Doing Missions Well: Francis’ Incarnational Ministry

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ImageOne way of thinking about missionary service is to measure it against Christ’s Incarnation.  That does not mean that missionaries become God like Jesus was.  It does mean that missionaries allow Jesus to shine through their actions and attitudes similar to how the Father shone through Jesus’ actions and attitudes. Incarnational ministry means saying with Paul:  “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

A lay missionary in the 1200s named Francis portrays what it means for a missionary to be incarnational.  Francis came from an Italian a city named Assisi.  Thus, he’s called Francis of Assisi.  If we can work our way past the fanciful legends about him, we can glimpse a missionary through whom Christ shone brightly.

Francis grew up in a wealthy family but walked away from that wealth to become a lay evangelist. He worked at reviving dead and dying churches in central Italy. Then, when his vision and call expanded to become global, he founded a missionary-sending group.  He personally attempted mission trips to Jerusalem and to Spain.  One was cut short by shipwreck and the other by illness.

One very significant incarnational episode in Francis’ life came during one of the Crusades. While the Pope’s “Christian” army battled the “heathen” Muslim army of Egypt, Francis made his way to Egypt where he managed to arrange a meeting with the Sultan (the country’s religious and political leader).

At the end of their time together, the Sultan reportedly said to Francis, “If I would meet more Christians like you, I would be tempted to become one.”

Something about Francis communicated the presence of Christ to that Muslim leader far, far better than did the “Christian” army looting the countryside and beseiging his city.

Francis’ missionary-sending group became a significant "missionary order" of the Western Church. We know that group today as the “Franciscans.”  Francis wouldn’t be happy with that name or the wealth accumulated by that organization. Abhorring power and prestige, Francis called his group simply "The Little Friars Order."

Francis is credited with writing a poetic prayer which has been set to music:

     Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;

     where there is hatred, let me sow love;

     when there is injury, pardon;

     where there is doubt, faith;

     where there is despair, hope;

     where there is darkness, light;

     and where there is sadness, joy.

     Grant that I may not so much seek

     to be consoled as to console;

     to be understood, as to understand,

     to be loved as to love;

     for it is in giving that we receive,

     it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

     and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

(View performance)

While it is unknown who actually wrote that prayer, the incarnational attitudes expressed in it dramatize the powerful image of Christ shining forth through missionaries who allow Christ to live in them in ways that they seem like “Jesus with skin on.”

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