Mission and Unity
1 Corinthians 12:12-31 & Luke 4:14-21
Something very important happened in 1910 in Scotland. An event happened that was the birthplace of one of the most important movements in the modern international church.
In 1910, in Edinburgh, there was a World Missionary Conference. Christians from around the world met to think and talk and pray about how God was calling them to share the good news of Jesus around the world.
One of the most important results of that conference was the realisation that Christian mission was, and is, profoundly disrupted by the scandal of Christian disunity.
Christian mission is profoundly disrupted by the scandal of Christian disunity.
As people were following God’s call to tell people about Jesus, they found that they were sharing about Jesus who came to earth, lived among us, died for us, was raised to life and glory so that people could live at peace with each other and with God. They were then having to explain that for some reason Jesus’ representatives on earth, who were meant to live like him, were divided amongst themselves.
I experience this quite often when I go and talk to families who are thinking of bringing their children to baptism. Maybe one of the parents was bought up in a Roman Catholic household, and the other in a Church of England household. They want to know what the difference is, and how come there are two churches when there’s only one Jesus. To be honest, it is embarrassing to have to explain and it saddens me that over the centuries Jesus’ followers have failed so spectacularly to love each other as Christ loves us.
From this realisation, the modern ecumenical movement was born. People devoting time to listening to each other, hearing each others stories, and determining that unity between Christians and churches should be built up so that the voice of the church could speak of Christ without compromise.
One of the practical expressions of this movement is the week of prayer for Christian Unity, which we are coming towards the end of now. During this week, each year, Christians from all kinds of different churches around the world pray for the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for in the garden of Gethsemene the night before he died. Firstly he prays for his friends, his disciples. Then he prays:
"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me."
In this prayer we hear, from Jesus own lips, this link between mission and unity. Jesus was asking his Father that his followers may be united, so that the world may believe. Jesus knew that Christians falling out with each other would be something that would prevent people believing the truth that Jesus was truly sent by God.
This morning I’d like to encourage us to think about our mission, about how unity can help us achieve that mission, and about the Holy Spirit’s place in both mission and unity.
So let’s begin with mission. What is our mission? It seems to me that if we are those who follow Jesus, then we take our direction in mission from what Jesus’ mission was. We do not need to wait for a tape that will self destruct in five seconds to tell us what our mission is, should we choose to accept it.
Firstly, in our baptism we have already accepted it. Secondly we have been told what it is. At the very start of his ministry Jesus read it out, from the book of God’s messenger, Isaiah:
“to preach good news to the poor. to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."
This is the good news of Jesus’ Kingdom that we are called to share with the rest of the world. We share it by telling people about it and we share it by doing things that bring it about.
This is all very well, but it is also a bit general. It’s not very specific. It doesn’t tell us what we need to actually say and actually do in our every day lives here in Stoke on Trent. One of the challenges of following Jesus is working out what he is calling us to say and do, here and now. Maybe we could do with that mission briefing tape after all.
Over the last few months, one of the things that the DCC has been thinking about is our Mission Action Plan here at St Mark’s. We’ve been asking the question, what is Jesus calling us to do and to say as a church here in Shelton and Etruria over the coming months and years? We’ll be talking a lot more about this in the lead up to the annual church meeting.
We’ve heard ( will hear) from Lauren about the way in which Jesus’ followers in the Christian Union are carrying out mission in the place that they live over the next few weeks. They have an ongoing pattern of living in ways that point to Jesus, and have these events coming up that are focussed on actively sharing the good news of Jesus with other students. I think that we are really privileged to be invited to support them in prayer as they follow this call.
It seems to me that we need to do this work for own lives as well. As we follow Jesus, we need to be asking ourselves, “What is God calling me to do and to say in my own, individual life? Or in our family’s life?” In what ways do the things that I do and say point to Jesus, and in what ways do they hide Jesus? Have I opened the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given me, and am I using them?
Last year we had some opportunities to be involved in some mission activities in various ways. There was the Canals Festival, door to door survey work in Etruria, the carol services. One of the lessons that we learnt then was that some people wanted to be involved but didn’t feel that they were confident enough to know what they were doing or what they should say. This year we are planning to have these opportunities again, but this year we are also going to arrange for there to be sessions where we can meet together, learn together, and develop that confidence together.
This idea of working together to help each other in what we say and do in outreach is an example of how unity strengthens mission.
It seems to me that there are three spreading circles in which we can see unity increasing the impact of mission.
The smallest circle is amongst our selves here in the worshipping community focussed around St Mark’s. Keith talked last week about us all being part of the picture here at St Mark’s. That everybody is needed, and the gifts that we all have are all needed to make up the whole picture. If any one piece is missing then the whole is incomplete, and we are less able to do all that God is calling us to do. The trouble is that in a small circle there’s more opportunity to bump up against each other and rub each other up the wrong way and fall out. I believe that we need to work really hard at not allowing this to happen, or we will fatally compromise our ability to fulfil all that God has for us to do.
The next circle out is that of the Hanley Team. Our various team services, such as the Easter services, give us opportunity to worship together and strengthen our unity. Running the Start course and Bishop’s Certificate course as team initiatives gives us opportunities to learn together and encourage each other in going deeper into our faith. I’ve already mentioned the Etruria Canals festival – date for your diary 5/6 June, where people from across the team will join together to reach out together.
The third circle out is the one that includes other churches around the city. Before Christmas there was a Deanery Healing service at Christ Church, Tunstall which some of us were able to go to. That was a very powerful statement of unity as Christians from different Church of England traditions met together to pray for healing for the city, for the church and for individuals. It was also an evening of seeing Jesus’ mission bearing fruit as people experienced God’s power bringing healing in their lives. On Good Friday we are planning an outreach event in Hanley Centre which we hope will involve other churches from around the city, joining together in public to help people engage with the power of the cross on the day of the cross.
All of this, both mission and unity, comes from the Holy Spirit. In the gospel we hear twice that Jesus’ mission depended on him being filled with the Holy Spirit. In just the same way, our mission depends on us being filled with the Holy Spirit. That is why Paul says at the beginning of the passage from the letter to the church at Corinth:
For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
It is the Holy Spirit who gives us the gifts we need to do and to say the things that God is calling us to do and say, that is, to carry out our mission. It is the Holy Spirit who guides us as we consider what that mission actually is in our every day lives. It is the Holy Spirit who holds us together, in one body, so that we can carry out our mission, together, in a way that shows the truth of what we claim.
This year is not only the centenary of that World Mission conference in Edinburgh, it is also the centenary of the Federation of the Six Towns of Stoke on Trent. There are events planned in both cities to celebrate these centenaries. I wonder if we could mark these reminders of the importance of unity and of mission by recommitting ourselves to the work that Jesus calls us to, together?