I learned that the cab driver who drove me to the airport had recently moved to the states from Ethiopia. We talked about that for a while, and then he asked what I was doing in Portland, Oregon. I told him I was participating in a conference of Episcopal Communicators. I found my answer required some unpacking, not only because he did not know English well and I did not know his native language at all. I told him I was a priest. I told him I was giving some talks on how we share our news. He asked: “So you’re a missionary?” My knee jerk reaction, offered to someone raised in Africa, a region subject to the often painful collision of imperial and Christian expansion, was simple: “Well, not really.” When those words came out of my mouth, as so often happens, I wished I could have recalled them. I found myself thinking that I should have said something like this: “Yes I am.” Or maybe even: “Aren’t we all?”
In a couple different settings, recent conversations have gotten me thinking about what it means to be a disciple and what it means to be an apostle, where those two overlap, where they differ. If I were king, I might find every place where the word “disciple” appears in the New Testament and, for a season, change it to the word “student.” That may not capture fully the idea of a disciple (one who follows), but it does help us realize that in the journey of faith, we are called to be learners all the time. Wherever we are on the spiritual continuum, there is more.
The word “apostle” suggests something different. It’s about what we do with what we’re learning. It connotes someone who has been sent, someone given a mission. Anyone who answers that call (your mission, should you accept…) could well be called a missionary. I believe that we can all see ourselves in that great company.
When Jesus met with his disciples, after his resurrection and before his return to heaven, he told them: “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” I’ve reflected on that phrase: “As the Father has sent me.” I found myself thinking of how Jesus was sent to the world: to change it, to bring healing, to say that what the world often considers wretched, Jesus declares to be blessed. (Proper attribution: that’s a phrase I heard in a sermon given by our Presiding Bishop at this conference.) Jesus was sent to help us know and show grace, to reveal what is sometimes hard for us to see or believe, that love is at the center. That’s the way we are sent into the world. To do that kind of thing.
That idea of mission, that apostolic vision surrounds us in the Christian community. If it’s your tradition to refer to the eucharist as a mass, know that the word mass (in Latin, missa) really has to do with this idea of mission, of being sent. For those reasons, some have argued that the most important part of the eucharist is the dismissal (Note again the root of that word: missa) when we are sent into the world to love and serve the Lord. Many churches have put this sign over the exit: “The worship is over. The service begins.”
I don’t think we can be too expansive about this. Anyone made in the image of God (i.e., everyone) has the potential to reflect that likeness, and to go into the world to share and show grace. Everyone can engage in that apostolic ministry. Everyone can be a missionary. I know the term has baggage, with coercive connotations. Maybe you can simply see yourself as part of the Jesus movement, listening as much as talking, finding out what God is up to in the neighborhood, bringing with you news of grace.
With all that in mind, how might you be an apostle this Monday?
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