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Bible readings:

Proper 5 Year B (February 8, 2015)                                St James', Peace River

A phrase came to my mind this week which I first encountered when I was teaching Anglican history about ten years ago. It was a description of the church's mission, in words which first appeared in a report from the 1958 Lambeth Conference. This was a time when Anglicans were becoming conscious of the global dimension of our church, and the many cultures and settings which made it up. So the vision for mission went like this: “The whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world.”

It was a popular enough slogan that it was picked up by mainline denominations in the World Council of Churches in 1961, and then again by evangelical churches at the Lausanne Conference in 1974. So I guess we were on to something! The “wholeness” emphasis appealed both to people who like to look at the big picture and see the fullness of what is happening – but also to people who might focus more on what is missing, and call our attention to that. The statement both affirmed the global importance of being the church, and also pointed to our potential blind spots.

Each of those “wholes” asks us to see beyond what we think we see. The whole church: that is so much more than our everyday encounter with the church. It's not just the people we see on Sunday. It's the people who don't show up too, whether they're at work or disenchanted with the rest of us or simply haven't figured out where they fit in yet. It's not just the people in this church, either. It's the other Christians with different institutional loyalties (or perhaps none at all) who are disciples of the same teacher and members of the same body of Christ. It's not just the ones who worship like we do; not just the ones who speak languages we understand; not just the ones we've ever heard of or ever think about from one year to the next. It's the whole church. What all those other people are up to is somehow connected to what we do here; and even more astonishingly, what we do matters to them too.

And what the church is up to is.... the whole gospel. The good news of what God has done, is doing, and will do in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. That is what made us the church in the first place, and it's what gives us what is ours to do. But it's the whole gospel that we take with us – or perhaps we should say, it's the whole gospel that takes us along with it. And yet it seems like the church in every place and in every generation finds it hard to communicate the whole gospel. There's always a piece missing.

We might try to simplify the gospel message so much that it loses the rich texture which is so essential to describing God's grace and goodness. Or we might tell the story in such a way that we de-emphasize or skip over a crucial element of it: the wonderful goodness of all that God has made, or the human capacity and choice to destroy that goodness; the agonizing cost to God of persisting in love to us till the very end, or the glorious cosmic explosion of a new kind of life when that love found its way through death itself; the astonishing reality that God invites human beings like us to share in building the kingdom, or the rather more humbling reality that everything we can contribute to that project we owe to God in the first place. Each of those are pieces of the story which, at some time or place, Christians have fallen largely silent about. And yet to reach our audience, we need the whole gospel.

We need it, because our audience is the whole world. And that may be the blindest spot of all. The church as a whole has been pretty good about going everywhere – getting feet on the ground in every country, every culture, every community. But it's a lot harder to remember, once you're there, that your audience is everyone. Rich or poor, visible or invisible, powerful or oppressed. Just think about our own community – how do we live and speak good news in a way that relates to everyone around us? The people we know and the people we don't; those who have some background with Christianity and those who don't; people with different levels of education, different patterns of living, different interests and world views. Now multiply that by a million and you get what it means for the whole church to be sent with the whole gospel to the whole world.

Scaling it up by a million, though, might be a red herring. Because the real point of this “whole” talk is that the success of the church in its mission depends on every part. To reach out to the whole world, we need all of us living the good news where we are, and then moving on into places where we aren't just yet. To share the whole gospel, we need every one of us experiencing God's grace ourselves, even in the parts of our lives we haven't yet let God into – and then living grace “out loud” so that others can see what God is doing. To be the whole church, we need all the people who are the church – whose lives are being touched by the love of God in Jesus so much that we want to do something about it.

Jesus showed the way, in that gospel passage we heard which describes the beginning of his own mission. He'd just announced the inauguration of the kingdom of God, and no sooner had he done that than it started happening. People started taking him to their relatives, or bringing their relatives to him. Good news was in the air – people were experiencing healing, finding their lives changed, taking that first step into a new kind of living. And it wasn't enough, because it wasn't “whole”. We heard Jesus saying, we have to keep moving, because this has to be for everyone. And as we read on, we'll also hear him saying that people need the whole message – it's not just bread and roses, it's also giving up everything you have in order to receive what really matters, and being last if you want to be first, and dying in order to live. And along the way, Jesus finds his whole church – the unlikely followers, who turn out to be exactly the people to carry Good News that would change the world and build the kingdom.

Unlikeliest of all was St Paul, whom we heard from in the second lesson saying almost exactly the same thing. Remember how his story starts – tracking down Jesus' followers in order to imprison, flog, or silence them. If the Good News of God in Jesus is for him, then it really is for everyone, and Paul understands that completely. We know from his other writings that Paul went to all kinds of places and lived through all sorts of situations in order to share the message, but I think today's reading is even more interesting, because we hear him saying that it's not just where you go or what you do, it's how you relate to people. He swallowed his own pride over and over again as he crossed back and forth between Jews and non-Jews, trying to show that Jesus really is for everyone. He had to be able to work from a position of weakness, not power, in order to win the trust of the powerless – and while that might have been good strategy, it was also a genuine way of embodying what Jesus meant to him. He sums it up by saying, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

What would that look like if you tried it? I don't think you have to be all things to all people, but you do need to be something to someone – something else. Something outside of your own comfort zone. Can you be more forgiving, or generous, or powerless, than you feel you ought to be, in order that someone else can see what Jesus means? Or can you be more challenging, confronting, unmoveable as a rock, in order that someone else can see that side of the gospel too? Can you see someone that no one else sees, speak to someone that no one else notices, and make them a part of your life and yourself part of theirs – knowing that Jesus wants to be with everyone, and asks us to help? Can you set aside some of the obvious ways people are looking for good news, and offer something deeper and more complete by really living your faith alongside them?

That's the challenge of being disciples, for us where we are right now. We are part of that whole church living the whole gospel for the sake of the whole world. It won't happen without us, but we're not on our own. We have the strength and insight and encouragement of a billion fellow Christians to rely on, and they're relying on us just as much. And more than that, we have our own experience with grace. As we keep struggling to discover the whole of the good news for ourselves, to accept the fullness of what God is doing for us – we can hardly help but want that wholeness for the people we begin to see with the eyes of God's own love. Taking that step beyond what we know, travelling on with the good news, stretching ourselves to connect with others – that's us taking our part in the mission of the whole church. But more importantly, it's us taking the place that God is offering us in healing and saving the whole world, of which we are a part.