When I was in school, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was on the track team. I was predominantly a long-distance runner, but on one occasion, when we were short a couple of runners, I was asked to join the relay team. Now, I don’t remember the distance of the race or really anything about the meet, except, dropping the baton. In case you’re wondering, that’s not as easy as it looks. To properly pass the baton takes a lot of practice. “Practice makes perfect” the old saying goes.
Well, today, we have before us Jesus’ prayer for the disciples as he prepares them for life and ministry and mission after he is gone. And while the heart of this prayer is for them to be unified with God and with each other, he prays that they will be one just as he and God are one; the hands and feet of this prayer, the nuts and bolts if you will, is a call for them to put into practice what they had learned under Jesus’ guidance. Jesus, in a metaphorical way, was passing the baton to the disciples and encouraging them to hold on to it tightly.
But how could this ever-diversifying group of followers ever take the baton and unify as one? Well, the key is to start with the basics. Interwoven with a whole lot of “Father” and “glory” language, Jesus says, in essence, “my life is on display in them,”[i] In other words, unity starts with seeing Christ in each other. And this tells us something about our calling as well. Our mission today is to “display” the life of Jesus in our faith and ministry. That’s the baton that’s been passed to us.
Now, there is much to be said for seeing Christ in each other, but there is also something to be said for seeing ourselves as God sees us, with steadfast love and compassion and with hope for the future and what is yet to be. The disciples were a group with great promise, and Jesus saw that promise within them, but he also knew that they would carry the gospel, and embody its message, in a hostile and unwelcoming world.[ii] A world that, for the most part anyway, didn’t care about the gospel message of seeking justice or the outcast, welcome for the immigrant, or providing a helping hand to the poor. Sound familiar?
In a world, and currently a nation, full of challenges to people of faith, one wonders how the church’s self-definition would be changed if it took as its beginning point, ‘We are a community who sees all people and ourselves as God sees us'” How would such an understanding affect the way our church sees itself, its strength, its possibilities, and its mission in the world?[iii].
Well, one organization who has taken this approach to ministry is Back Bay Mission in Biloxi Mississippi. Back Bay has a simple mission statement: “strengthen neighborhoods, seek justice, transform lives.”[iv] Now, I know some of you have gone on a mission trip or two down to Back Bay and there’s another one in our future. But for those of you who aren’t familiar with Back Bay, it’s a United Church of Christ mission site in Biloxi Mississippi who sponsors teams of volunteers to come down a week at a time and rehab homes for folks who are struggling to avoid homelessness. In addition, there’s a food pantry, laundry facilities, assistance with job placement, and a whole lot more.
Now, the focus has shifted a bit in the past few years to building new condos for homeless veterans. But the beauty of Back Bay, the real core of “seeing ourselves as God sees all of us” is the relationships that develop between the volunteers, the staff, and those being served. You see, the work at Back Bay is done side by side with the staff and the prospective home owners. The experience puts a real face on poverty and those who have gone report that their lives and their perspective on poverty are greatly changed. One woman, when describing her experience at Back Bay, said that she was both “energized and saddened.” “Energized,” she said, “by the mission and the people she encountered there, but saddened by the overwhelming amount of work yet to be done.”
There is much work still to be done. The hard and often tedious work of changing hearts and minds concerning the poor is still far from over. It’s far from over because the world is often a hostile place, and the cross makes no sense to many people, any more than the Resurrection does, but our reassurance rests in the knowledge that Jesus has left us in God’s care. We are not alone. As Fred Craddock so eloquently puts it: “The Evangelist leaves no one in doubt: the church is not an orphan in the world, an accident of history, a thing dislodged, the frightened child of huddled rumors and superstitions. The pedigree of truth is established and unbroken: from God, to Christ, to the apostles, to the church”[v]
As we leave this service today, and go about our lives, may that “pedigree of truth” embolden us take up the challenge and put into practice, real-life practice, the second of the two-fold command: to love our neighbor as ourselves. My friends, that’s the baton that’s been passed to us “from God, to Christ, to the disciples, to the historic church, to us…” And as we grasp that baton of compassion, may our grip be true, and as our race comes to an end, may we confidently pass the baton on to the next generation.
In the name of the One who leads us all the way through the tape.
[i] Eugene Peterson. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (NavPress Publishing Group, 2005)
[iii] Gail R. O’Day, John, The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. IX eds. Lender E. Keck et.al. (Abingdon Press 1995)
[v] Fred Craddock. Preaching Through the Christian Year. Vol. A (Bloomsbury, T&T Clark, 1994)