An Incidental Mission

Friday, August 30, 2013 — Week of Proper 16, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 980)

Psalms 16, 17 (morning) // 22 (evening)

1 Kings 5:1-6:1, 7

Acts 28:1-16

Mark 14:27-42

This morning’s second reading sets the stage for a stereotypical story from the mission field: We meet kind and hospitable “natives” of an island, and they encounter an enlightened and powerful visitor. Fortunately, the rest of this story differs from such formulaic accounts . . . and even from Paul’s more standard missionary ventures. In fact, Paul isn’t on an intentional mission at all. Malta is just an incidental mission field, somewhere he was forced to stop while a prisoner under guard and en route to Rome.

Sometimes, our incidental missions can have a greater impact than our intentional missions. Paul’s unusual, wordless witness in this passage makes people change their minds and wonder what things mean.

When a viper sinks its fangs into Paul and dangles from his hand, the people of Malta think that Paul must be a murderer. They believe in a universe governed by divine retribution. They interpret events as signs of condemnation: “though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” Paul, however, flouts the laws of this universe and survives the viper’s venom.

What a powerful, simple missionary witness: defy expectations and change minds. The passage tells us that the people were “expecting him to swell up or drop dead.” When nothing happened, “they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.”

Paul may have reinforced the impression that he was a god by healing someone with dysentery, along with many other people on the islands. The people “bestowed many honors” on him and his traveling companions and sent them forth with all the provisions they could need. Who knows what unorthodox theological framework Paul left them with! But at least he showed them that divine power isn’t just for miraculously surviving a snake bite. Divine power is for the healing of the world.

I find this incidental mission to the island of Malta very refreshing, since we have no record of the long speeches that Paul gives along his more intentional journeys! We just have simple opportunities to bear witness to some basic aspects of our faith: that we have misinterpreted the signs of God’s judgment and condemnation, and that we are called not to act as powerful gods but to serve others.

Today may hold many opportunities to be an incidental missionary. Let’s make ourselves available to the moments when we can show others a faith that defies the laws of condemnation, and a salvation that is not for ourselves but for the whole world.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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