Friday, November 06, 2009

How to be a missionary church…

There is a tendency to think about poverty, suffering, and pain as realities that happen primarily or even exclusively at the bottom of our Church. We seldom think of our leaders as poor. Still, there is great poverty, deep loneliness, painful isolation, real depression, and much emotional suffering at the top of our Church.

We need the courage to acknowledge the suffering of the leaders of our Church—its ministers, priests, bishops, and popes—and include them in this fellowship of the weak. When we are not distracted by the power, wealth, and success of those who offer leadership, we will soon discover their powerlessness, poverty, and failures and feel free to reach out to them with the same compassion we want to give to those at the bottom. In God’s eyes there is no distance between bottom and top. There shouldn't be in our eyes either…

There are more people on this planet outside the Church than inside it. Millions have been baptised, millions have not. Millions participate in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but millions do not.

The Church as the body of Christ, as Christ living in the world, has a larger task than to support, nurture, and guide its own members. It is also called to be a witness for the love of God made visible in Jesus. Before his death Jesus prayed for his followers, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Part of the essence of being the Church is being a living witness for Christ in the world…

How does the Church witness to Christ in the world? First and foremost by giving visibility to Jesus’ love for the poor and the weak. In a world so hungry for healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and most of all unconditional love, the Church must alleviate that hunger through its ministry. Wherever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the lonely, listen to those who are rejected, and bring unity and peace to those who are divided, we proclaim the living Christ, whether we speak about him or not.

It is important that whatever we do and wherever we go, we remain in the Name of Jesus, who sent us. Outside his Name our ministry will lose its divine energy.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Nouwen points out something here that was self-evident not only in Jesus’ own ministry, but also in St. Francis’. Jesus, whom the disciples rightly called Teacher and Lord (John 13:13) had nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58); Francis, the founder of arguably the best-known religious order in the history of the Christian church, died lying on the bare ground, covered only by a borrowed habit.

Church leaders who feel that wealth and power are somehow owed to them, in line with the leaders of secular pursuits, who take pride in comfortable houses and personalised number-plates, would do well to think this through. Equally, though, we in the laity who ask the impossible of our leaders, who expect to own a share in their every waking minute, would do well to remember that they too are “in this fellowship of the weak”.

It it only by ministering to the poor as the poor, as Jesus and Francis did, that we will ever be an effective witness to our Lord and Saviour. When we are prepared to be truly a “church without walls,” without the walls of privilege, social standing, comfortable wealth, then we will see the Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven!

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