(a sermon for October 13, 2013, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost; fifth in a series, based on Hebrews 12:1-3 and Matthew 28:16-20)“You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.” — from the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith
Thus we affirm the purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ, and indeed, there’s a lot there to think about!
However, for all the richness of the language this part of our statement of faith basically boils down to something quite simple: the church is all about mission. In the church, we are a missionary community!
Now, I realize that when I use the word “missionary,” there are immediately several pictures that leap to mind: historically speaking, scripture brought to natives in tiny villages deep in the jungle; more recently, perhaps, the image of hospitals, schools or water systems built in poverty-stricken third world nations; or news of relief efforts in the worst locales and situations imaginable. That’s certainly all part of mission, it is the church’s work and it is good work; but “mission” can also be defined as a bag of groceries for a senior citizen on an impossibly fixed income; infant formula for a single parent struggling to make ends meet, or a hot, nutritious and delicious (!) meal – quite possibly the only one that person gets in the course of a day or longer – served up at a truly “friendly” kitchen.
Mission also describes that sacred moment, when thanks to a Sunday School Bible story and a shepherd puppet made from construction paper and popsicle sticks, a child is made aware for the very first time of God’s love. Mission happens when the one who’s been paralyzed by life’s pain and anguish inexplicably walks into this place to find in the presence of kindred hearts the good news that there is hope and healing. Mission is ignited whenever and wherever the word of God is proclaimed, received and understood: whether in a worship service through music, prayer or even preaching; or else in a newsletter or via the internet and a place that’s dubiously named “Facebook!”
I’ll say it again: the church is all about mission, and correctly defined, mission is doing the work of Jesus Christ. The very word “mission” comes from a Latin verb mittere, meaning “to send.” So to have a mission means to be sent; and the very nature of the church has to do with the fact that first we’re gathered together by God’s Spirit, and then we’re sent out into the world! We’re on a mission from God, friends; specifically, Christ’s mission of healing and reconciliation; and everything we do in the church, in one way or another, serves that purpose. It is no exaggeration to say that the very fact that we even exist as a community is to celebrate and then carry on the activity of Christ!
A very high calling, indeed!
But lest we become all too high and mighty about it, let us also recognize that our actually being the church; that is, what we do as congregations and how we choose to live with each other often runs the risk of interfering with our mission! Roger Shinn writes that the church, “like any collection of human beings… is many other things as well – an organization with buildings, treasuries, rules and procedures; [with] officers, human rivalries, status symbols” and all manner of conflict and pettiness to go along with it. Churches, Shinn goes on, “can be guilty of all the sin and mediocrity that abound in human nature.” In other words, folks, we don’t always live up to the hype!
And yet here we are, an utterly ordinary group of people who have been somehow drawn together, so we might go out on this mission of spreading the news of Christ! That makes us missionaries, friends, each and all part of that “great commission” from Jesus himself: this high calling to “go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit… teaching them everything” that Jesus taught and commanded.
This is the centerpiece of our statement of faith, along with being a central affirmation of our Christian faith and a true “mission statement.” But ultimately, what does it mean? I wonder; how this “great commission” impacts our lives and influences our behavior… really? How is it that this morning we’re gathered in here, but this afternoon we’re being sent out there, and what difference is that supposed to make? Well, friends, these are questions that speak to our very relationship with God and the church, as well as to what we know to be true about ourselves: what we live for, and what we will die for.
After all, it was one thing for Jesus to call out to those fishermen to leave their nets behind to follow him; it was quite another when it began to dawn on them what they were actually doing: leaving everything that was easy and familiar and routine, all for a life of utter uncertainty and potential danger walking with this man Jesus. And yet, that’s what each of them did: because somewhere deep within, these disciples perceived Jesus’ call to follow as that which defined their very lives; in other words, how could they not follow? Well, friends, what does it say about you and me that we follow Jesus, and how does being “missionaries” for Christ define our lives? This is what our statement of faith goes on to express.
First of all, we say that we come – and go – knowing and accepting that there will be a cost as well as a joy of discipleship. In other words, neither the warm glow of a relationship with God nor the fervor that comes in experiencing the movement of God’s Spirit keeps us from the reality that it’s a harsh world out there; and that to follow Christ is a decision that goes radically against the ways of that world.
