are on a mission from God, as every Christian community is and ought to be.  Like the Blues Brothers, we also tend to make a lot of music as we go about our mission.  There, I think the similarities may end.  But it is important that we remind ourselves and others that we are a community with a mission: we are on a mission from God.

The Vestry and the clergy of this parish worked over the course of about five months to find a concise way to articulate that mission.  Here is what we came up with:
Saint Mark’s is a community that gathers in faith, serves in love and proclaims hope, through Jesus Christ.

We are on a mission from God; that mission requires us to gather, to serve, and to proclaim; it grows out of the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love; and it is anchored in the lordship of our Savior Jesus Christ.

I will not bore you now with a disquisition on this mission statement, which we have now begun to circulate in our newsletter and on our website.  Rather, I want to briefly make the case that in our mission from God we are linked not only to the Blues Brothers but the to very first community of the early Church.

Saint Luke, whose Book of Acts is a second volume to his Gospel, wrote in the early portion of that work that “those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  This sounds great!  Churches often refer to this sentence in Acts because it sounds so familiar.  But read on!  “Fear,” or in another translation, “awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.”

Many wonders and signs and were being done, many wonders and signs.

Here is the challenge for the church today: Are we satisfied to continue to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers?  Are we perfectly happy to stop reading there?  Do we believe that our mission from God can be summed up with such tidiness?  After all, this sounds a lot like the church we know: we gather in fellowship for teaching, for the breaking of bread in the Eucharist, and to maintain our collective life of prayer.

But what have we left unsaid, and what have we left undone, if we forget to read on?  Many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.

The second volume of Luke’s Gospel is called the Book of the Acts of the Apostles for a reason.  Because they were on a mission from God.  They had been sent – which is the basic reality of anyone on a mission.  Sent by the angels who asked them as they stood watching the ascension of Jesus into heaven, “men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?”  Sent by the Spirit that Jesus promised would visit them, and which did so in tongues of fire and a rushing wind.  These apostles were sent out to do things they never dreamt they could do: to heal the sick and give new life to those who seemed to be dead; to bring promise and hope where there was none; to work for peace and justice; and to turn the world upside down by following as best they could the singular command that Jesus had given them: that they should love one another as he had loved them.

They were on a mission from God, and what signs and wonders they performed as they gathered together, as they served one another and those in need, and as they proclaimed the Good News of Jesus to anyone who would listen!

They might have stopped at gathering, you know.  They might have formed a club, and collected dues, and drawn up by-laws, and membership eligibility requirements.  They might have devised a secret handshake and a password.  They might have stopped at gathering.  But they didn’t.  They had been sent on a mission from God, and they had signs and wonders to perform that would astonish even themselves!

And the reason that the leadership of this parish bothered to go through the exercise of drafting a mission statement, of discussing it with as many of you as we could, of debating the merits of word choice and punctuation and ideas, is that we could very easily stop at gathering too.

We could be very happy gathering here week by week, singing our music, tending to the apostles’ teaching, breaking the bread in the lovely way we do, and deepening our lives of prayer.  We are within our rights, as a Christian community, to do all these things, and, perhaps, to stop there.  

But where would be the signs and wonders that bring awe upon us?  How would we do the things that transform the lives of men and women and children?  How would we follow that singular commandment to love if we only ever gathered and never cared also to serve and to proclaim?

I find it amusing, in my own silly way, to think that we are connected to the fictitious Blues Brothers by their singular assertion that they were on a mission from God.  But I must say it leaves me almost breathless to think that we are also connected by our mission to those first apostles who gathered amid great uncertainty to pass on Jesus’ teaching, to break bread together, and to pray, and who then went out to do great signs and wonders bringing healing and new life where they confronted sickness and death.  I find it astonishing to think that we, too, are called to gather, to serve and to proclaim; that the virtues of faith, hope, and love could so possess this community that lives are changed by bringing health where there is sickness and the promise of new life where others see only death.

We, my brothers and sisters in Christ, we are on a mission from God!  He calls us here week by week and day by day to form us into his holy people by the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of the bread and the prayers.  And then by his Holy Spirit, he sends us out into the world to serve in love and to proclaim the hope of new life.  There are signs and wonders to be performed by you and by me as we do this.  Do not be deceived by the tyranny of low expectations.

And we can do so much more than the Blues Brothers could!  We can do more than raise enough money to pay the bills.  And we will not end up back where we started, as poor old Elwood did – right back in prison.

I have an ongoing debate with some of the Office Volunteers here about the coffee machine in the Parish Hall.  That machine has one dial, two switches, and a valve to control the flow of coffee.  Its controls are significantly simpler than those on the dashboard of most cars, let alone the control panel of a jet, say, or of anything requiring a degree in rocket science.  And yet from time to time we are thwarted by this simple machine.  We set the dial wrong and the coffee is too weak, or we leave the valve open and coffee pours out all over the floor.  And we are tempted, some of us, to think that this machine is too much to handle, that it should be left to a very few carefully trained people to manage it, or perhaps abandoned altogether in favor of some simpler alternative.

But I believe that God is calling us as a community to do some wonderful things – what you might even call signs and wonders.  I believe God has endowed this community with gifts that far exceed the ability to operate a coffee machine with one dial, two switches, and a valve that might be open or shut.  I believe that we are on a mission from God that changes people’s lives and turns the world upside down.

And so I believe that if we allow ourselves to be thwarted by a coffee machine we will have set our expectations depressingly low!  Because I believe that we can make wonderful coffee!

But I also believe that we can do so much more, if as a community we will gather here in faith, we will serve our neighbors in love – whomever they may be, and we will proclaim hope to those who need to hear it with whatever words we have to use.

For we are on a mission from the God who sent his Son into the world that we might have life and have it abundantly.  And what can stop us now?

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 April 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 14, 2008 .