The Book of Common Prayer tells us that the mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. That is the reason we exist, and we gather each week for comfort and the strength God gives us for that mission.
What undergirds our mission is our trust in resurrection, our trust that God’s unconditional love overcomes all things, even death itself, the story of which is told powerfully in the life and death of Jesus the Christ and the subsequent appearances of his resurrected body among his first followers—and still among his followers today. Resurrection undergirds everything we do, and Paul tells us that we are now members of the body of Christ.
As the Benedictines have told us for centuries, Jesus is always knocking on our door. It is reason enough to open church doors. Our congregations are changed when we stop focusing on ourselves and instead focus on mission, when we start looking outside the doors of our buildings. When we see Jesus walking among us we will be surprisingly, fundamentally changed. It is a way to live that is just as possible in Lake Village as it is in Bella Vista, in Paragould as it is in Foreman, in El Dorado as it is in Little Rock. We can live that way as a congregation of four hundred or twenty. To say otherwise is to live as people with no hope, to live as a people unwilling to be surprised by God.
I am confident that our Anglican approach to the Christian faith is a message that people want and need. We have a history of profoundly moving worship and generosity to the suffering and intellectual honesty for which people are searching in this age of commercialism, greed, war, and dishonesty. If we are confident that God is doing a new thing through us, then we will welcome the stranger with open arms.
To put it simply, we will go forward and do the mission of the church because in so doing we will see Jesus. We will see Jesus in the face of friend and stranger. We will see Jesus in the face of young and old. We will see Jesus in the face of the strong and the weak. We will see Jesus in very concrete ways in towns large and small.
You ask, “How?” Well, let me give you a few examples. Peggy Barry, newly ordained as a priest, represents the face of East Arkansas and the aspirations of people in towns and congregations that struggle financially and numerically, and, let’s face it, racially. Talk about an area where the restoration of all people is the mission of the church! We will see Jesus in the face of Peggy and the people among whom she serves.
Michael Briggs is an apartment complex manager who is now a member of the clergy. He may be as evangelical a member of the clergy as we have in this diocese; I have the feeling that evangelism is in his DNA. He and his spouse Tim are active in the life of St. Mark’s Church in Jonesboro, where he will be working and where his very presence in a collar is a symbol of how the church restores people to unity one with another. We will see Jesus in the face of Michael and the people of Jonesboro who want good news in their lives.
Guillermo Castillo is a newly received priest with a vital and active ministry among the people in this state who speak Spanish, either because it is their choice or their only language. Guillermo is a sign of how the restoring of relationships occurs across cultural boundaries. We will see Jesus in the face of Guillermo and the people he brings to us. They are gifts that will enrich our lives as a church.
I am going to be frank. It is hard many days to see Jesus in the face of everyone we encounter when so much of how this world is constructed is to set one person against another, to see one person as inferior to someone else, whether on the basis of class or wealth or race or sexual orientation or even political party affiliation. But the church is in some ways profoundly counter-cultural. We work to usher in the kingdom of God in which everyone is reconciled one to another in Christ and all of us are reconciled to God. That is why we as a church exist, not for ourselves, not for our own comfort, not for our own sense of well being, but instead for every person who still stands outside our doors and who wants to hear the good news that in God all things and all people are made new. Whether or not they know it, people are looking for resurrection.
As long as I am your bishop, I will continue to remind you that we will see Jesus. It is both a current reality and our future hope. We will proclaim that Christ has died and has been resurrected and walks among us. That truth changes lives. It gives us as a church a reason for living. We will support this way to live with our prayers and our pocketbooks and our time because it changes who we are. It changes us into the people of God.
If you are asked what in the world the Episcopal Church is up to, asked why we worship as we do, asked why we are so welcoming, asked why we love to wrestle with tough and often unanswered questions, simply reply, “We will see Jesus.”[This address was given by Bishop Benfield at the close of the 139th Annual Diocesan Convention in Little Rock, March 12, 2011.]