Doing ministry when the plan doesn’t come together

GOSPEL: John 17:20-26

Jesus prayed:] 20“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. …

25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (Read the whole passage)

Today is the last Sunday in the season of Easter. Seven weeks of celebrating and hearing of the Alleluias of the Resurrection. Yet, we do not leave Easter behind today. Rather, each Sunday is like a new mini-Easter, a new extension of God’s future given to us in the resurrection of Christ.

Therefore, as we prepare to move on to Pentecost next week, and into the long season of green after that, we go with our forebears in faith as a community shaped and formed by the seven week long, great day of the resurrection.

Throughout this season of Easter, we have been moved from the immediacy of the resurrection to the shaping and forming of the disciples into the early christian community. We have heard again how they were and we are being prepared to the body of Christ in the world. And with all of it coming to a head on Pentecost next week, as we mark the birth of the church.

But before we get there, we are left with two seemingly contrasting stories about where the early followers of Jesus were headed.

In one, we are silent eavesdroppers on a conversation, a prayer between God the Father and Christ the Son. In it Jesus commends this little band of misfits, outsiders and the least likely leaders to his father. And what comes from this handing over is a promise that this community of Christ’s followers are not left alone, and that those who belong to Christ are brought into the life of the Trinity, into the mission and activity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And then in the other story, we see the unfolding and surprising ministry of Paul and Silas as they go about the Greek world. As the two make their way to Phillipi with the intention of ministering to the fledging community there, they are interrupted by a slave girl who has been given the gift of divination.

The slave girl and her interruptions soon become an annoyance to Paul… and so he decides to cast out the spirit possessing her. This gets Paul into trouble, and the slave girl’s owners set to Paul and Silas to beat them and have them thrown in prison because they have just lost their lucrative source of income.

Once in prison Paul and Silas set about a new ministry to the prisoners only to have that interrupted by an earthquake and then a fearful guard contemplating taking his own life, whom Paul must again change course and do something about.

While maybe not obvious at first, the contrast between the two stories is striking. In one Jesus promises divine providence for the community of his followers. In the other, every plan for ministry that Paul has goes off the rails because of interruptions rooted in tragedy and suffering.

Somewhere between the promise that God will always go with us as the Church, as God’s hands and feet for mission, and the reality of how ministry is experienced in practice seem to diverge quite a bit.

On some level we know what Paul and Silas were experiencing. We too tend to have certain visions for ministry. We bear expectations for what church, for what our community faith, should look like. And yet, we also know what it is like when those expectations and visions aren’t realized. We know what it is to have our visions for church interrupted by the wrong kind of people, to have suffering and tragedy interrupt our plans.

It may be forest fires or the new of another mass shooting or governments unable to make trade deals that affect the daily lives of citizens or the crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women happening right on our door steps being labeled a genocide that keep us from being focused on the particular mission and formation of our community of the faithful.

It may be the struggles of balancing work, family life, young children, aging parents, retirement planning, declining health or other things of life that keep us from putting the time, energy and effort into practicing our faith that thought we would.

It might be the realities of tight budgets, tired volunteers, and a past that seems better than the future, expenses that keep going up and dollars that didn’t go as far as they used to that keep us from looking forward with hope and believing that God has good things in mind for us.

It might be a world that changes and moves on from one thing to the next so fast that our heads keep spinning, societal values and norms that seem to shift every day, new people with new identities that we aren’t sure how to navigate showing up and being part of the world in ways we struggle to understand.

Our visions and expectations for ministry are so easily interrupted these days, and along with brothers and sisters in faith here in the pews, across Winnipeg and Manitoba, across Canada and North America we don’t know what to do about it.

Paul didn’t know what do either… and maybe that is the point.

There is of course an interesting thing about the story of Paul and Silas: while they were being interrupted by the slave girl, she was telling everyone that these two men knew about salvation. And while Paul acted out of annoyance, he freed a suffering girl from possession. And while Paul was busy trying to minister to the other prisoners while in prison, it was the jailer who needed to hear the good news.

Even in the midst of some of the worst things imaginable, some of the worst suffering – slavery, exploitation, violence and false imprisonment – the gospel found a way through. Even though it was not what Paul was expecting, even though it wasn’t even according to plan B or C or D… the gospel broke into the world precisely in the midst of the interruptions of human suffering.

It is not say that the good news only comes when there is bad stuff happening, but rather than in the midst of the mess and chaos of human life, the gospel has no problem breaking in. And the gospel doesn’t need our plans to be realized to be preached and to be heard.

In fact, our plans seem to have relatively little to do with where the good news of Jesus who died and rose again for us is made known.

Paul had one idea for Philippi, but God had another.

And just maybe that is the promise that Jesus is talking about with the Father. Not a promise that our visions and expectations will be realized, but a promise that in the midst of the real messiness and chaos of the world, the gospel will break through and break in.

It all fits of course, with a God who chose to be born in a manger in forgotten Bethlehem in order come into human life. With a god who chose to wander around the backwoods of the Roman Empire with a bunch of fishermen and tax collector in order preach the news of God’s love and mercy for all people. With a God who made execution on a cross at the hands of the best religious and political leaders that humanity had to offer the moment of our redemption along all creation.

The good news of this upside down, unexpected God found in Jesus wouldn’t make sense if it could only be preached when all the plans come together, when all the visions are realized, when all the expectations are met. The good news of this Jesus makes perfect sense preached in the midst of our plans gone wrong addressing the realty of our suffering world.

Jesus’s promise that suffering and death isn’t the end makes sense when it comes to us in the midst of fires and shootings and community crisis and economic struggle.

God’s naming and claiming as God’s own in the waters of baptism reminds us of who we are as we navigate the struggles of daily life, of family, work, community, health, retirement and on and on.

Christ’s presence among us in the Body of Christ remains the same even as congregations struggle to keep up with this shifting and changing world.

The forgiveness and mercy of God help us to change and grow, even as we don’t always understand the people and things around us and how to adapt to them.

The good news of this Jesus makes perfect sense preached in the midst of this community of misfits and outsiders called the body of Christ, it makes prefect sense that it comes to us in Word, Water, Bread and Wine shared here in our imperfect, messy, and chaotic community of faith.

And so, on this last Sunday of Easter, we hear two seemingly contradictory stories that fit perfectly together. That remind us that God always comes in our imperfections and plan Fs and struggling messy moments of suffering and surprise… because that is where we are.

Because where we are is where God in Christ breaks through in order to find us, in order to tell us again of God’s promise of New life for us.

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