In the early part of the thirteenth century, God spoke to Francis through a whole series of events, from an encounter with a leper to a vision where he heard God say, “Restore my church.”
Initially, he thought that meant to rebuild the ruins outside Assisi. He had no idea in the beginning that he was starting a movement. And a movement that, in fact, did much to bring back the church.
Francis, like Ezekiel in the Old Testament, knew he was a part of a rebellious house (cf. Ezekiel 12:1-12). It was still God’s church, but certainly one that had strayed powerfully from the life, witness, and teaching of Jesus.
One of the earliest converts to the movement was Clare. Like Francis, she was a person who came from a wealthy family, was physically attractive, and had, in essence, the whole world in front of her in the prosperous village of Assisi. She was powerfully drawn by God to Francis’ call to follow Christ, which for him, meant a renunciation of all the power, finances, and privilege that had been given him as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant.
Francis was radiant, and so was Clare. Soon, a number of women began to follow her, and her individual vocation soon became a movement, the Poor Clares, as they call themselves to this day. And we in the Anglican Communion have both Franciscans and Clares who practice their order within the context of this branch of Christ’s church.
I think about their example in several ways. Here are three keys that marked the lives of both St. Francis and St. Clare:
- They were called to trust Christ for provision of their needs. We may not be called to poverty as they were, but we are certainly called to trust Christ—not our bosses or employers. We trust that Jesus is the one who promises to provide for our needs according to his riches in glory, and no earthly power can do that. In fact, we follow one who is mightier and stronger than any earthly power or potentate.
In fact, if we fall into the trap of believing we must kowtow to a particular line our employer requires in such a way as to compromise the gospel, we are straying powerfully from the call of to trust him. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
- They walked away from the temptation to collude with power. Collusion with power occurs when people think it might somehow help them gain a voice, not realizing that historically, the church has looked more like the power she tries to influence than the gospel of Christ. Colluding with power is, in fact, an ever-present temptation because we enjoy our creature comforts. And it’s an extraordinarily fine line to learn how to live in but not of the world. In the midst of that world, our struggle, as Paul writes, “is not against enemies of blood and flesh” (Eph. 6:12b).
- They made serving the poor a priority as a means of wrestling with what it means to live in but not of the world.
Serving the poor marked both the Clares and the Franciscans, and it’s a profound gospel value.
Any congregation, any Christian movement, that plays to a particular group in a way that harms or even forgets the preeminent ministry to the poor is the one most likely to stray from the command to be “in the world but not of the world” (Jn. 17:16).
It’s like insurance in a way. Because the more we serve the poor, get to know them, spend time with them, stand with them, and see the world through their lens, the better vision we get of what the world might look like in the kingdom of God and less like the values most of us have inherited as middle-class Americans.
Saints Clare and Francis have much to say to us as we think about what it means to live a life where we, in essence, choose to live out a set of values that look like Jesus but are often profoundly contrary, even to the values of the church.
But God won’t let us off the hook even when the church strays. We can’t blame the institution. Instead, the question is “Lord, in this day, what would you have me do?”
And out of that, follow after His commands.
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Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.