Mission Friends

by Al Tizon

From a sermon delivered at the Covenant Annual Meeting on Saturday morning, June 29, 2019.

Texts: John 13:34-35; 15:12-14; Romans 16:1-16

At the base of our strategic planning, goal setting, doctrine defending, policy making, project managing, and results assessing, must be the experiential truth of our friendship with each other in Christ. We are more than the business we have become.

Since I only have a few minutes this morning, I want to get right to it: Our name is the Evangelical Covenant Church, and we are Mission Friends. Our original and beautiful name. If it was up to me, I’d take up that name again! We are Mission Friends, followers of Jesus who have awakened to God’s purposes in the world; and then, possessed by the Holy Spirit, have come together, embarked on a holistic missionary journey that has taken us to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth for the last 134 years and counting.

Now I know I’m the mission guy, and I should probably emphasize the mission part of Mission Friends, but it was the Friends part that drew my attention this time around. Mission…Friends, friends with a mission. At the base of our efforts at strategic planning, doctrine defending, policy making, goal setting, project managing, fund raising, and result assessing, there is that deep-down experience of holy, authentic friendship with one another in Christ that brings meaning into all of those activities. Otherwise, we’re just a bunch of professionals, business associates, with a task to do. But we’re more than that; we are Mission Friends.

“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another. …as I have loved you. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” (John 13:34-35). And then in chapter 15: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” And what did Jesus command them? To love one another, to be friends. By our very friendship with Jesus and one another, the world will know.

Now last I checked, I have 2,414 friends on Facebook. But of course, Jesus’ view of friendship goes a little deeper than that; he described friendship in part as being willing to die for each other (John 15:13). All right, I “like” you, Facebook friends, but we have a little work to do if we want to get to the level of dying for each other.

When I reflect on our original name, several simple questions emerge, the first being, do we know each other? Do we take the time to get to know each other, to get into each other’s lives, to get into each other’s business? That’s a prerequisite, you know, to being friends.

Just recently, I took a phone call that I knew was going to be awkward and tense, because we had to talk about a financial matter that we didn’t see eye-to-eye on. The voice on the other end of the phone belonged to a senior leader of a partner organization, whom I’d never met before. He wanted to get right to it; but because I’ve been thinking about this friendship thing lately, I didn’t. I wanted to get to know this brother. So I asked him about his family, his faith journey, his sports loyalties, and he began to ask me some personal questions too. And before we knew it, 20 minutes had gone by, and we hadn’t talked an ounce of business. But when we eventually did, the tone and tenor were different. There was a willingness to truly dialogue and resolve whatever problem there was between us. Why? Because we started to get to know each other. I mean, I know the names of his kids now, and he mine. There are still things to work out, but it will be based on a developing relationship, a budding friendship. When we take the time to get to know each other, the rules of engagement change. It’s not primarily about rules and regulations, creeds, and policies. It’s about friendship in Christ.

So… do we know each other, and furthermore, do we like each other? Do we like each other? Do you like who you work with? Is there camaraderie, respect, love, fun between us? Do we contribute to a healthy relational environment wherein people want to come to work, because they’re being affirmed and encouraged to be all they can be? Another way to ask it is, do our colleagues and staff, and team members know that they are first and foremost valued as persons before they’re employees?

As friends, we’ll have our disagreements and argue; but are we willing to work through them without the threat of losing our jobs or positions or status? Because friends don’t provoke each other to anger; they don’t police each other; they don’t dare each other; they don’t trap each other into corners or manipulate each other; they don’t write each other off in the face of disagreement. Mission Friends, do we like each other?

This question reminds me that we must be more than the business, the corporation, the ministry machine, the perfect façade of a church that we can so easily become! It’s my heart cry that we the church be different than the world; let us love one another as Jesus loves us; and by that, the world will know what it needs to know for its salvation.

Only when we lay down that human, relational foundation of friendship in Christ can we ask the third question, and that is, do we know what our mission is? I’m certainly not pitting friendship against planning and strategizing and working hard to keep each other accountable. That’s the genius of the idea of Mission Friends. If we don’t

have a mission that binds us, then we’re just friends—on Facebook or in a book club or a knitting group; with no mission, we’re just beer buddies, Sunday-only fellowship-ers. Nothing wrong with any of these things. But to be friends on God’s mission together—now that’s a whole other thing. There’s depth and power and meaning there, which, in the hands of God, can change the world. Friendship in Christ can change the world! To be friends on a common mission that Jesus himself defined in Luke 4 as proclaiming good news to the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed is a call that our Pietists forebears understood profoundly.

[In Romans 16] Paul names people and ministry partners, and he sends heartfelt greetings and affirmations to them. I love it, because Paul, who just wrote a masterful theological treatise of a letter, concludes basically with loving on his friends. I’ve made the passage into a fill-in-the-blanks worksheet for myself that looks something like this [projected slide], and I’ve been filling the blanks with the amazing people I work with at the office, as well as in the 50+ countries in which global personnel and national partners who are engaged in mission together. It has been a meaningful reminder to me of what it means to be Mission

Friends. Let me encourage you take this passage and replace those names (that are hard to pronounce anyway) with those whom you work with in the ministry of the gospel.

I have this vision of true friendship being lived out, 3-StrandStrong: denomination, conferences, and congregations truly loving each other, yes, even amid disagreements, even profound ones. I see 3-StrandStrong Covenant Church and our missionaries and ministries enjoying friendships where missionaries and ministry directors no longer feel like beggars for support and churches no longer feel like spiritual ATMs! In this vision, none of our 125 global personnel are struggling with their support; none of our ministries are struggling to raise the needed funds to accomplish their mission. And congregations are growing in their discipleship because they’re participating in the whole gospel with and through Serve Globally personnel.

Too idealistic? “Maybe. Probably,” says the skeptic in me. Until I remember those wise and passionate Pietists back in the day who decided, in a moment of Holy Spirit clarity, to call themselves missionsvänner.

Church, thank you for your vote of confidence in me yesterday. I enter a second term with excitement, but if I were honest, with a heavy heart too in the light of the last few days. Do we need to consider anew what it means to be Mission Friends? God calls us this morning to remember who we are and why we exist. Our name is the Evangelical Covenant Church, and we are Mission Friends.