Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Called to God's Mission

Matthew 9:35-10:23

 Jesus is out and about, traveling hither and yon, doing the work of the Kingdom of God.  But the work is more than one man could do, even if that man happened to be God in human flesh!  And Jesus is concerned for the great masses of people in need; they were like sheep without a shepherd.  

 The “shepherds of Israel” were the religious and political leaders of the nation whose job it was to guide, protect, and help people to know God and do his will.  But Jesus wasn’t the first to lament that the shepherds didn’t always do their job.  In Ezekiel 34, God said, “I myself will search and find my sheep.  I will be like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock.  I will find my sheep and rescue them…  I will bring them back home…  I will feed them on the mountains of Israel…  I myself will tend my sheep and cause them to lie down in peace…  I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.”  If God’s appointed shepherds would not do their job, God himself would do it.  

 The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were not doing their job.  They offered the people endless rules and debates about minute points.  It’s not that they were irreligious, but their religion was not helpful to real people in the real world dealing with real problems.  Theirs was a religion of academics and cloistered religious professionals.  They did not value the ordinary person as Jesus did.  

 Jesus lamented, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few.”  There is always a great harvest because people are hungry for God, hungry for something real and substantial.  And any religion that doesn’t offer a real God isn’t a true religion.  

 The enormity of the human situation can be overwhelming.  There are so many people in need of so many things.  We might think, “What can one person do?”  Well, as the saying goes, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”  Not even Jesus could do it all himself.  He prayed for workers to join him.  We’re in the same boat.  We might feel overwhelmed by all the needs of the world around us, but we can each do something.  We can pray, and then we do something.  That’s often how prayer works.  It’s not just that prayer changes things.  It’s that prayer changes us, and then we change things.  

 We can change things because God’s power works through us when we pray.  Jesus himself said in John 14 that we “will do the same works he has done and even greater works.”  God’s power is multiplied when it comes to bear on the problems of the world through the multitude of God’s people.

 The Pharisees may have despised the common people, but Jesus exalted them.  When he chose his twelve apostles, he chose twelve ordinary men.  The number 12, of course, recalling the 12 tribes of Israel.  The Church is the New Israel.  Jesus wasn’t actually the only one to do this.  For example, the Jewish group called the Essenes also chose twelve leaders of their group, seeing themselves as the “faithful remnant.”  

 Of the twelve disciples, we know something about the “professions” of half of them.  Four were fishermen.  There may have been more than four, but we know there were at least four.  One was a tax collector, Matthew.  And one was a Zealot, Simon.  What’s interesting about that is that the Zealots were the “revolutionary group” in Palestine, committed to the violent overthrow of Rome.  On the other hand, tax collectors were seen as the worst kind of traitors to the Jewish nation, helping the enemy Romans.  Normally, these two would have nothing to do with each other, but because each follows Jesus, they become co-workers.  That’s how it is in the Church; we find ourselves working with people we would not otherwise associate with, but we become one Body in Christ, brothers and sisters in him.

 These men weren’t rich or important or highly educated.  But they were disciples, meaning “learners,” they were willing to learn the lessons of Jesus.  And as such, they were called to be apostles.  Apostles were appointed messengers sent out to proclaim the message of the king.

 Jesus sent them out to the children of Israel, with instructions not to go into Samaria or the Gentile regions that bordered Galilee.  That might trouble us a bit since we know that the gospel is a message for all people.  But it was supposed to go first to the children of Israel.  They should have been the people who were the most ready to hear it.  Part of the theme of Matthew’s Gospel is how the Jews missed out on the gospel when it came to them first.

They were given the authority to cast out evil spirits, to raise the dead, to heal diseases, and to cure leprosy.  In short, they were sent out to restore wholeness and to bind up brokenness.  The Hebrew word for “peace” is SHALOM, and it really means more than our word peace.  It’s not just the absence of conflict; it is wholeness throughout our being.  We have SHALOM when we are whole in every aspect of life: Spiritually, physically, emotionally, and in our relationships with other people.  

