Click here to listen to this sermon.

Read Acts 15:36 - 16:10.

One of the best mission trips I went on was a failure. It was a spring break campaign to Piedras Negras, Mexico. I first went there months before the campaign to prepare for the project. It was on that trip that we met the leaders of the congregation in Mexico. Their minister was known as Hector Jr. and he had a large family, some of his children were soon heading to college. His father, Hector Sr., had an even larger family. Hector Sr. had a large lot of land and we were going to partner with them to build a new house of worship on that land. It was a sort of church planting. Hector Sr.’s place was in a collonia outside Piedras. The trip into Piedras Negras to their only house of worship was quite a journey for most of the church. This location would serve them better and give them an opportunity to share the gospel with others in the collonia.

So, we set out to build a church building. Our plan was for people of the Mexican congregation to dig the foundation and put up the cinder block walls during the six months from October to March. It was a simple building. The kind that can be built in a month’s time or less. The challenging part was the roof. The Americans were going to build the roof with our engineering expertise and access to resources. We brought our college engineers down to observe the site and make plans for the roof build. The goal for our week campaign in Piedras Negras was the completion of the roof and the opening of the doors to the new house of worship for the Iglesia de Cristo in Piedras Negras.

In the next six months we did our best to organize our team of college students. We prayed. We got together to study. We learned songs in Spanish. Our singing style in four part harmony was sort of a novelty in Mexico and we planned to do some singing in public and in worship. We recruited more and more students. We planned our food and the transportation. And of course our engineers finished their plans for the roof and told us how we could all participate in the build.

You could feel the buzz of excitement when we finally arrived at Old Hector’s land in the collonia for the campaign. And we looked all around for the cinder block building just waiting for our expertly designed roof. When we got off the bus we were greeted warmly by the church in Mexico and we finally came around to asking where the building was. “Are we still building on the same site?” “Yes,” they said, “and we will start digging the foundation tomorrow!”

All of our plans and schemes were frustrated. Our engineer was ready to throw his note book away. Instead of building a roof and cutting a ribbon on a new building, we were left to begin the sweaty, dirty, back breaking work of digging a foundation in the stony Mexican soil. We wouldn’t even get to build the walls on this trip. It wasn’t what we expected. The buzz of excitement changed into the grumbling of frustration. Tensions that had been simmering were soon brought to full boil. There was controversy and gossip among our well-honed mission team even though we had prayed and sung songs holding hands. All of the leaders seemed a bit confused. It wasn’t nice. It wasn’t pretty.

But I consider this “failed” mission trip as one of the best. I say this because I know the Spirit of Jesus was there. When the efforts of human leaders fall short, but powerful things still happen, then one becomes aware of the involvement of the Spirit of Jesus Despite the frustration of our project, conflict, and the shortcomings of myself and others, we were involved in mission that week. I had amazing and humbling experiences that week: I dug a trench alongside Old Hector, a man three times my age but four times as strong as me. We came thinking we would teach the church in Piedras Negras how to build but instead we were schooled. We learned the spirit of fellowship from the Christians in Mexico. In time the scales fell off our eyes and we came to learn that the church was indeed the people – it was us, Mexicans and Americans; not the brick structure with the expertly designed roof that we had been so desperate to build.

And we were taught to love each other despite our flaws. With tears and confession, the members of our mission team repented of the ways we had been unkind and offensive to one another. And some of us tasted the sweetness of reconciliation and unity. With humility we learned that the mission of God is not about privileged Americans helping the poor – there are plenty of international aid agencies that can do that. Instead, we learned that the mission of God is about showing up to witness what God is doing to help all of us.

That became so clear to me when Karen and I had the privilege of sharing in a wonderful communion of sorts. I had been digging in the foundation all week with a brother who was only a few years older than me and yet we was working and supporting a family. (He was the first Spanish-speaker to teach me the real language. I remember the first word he taught me, “Sigue”: which essentially means, “I’m done, it is your turn to work the pick ax awhile.” I said that a lot.) My brother invited Karen and I to his house on Sunday. His house was a one room structure no larger than our LFC student center. The ceiling wasn’t even as high. This man and woman lived there with their children and her mother. But they shared their home with us. And with a sincere joy they shared their food with us. It is one of the simplest meals I have ever eaten, and it was a grand feast.

Now I ask you – who were the missionaries on that trip? Who were the witnesses and who was witnessed to? Who was evangelizing and who was evangelized?

I say that this failed and frustrated mission project was the best because the Spirit of Jesus changed our course. Really, the Spirit of Jesus kept us on course and didn’t let our own project get in the way of what God was doing. We were kept from going our own way and accomplishing our own project and instead we got caught up in the work of God.

The text in Acts has helped me to understand what happened in Piedras Negras. And it is that interesting way that Luke speaks of the Spirit of Jesus that has been critical to my understanding of not only that one mission campaign, but many other events in ministry.

We want the Spirit of Jesus to bless and empower all of our projects and efforts. But reading this Scripture, we are taught that the Spirit of Jesus is able to do more than bless and empower our efforts, sometimes the Spirit of Jesus prevents or redirects our efforts. And that is good news! For mission efforts that are nothing more than human initiative are not the same thing as the mission of God. The Spirit of Jesus does not simply bless every project we dream up.

You see that so clearly in Luke’s writings. I don’t think it was part of Paul’s plan for him and Barnabas to have a sharp disagreement. I don’t think it was part of Paul’s plan to meet up with Timothy. It certainly wasn’t his plan to go to Macedonia. No, in fact we know that Paul had an alternative. He wanted to go to Asia or even Bithynia. Macedonia was toward the ends of the Earth and took him closer to Rome. But Paul and his team concluded that the Spirit of Jesus interfered with their plans and that God was calling them to Macedonia.

When you believe that the Spirit of Jesus encompasses all that we do, then we find it a little easier to surrender our plans to go into Asia or Bithynia. If we believe that the Spirit of Jesus rules over our life together, then we are not frustrated beyond hope when we are prevented from building a roof and we just might take joy in joining Christ as we dig in the earth of Mexico, or Macedonia.

It is in Macedonia, or Mexico, that we meet friends who invite us to “come up here.” And they are saying help us. Help us with what? Paul would have known that this help has to do with the Lord’s salvation. He would have recalled the way the word help is used in the old Scriptures. That help is the Lord’s saving power – not Paul’s, not ours. When Paul and Silas arrive in Macedonia they end up needing as much help and saving as anyone else. And they are helped: by Lydia, who provides hospitality and a place for the growing band of believers to meet. She welcomes them because God welcomes her into the kingdom. They are helped by a jailer who attends to their wounds and shows them mercy because he had been shown mercy by God. Who is helping who? And who is doing the saving? It wasn’t in their plan, but Paul and Silas were witness to what God is doing.

When you speak with our friends and partners in other countries, the missionaries, you get a keen awareness that they are simply witnessing what God is doing and living within the work of God in Laos, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Nigeria, France, Guyana. Why do we think it is any different here? When we follow the Spirit of Jesus, we needn’t lose hope when our plans fail. And with hope we conclude that God is still calling us to participate in mission.

Years after I dug a foundation in the Mexican dirt with the ache of my frustrated plans in my heart, one of my college students told me about a mission effort he had been called to. His talents with the Spanish language and construction were needed. He told me he was going to with a team to complete the construction of a building in Piedras Negras that some other group had started years ago. I was sure to point out to my student that if he went he needed to know that the Spirit of Jesus was in charge.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 12 November 2006

 Link to next sermon

 Link to other sermons of Chris Benjamin