Mission Day Sermon

05.10.23 | Homepage | by The Rt. Rev. George Sumner

    ‘When you are near Aslan, you should not be surprised that there flowers bloom.’ This sentence was spoken by a theologian friend of mine, in answer to the question whether Christianity is good for you.  The first thing I want us to do in this homily is to figure out what he meant.  There is certainly no shortage of people who think it is bad for you:  crusades are for them exhibit A.  It seems to them to frustrate desires, to displace them heavenward, to relegate the believers to pointlessness, and so forth. You get the idea. On the other hand, there are those, mostly believers but not all, who want to lead with the argument that Christianity is good for you. Studies have shown that prayer can lower your blood pressure, for example, though of course we need a big enough sample since there are plenty of profound believers who take their pressure pill. A famous philosopher named Kant said we needed religion so that the assumption of heaven and judgment would keep us moral- he didn’t care as much whether it was so.

    By contrast my friend was being more careful- he was not saying that being good for us is the heart of believing, nor its purpose. He was saying that if it were true that Jesus rose from the dead, and that we are living in that sort of universe, in spite of its seeming to be an intractable mess, then we shouldn’t be surprised that good things, blessings, would appear in the wake of faith.  (The image, by the way, is from moment in the Narnia story when Aslan, bursting forth form death, leaps across a field and flowers spring up after).  Benefits are  not the point, but they make sense as confirmations and consolations.  We shouldn’t be surprised that they follow after. But what then is it that takes the lead, being more important than religion, even the Christian one, being good for us?

    The point of the Gospel is that it is true, that it best reveals how the world really is.  Consider our Gospel passage, from Luke seven. Jesus cites the ways in which his ministry has made a difference: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear.’ Goods indeed, and praise God. But of course the miracles are a quotation from the thirty fifth chapter of Isaiah, proof that the time of the Messiah has come, and God is decisively leading his people home. The miracles mean something bigger than themselves.  They show that now is the coming of the kingdom, the turning of the ages, the final and irreversible act of God, the world changed and reclaimed by Him.  And then Jesus says ‘blessed is anyone who takes non offense at me.’  All this will be established once and for all His death and resurrection.  The passage cites various goods, but they point toward the one who is himself the way, the truth, and the life.  Likewise Jesus’ healing are preceded by the suppliant’s faith in him.

    How we come to apprehend that truth is complex, a conspiracy of mind, heart, memory, community, even suffering.  And the Gospel then re-educates us, for example to understand that it gives us a peace that passes understanding, a peace that sometimes is no peace, a good deeper than a simpler view of happiness or pleasure.   The Gospel of the goods springing up where Aslan runs goes on, in chapter 7, to tell us of the opposition and rejection Jesus stirred up, how his fellowship with sinners shocked.  The flowers that then bloom are not those the crowd expected. 

    Well, that is what I wanted really to say, but I do have two implications of the comprehensive and upending claim to truth that is faith in Jesus. We are at a mission day, and we have with us one of the foremost evangelists of our day and our tradition. OK, then mission and evangelism- there is an old chestnut of a question, how do those two words fit together? Much of the second half of the twentieth century was spent debating this question, and sometimes Christians divided into camps around it, until under the banner of ‘holism’ a truce was declared. But behind both is the fact, that the resurrection cracked open how we understand the world, as surely as the cross split the temple from top to bottom. And in the wake of the resurrection came the time and the summons to the gentiles, most all of us. And that outreach does indeed rightly include many things, feeding the hungry and visiting the imprisoned as in Matthew 25, speaking peace to the troubled in counseling, challenging injustice as the prophets did, and so forth. Witnessing to your faith in Jesus, in the hope that another might hear that word as from God, evangelism, it is special, it does have pride of place in this way: it makes explicit, it places in the foreground, the truth about the world and ourselves, which is the truth about Jesus, and from this truth everything else follows, even blooms. We say the name of Jesus, for other kinds of ministry risk leaving it unsaid. And this being clear, the many callings of mission do hang together, in just the way that Christ makes everything hang together, in Colossians one.

    My second implication? This one may seem a leap, so you can judge if I get over the water hazard. Today is coronation day, and as a Canadian I am his subject, though as an American I am a sorry excuse for one too. But in honor of him, I want to close with a word about a favored idea of his.  The faith of which he is the historic defender is that of the prayer book, of the unique Lordship of Jesus Christ that runs through it.  In keeping with Luke seven that truth precedes, for us too who mostly aren’t his subjects, though we can wish him well.  But once this is clear, other callings, other goods, can spring up too. Christians have an interest in friendship, solidarity, and hospitality with those of other faiths.  We are all together human beings in the image of God. And so the king as a defender of faiths, as an advocate for all traditions, each with some good to offer humankind, is meet and right for the state, for the public square. We Christians have a serious interest in just such a charitable and generous public square, though this body, in which we sit this morning, the Church, it has the special vocation of pointing, like John the Baptist himself, toward the one who alone is the way the truth, and the life. Amen.