I think, in a way, all of those can be seen here.  To be spiritually whole is to be raised from the death of sin to new life.  To be physically whole is to be free of ailments and injuries.  To be emotionally whole is to be set free from demonic oppression, the voices of Satan and his

minions who tell us lies.  I do believe that there are evil spirits out there in the world and that they do try to drive us into emotional ruin.  And a leper who was cured was able to go home and be with friends and family again.  Their relationships were restored.

Jesus gives them more instructions:  “Freely you have received, so give freely.”  Rabbis in Jesus’ day were not normally paid for teaching.  It was a duty to God, so it was to be offered freely.  But on the other hand, it was considered a privilege and a responsibility of all God’s people to care for the livelihood of rabbis.  Some rabbis did take advantage of their position for their own gain, which was also something Jesus denounced.

Jesus tells them to travel lightly.  They were not to take money or provisions with them.  They were not to carry a bag, which was often used for “collecting money.”  They were not to take a walking stick.  I think perhaps that was Jesus telling them not to be concerned with their safety but to trust God, since a staff could be used for self-defense.

They were to accept hospitality when it was offered, but they were to be sure to find a “worthy home.”  If they stayed with someone who had a bad reputation, that would hurt the effectiveness of their message.  And if they were welcomed into a home, they were to stay there till they moved on.  They were not to be eager to “move up” to a better place.  Comfort and ease were not the things they were to be seeking.

If they were not welcomed, they were to shake the dust from their feet when they left, which was something Jewish people did when they left pagan territory.  It would be better for Sodom and Gomorrah, places that were emblematic of wickedness, than for a place that heard God’s word and rejected it.

They were to be like sheep among wolves, innocent, but wary.  They should know the evils of the world around them but without taking part in them.

Persecution would come.  It would come from the state, from religious institutions, even from family.  

 Fellow Jews persecuted their countrymen who turned to Christ because it was seen as an act of apostasy, rejecting the one true God.  Jewish families were expected to shun those who followed Christ.

 The Roman state persecuted Christians for other reasons, some real, some imagined.  They said Christians were atheists, because they didn’t worship idols.  They said Christians were cannibals because they spoke of eating the body and blood of Christ.  They said Christians

were disloyal citizens for not worshipping the emperor.  Because Christians called each other brother and sister and celebrated a “love feast” each week, that is the Lord’s Supper, they were said to be incestuous.  They were accused of breaking up families.  And they were seen as a threat to the Empire, much of which was built on the backs of slave labor, for treating slaves as equals, and saying that “In Christ there is no slave or free.”  

 Jesus told his disciples, “When you are persecuted, flee to the next town.”  While we shouldn’t fear persecution, neither should we invite it on ourselves.  We still have work to do.  In the face of persecution, we find courage in trusting that God cares for his own.  And we fear the judgment of God more than the judgment of human beings.  

 In short, we are called to think more of our mission than our ease, our comfort, our wealth, even our own safety.  

 This way of thinking might seem strange to us.  We’re pretty comfortable as Christians.  We live in a society that has valued the Church for centuries.  That’s changing now, of course, but we still don’t live in a society where the Church is actively persecuted.  Perhaps we’ve become too comfortable, too used to being respected.

 The reality is that for most Christians in most times and places, persecution and hardship have been the norm.  And we too are called to value our mission and work more than our own comfort.

 Do we?  I have some serious doubts that we really think as much of the mission as we should as American Christians.  I heard a story from another pastor recently, and I didn’t get the source of it, so I can’t quote where it comes from, but they asked Christians to talk about what their faith meant to them.  They asked Christians to agree or disagree with statements like, “I hold to my faith because it makes me feel better” or “My faith calls me to change the world around me.”  The results were disappointing.  89% of American Christians don’t think of their faith having any bearing on how they relate to the world around them and they are only Christians out of self-interest.  That is certainly not what Jesus was talking about when he sent out the Twelve.  Would he have even sent them out if faith was just about “Me and my relationship with God?”  No.  Our faith calls us to a great mission to the world.  If it’s just “me and Jesus,” then we have missed the point.

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