Posted by: Titus Presler | February 16, 2012

Stray sermon thoughts for World Mission Sunday

It’s not hard to connect the 2012 World Mission Sunday theme, “Mission is Transformational,” with the Sunday scriptures (Year B, Last Epiphany, RCL).  The theme refers to how engaging God’s mission transforms the missioner as well as, one hopes, the people and situations that the missioner goes to.  And this is true whether the missioner is an individual or a community such as a congregation, deanery, diocese, synod, presbytery or monastic order.

It’s equally important to connect the theme with transformation through mission in the experience of the preacher or the community

Elisha’s urgent persistence about staying with Elijah before his mentor is taken up has always been intriguing to me.  Yes, in the end he wants a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit, but there’s also simply the disciple’s love for the teacher, the chela’s attachment to the guru in a Hindi-Urdu context.  Elisha feels small in comparison with his mentor, a mere beginner, so he doesn’t want his mentor to leave, but he’s also confident of his own transformation by the mentor so long as Elijah designates him his successor. 

The journey that Elisha undertakes with Elijah is a pilgrimage, something all genuine mission should be.  Ultimately Elisha’s wish for a double share is granted, and the later prophetic career of Elisha – to which the preacher might wish to allude – demonstrates the fulfillment of his hope for transformation.  We might say that what turns out to be the granting of Elisha’s request functions as his commissioning as the prophet to succeed Elijah in manifesting God’s mission in that place and time.

Jesus “was transfigured before them,” says Mark, using the Greek verb metamorphthenai, familiar to all from its English cognate “metamorphosis.”  One of the most familiar New Testament passages where transformation, the concept used in this year’s World Mission Sunday theme, appears is in Paul’s exhortation at Romans 12.2: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” transformation there being designated by the same Greek verb metamorphthenai.

Nevertheless it’s interesting to reflect on the distinctive connotations of “transfiguration” and “transformation” in English.  Without excluding inner change, “transfiguration” connotes an obvious change in outward aspect, whereas “transformation” may connote a more organic and comprehensive change that includes both inner and outer change.  Transfigured Night is the main title of my first book – the subtitle being Mission and Culture in Zimbabwe’s Vigil Movement – as I sought to highlight just how startlingly transformative the gospel-culture interaction has been in the movement of all-night vigils sweeping through Shona Christianity.  Some may be familiar with Arnold Shoenberg’s remarkable 1899 string composition, “Transfigured Night” (Verklaerte Nacht).

Missionally, Jesus’ transfiguration was important for him in his mission because it was just the confirmation he needed of his baptismal revelation in order to be strengthened for what he figured was a rough road ahead in Jerusalem.  So his transfiguration was preparatory for the culmination of his mission, but we can also see it as a confirmation of his faithfulness thus far in fulfilling the mission he had been given to manifest the Kingdom of God in word and deed, in preaching, teaching, healing, exorcising and prophesying.  For the disciples – who I believe were the secondary audience, not the primary audience – the missional dimension of the transfiguration is more indirect, for Jesus explicitly forbids them to speak of it.  Yet the condition itself – “until the Son of man should have risen from the dead” – is promissory of mission.  At that point they will be not only free to proclaim but obligated to proclaim – in fact, sent to proclaim, on mission to proclaim.  As we ourselves are.  So the difference was that after the resurrection the disciples would have the whole story and would understand the whole pattern of what God was up to in Jesus.

This question of “the whole story” comes up in the epistle.  “For we do not proclaim ourselves,” says Paul, rebutting the Corinthians’ sense that that is exactly what he had been doing.  Rather, he says, “we proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”  The reality of Christian mission, however, is that it is always incarnate, enfleshed, in the cultural background and worldview of the missioner.  Yes, it’s essential that we not proclaim ourselves and that we lift up Christ Jesus.  It’s also essential that we realize that our proclamation of Christ – whether in evangelism or in providing mosquito nets in malarial regions – is always going to be conditioned by our personalities, our temperaments, our cultures, our incomes, our philosophies and so on.

The post-modern reaction to past missionary mistakes – often exaggerated and stereotyped but nevertheless significant – can be worse than the past it seeks to rectify when it imagines that unlike “those Victorian missionaries” we enlightened moderns are so redemptively self-critical that we are able to communicate a gospel freed from distorting cultural and socio-economic and political backgrounds.  This unfortunately common arrogance recalls Jesus’ saying about the post-exorcism clean house to which a demon returns with seven other evil spirits, “and the last state of that person becomes worse than the first.”

Returning to the Sunday theme, mission is transformational for Christians precisely because it is incarnate.  It is not simply the transmission of a text but rather the mutual engagement of persons and communities.  Who we are may distort the gospel in some ways – we need to be alert for that.  Who we are may also illuminate the gospel in particular ways – we need to be equally alert for that.  Who other people are may illuminate the gospel for us – we need to be especially alert for that.  The fruit of all that? – transfiguration, transformation, take your pick!

For all this to become live and compelling for a congregation, the preacher needs to connect these dynamics with real missional experience today.  How have you yourself experienced transformation through mission?  How has the congregation experienced transformation in its various engagements beyond itself?  (I stress “beyond itself” in view of my definition of mission: “Mission is ministry in the dimension of difference.”)  You might also wish to consult the reflections of missionaries of the church today, easily accessible from their blogs.

Whatever you do, do please preach mission.

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