Contrary to what some believe – and what some preachers preach (!) – Jesus never lured anybody with promises of prestige, affluence or a trouble free life; in fact, he was very quick to point out quite the opposite: that discipleship means discipline, commitment and risk. “If any want to become my followers,” he said, “let then deny themselves… for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25) It is worth noting that according to tradition, with the exception of Judas Iscariot, all twelve of the first disciples became martyrs for Christ; and that throughout history, there have been countless Christians who have done the same for the sake of having taken up their crosses to follow their Lord. Now you and I may never find ourselves having to make such a sacrifice for the sake of our faith, but we may indeed encounter a cost: that of prestige, or social standing, or friendship, or cultural propriety and acceptability. That is what often goes with discipleship; all part and parcel of the mission!
Having said this, though, we don’t want to get too morose here, because while there is a cost, there’s also, most emphatically a joy to discipleship. It was never Jesus’ purpose to lead his disciples into a life of grim duty, but rather it was to be a call of eager opportunity, to “have life, and have it abundantly!” (John 10:10) God means for us for us to know the utter joy of knowing Christ and following him. Did you know that in the beatitudes, when Jesus says that “blessed” are the merciful, pure in heart, poor in spirit and those who are peace makers, that the Greek word for “blessed” in the gospels actually is better translated as “exuberant joy?” To live in Christ, and to be on Christ’s mission, is supposed to be an experience of joyful exuberance that we are called to share with others.
And that’s of vital importance, because we also know that as the church, we’re to be Christ’s “servants in the service of others,” proclaiming that same good and joyful gospel to all the world while resisting the powers of evil that would seek to pull us away from that gospel. What that means is that our faith is never to be an “I-Me-Mine” proposition, and the church is never to be focused solely on “our people, our building, our programs.” Christian discipleship is always to be about bearing the burdens of others just as Jesus has borne our burdens. As the recipients of God’s redeeming justice and saving love, we can do nothing less than model that same good news by word and action unto those who we love, and most especially unto those who nobody loves.
It is undeniable that evil exists in this world and often seems to run rampant to the point of almost seeming triumphant; sadly, not even faith makes us immune to its harsh and tragic realities. But as believers in Christ, you and I do “resist the powers of evil” by wholly dedicating ourselves to God’s original intent for this world – God’s own creation – in “the ways of life [and not] death,” taking on the mantle of servanthood, after the manner of Jesus. And that’s what cuts to the heart of the mission, beloved: to be “sharing in Christ’s baptism” as we affirm our own; to eat at the Lord’s Table and “to join him his passion and victory” for the sake of God’s people everywhere. It’s embracing discipleship’s joy even as we face its costs with courage and hope, and doing so as God’s own church; a community of the faithful that is no less than the Body of Christ.
You know, for me one of the great blessings of being a church pastor is the privilege of getting swept up into the life of the congregations you serve. Now a lot of that encompasses the big events and traditions in the church – you know, things like Christmas and Easter every year and how that unfolds; the weddings and baptisms and funerals that are so much a part of the fabric of a congregation – I love that part of pastoral ministry, and it’s an honor to share in it. But you know what I love even more are the small moments; the bits and pieces of our regular routine that go by almost unnoticed, and yet are part and parcel of our life together.
It’s the smiles and hugs with which people regularly greet one another around here; it’s the conversations, the laughter and sometimes the tears that are shared in these pews, along, incidentally, with the fact that whether we’ll admit or not, most of us do have our favorite pews to sit in (you might not always realize it, but from up here I see it!). It’s Sunday School and bible stories; the kids’ reaction to the childrens’ sermons and trying to teach the kids not to run out the door afterward; it’s choir rehearsals before worship, rushing to get our robes on and then always gathering in a circle and crossing our arms to pray before coming into the sanctuary. It’s the prayer and praising; it’s celebration and it’s burden sharing, all of which happens all through the morning and continues long after the benediction and postlude: basically, it’s the regular every Sunday morning routine of a church family coming to worship and then going out to face the rest of the week, yet never alone, and always about the business of God’s kingdom as they do; a people of faith and love joining in Christ’s passion and victory, carrying forth the legacy of love and action in Jesus’ name.
That’s who we are, beloved; you and I together in this place and amongst this company. Mind you, we’re not perfect here; we can be quirky, and like any other congregation we’ve got our issues to deal with. But we’re a gathered people; more than this, we are people on a mission from God! And so, as Paul said it, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses… let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and pefector of our faith.”
Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ, who sends you and me to tell and to live His good news!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry