Mission in a New Light

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on Mark 9:2-9. Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon.

Sometimes you have an experience that you just can’t fit into your usual categories of understanding, something you just can’t fit into the usual box, something that makes you see everything else in a whole new light.

That’s what happens to Peter in our Gospel reading today. He experiences Jesus in a new way. Now, before this, he knew that Jesus was a powerful preacher who brought a new teaching with authority. He knew that Jesus was a healer and a caster-out of unclean spirits – and even though Jesus commanded the spirits not to speak, Peter had heard them call Jesus the Holy One of God. Peter himself had called Jesus the Messiah just six days before this mountaintop moment. Peter was not unaware of Jesus.

But he’d never known Jesus like this: shining with resplendent light, radiant with the glory of heaven itself, revealed as the Holy One he would not permit the spirits to call him. It was more than Peter had ever experienced before. And then it became even bigger: Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, the twin cornerstones of Jewish religious identity, appeared and talked to Jesus, as if they were taking instruction from him.

It was more than Peter could handle. But still, he did his best to fit it into categories he could understand, to connect it with other experiences he could comprehend. His offer to build dwellings for Jesus and Moses and Elijah is not just random terrified gibberish: he is trying to connect this vision with the Jewish Feast of Booths, the Feast of Tabernacles, when Jewish families would build shelters as dwellings, to remember their time of wilderness wandering, and their faith that God would lead them again through the wilderness of the history to the great Day of the Lord and the vindication of God’s people. All of that mystery of heaven breaking through into earth is in Peter’s mind when he offers to build dwellings. It’s his way of trying to fit this experience into categories he knows.

But this experience is too big to fit into that old box. This experience requires a newer response. So the voice comes from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” – not “listen to your old understandings,” not “listen to your old categories,” but “listen to the new comprehension that comes to you from him.” And Peter has to learn to look at Jesus in a new light – literally, the new light of Transfiguration; but more than that Peter has to understand Jesus in a new way, understand what it means to call him Messiah in a new breadth and depth and comprehensiveness. And, probably most difficult of all, Peter has to see in a whole new light what it means to call himself a disciple and follower and believer of this Jesus.

Sometimes you have an experience that just won’t fit in your old categories, but makes you see things in a whole new light.

And I think our whole church – the Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, and right here in Trinity Parish itself – I think our whole church is having that kind of experience right now with regard to our understanding of mission. For years – for centuries, really – we have been pretty sure we knew what mission meant, we’ve operated with a pretty standard notion of how mission should be done. But I think in our time God is doing something new, I think in our time the situation has changed, and God is leading us into a kind of mission that is bigger than our old ideas, that doesn’t fit into our old categories, and that is making us see all kinds of things in a new light. And since today, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the Sunday of Transfiguration, is also known as World Mission Sunday, today is a good day for us to look at this new light God is shining in our hearts.

We used to think that mission was all about going out to make churches where there aren’t any churches. Mission was going into foreign lands, mission was going overseas, mission was going to places where backwardness or poverty or paganism prevented people from knowing the Gospel – and mission was bringing the Gospel to them, and teaching them to be church in the way we were all accustomed to being church. We used to think that the mission of the church was basically to reproduce the church.

But lately those ideas about mission have been changing. Fifty years ago Anglican leaders began to point out that mission is not just bringing the Gospel to people who don’t have the Gospel, but should involve mutuality, responsibility, and interdependence in haves and have-nots discovering the life of the Gospel together. More recently, in the last 15 years or so, many authors and missiologists have been recovering an ancient insight that mission is primarily something that God does – not something the church does for God, but something God does through the church. My favorite slogan of this old/new insight is “It’s not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a Church in the world.” The mission of the church is not just to reproduce the church, but to follow God into doing God’s work in the world.

And what is it that God does? What is the mission that God is on in the world? I think St Paul puts it beautifully in our Epistle for today: God says “Let light shine out of darkness.” That is what God did in the first moment of creation – call light to shine out of darkness – and that is what God continues to do in moments of creation all around us all the time. God called light out of darkness, and made a difference in the void; and then God set darkness and light together to make evening and morning, to make one day: God brought difference into relationship to make a whole thing. And God is still doing that, God is still bringing differences into relationships to make wholeness, to make love and peace and justice and joy, to make communion. Where there is sorrow, God is on a mission to make gladness. Where there is hatred, God is on a mission to make reconciliation. Where there is oppression, God is on a mission to make freedom. Where there is darkness of any kind, God is on a mission to call out light.

And if that is the mission that God is on, then that is the mission the church is called to share. It is the church’s special calling to look around the world, and, using the example given us in Jesus, to discern what God is doing, what light God is calling; and then, again in the name of Jesus, to join with God in bringing forth that light. The job of the church is not just to make more church, but to discern together where the Spirit is acting, and then to arrange our resources and our budgets and ourselves to join the Spirit in action.

And when we experience God calling the church to mission in that way, that doesn’t fit into our old categories, our old ideas of mission as making more church, that calls for a new comprehension – and that makes us begin to see a whole lot of things in a new light. We see mission in building churches and schools in Honduras and Haiti, to be sure. But we also see mission right here, in worship that is beautiful and moving, worship that draws all sorts of different people into relationship in this communion. We see mission in inviting public health nurses and mental health specialists and tax preparers and other service agents to our Noon Lunch, so that our Noon Lunch guests can have many of their needs addressed all in one convenient place. We see mission in going out into our neighborhood, getting to know our neighbors, and learning from them where they see healing and justice and goodness and right-relationships coming into being – and then recognizing the work of God in that and joining with them to help that work happen.

In fact, the more we see mission in this new light, the more we realize that mission is not a thing to do, but mission is a way of doing things. Mission is a way of looking at the world, looking at things around us, and asking “Where is God in this? What is the Holy Spirit making happen in this?”, and then arranging our gifts and skills and talents and treasures, putting ourselves out there in the name of Christ, to help make it happen. That is mission.

And that is something we can do as a church, that is something we can do as a parish, that is even something we can do as individuals, as persons making our way in the world, doing our best to follow Jesus. I want you to think right now of some place in your life where you can ask “What is God doing here?”, and where you can join God in doing it. Can you think of such a place? That is part of your mission, part of the mission of God in the world that God is calling you in particular to join.

On this Transfiguration Sunday, on this World Mission Sunday, let us give thanks to God for the gift of mission. And let us pledge to each other that as members of this congregation we will always help each other ask “What is God’s mission here?” and “How can we join God in mission now?” Amen.