You know how it goes. The church tries to reach out to people, to attract them to the church and its ministry. We usually try to attract them by touting all the benefits of being a member of our congregation.
Are you concerned about the faith development of your children? Our church has a great program of children’s Christian education. Come join us.
Are you fearful about the state of the world, worried and confused? Our church takes seriously the intellectual challenges of modern people. Come, think with us!
Clueless about the Bible and confused about Christian beliefs? We can put you in a great Bible study group that will bring you up to speed on scripture.
Some years ago I remember seeing a billboard outside our town that read, “WE’VE GOT WHAT YOU WANT. COME GET IT.” Come get it? The church is where you come seeking, wanting, shopping for something you want. The church exists to meet your needs, answer your questions, solve your problems, and respond to your wants. Trouble is, there’s very little in scripture that supports this supermarket image of the church. What if the church isn’t the means whereby you get what you want out of God but rather the place where God gets what God wants out of you? What if Christian discipleship isn’t the way God meets your needs but rather you are the way that God meets the world’s needs?
Which brings us to this Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew’s account of Jesus’s sending of the disciples.
Jesus has been traveling about doing what he does so well: “teaching, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing”. Then Jesus does something a bit unusual. He looks at the throngs of people and has “compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. I say that’s a bit unusual because Jesus is the good shepherd who’s been healing and helping them. But there’s something about Jesus that wants help. “Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest”, he tells his followers.
Whatever good that Jesus Christ, Son of God, savior of the world, wants to do among us, he chooses not to do it alone.
So Jesus calls twelve disciples and bestows on them the same healing, helping power that he has been exercising. Matthew lists their names here. Nothing indicates that they’re a particularly gifted lot, nor is there anything in their names that suggests they have any training or qualification for the momentous work Jesus commissions them to do. The disciples are just ordinary folk whom Jesus has given authority to do good for others in need.
Jesus tells them not to go among the Gentiles or Samaritans but to focus on the lost in Israel. For now, this seems to be a first step in the mission of Jesus into the whole world, starting at home, among those closest to the disciples. Let’s note that Jesus’s mission begins, makes its first step, not simply with Jesus going out and doing good for the whole wide world but rather with Jesus commissioning his disciples to go first among the homefolks, those closest to them.
“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons”, he tells the disciples, and do it all for free. By their work the world will know that “the kingdom of heaven has come near”. The way you’ll know that God’s kingdom is coming near, and God’s will is being done on earth, will be the work that ordinary disciples, commissioned by Jesus, will do right here, right now.
Can you guess where I’m going with this sermon? I think this a story about you! For reasons known only to Jesus, he has called you to be his contemporary disciple, his missionary, a sign of the outbreak of God’s kingdom right here, right now. You are his appointed means of overcoming what’s wrong with the world. I’m sorry if you came here today thinking Jesus was mainly about meeting your needs, soothing your aches and pains, answering your questions. Sure, sometimes those good things occur through encounters with Jesus. But Jesus’s typical way of doing good for you is by commissioning you to do good for someone else.
Sometimes your greatest needs aren’t the ones you know. For instance, maybe you think you need less stress in your life, while Jesus believes what you need most is something good to do with your life! You come here to church hoping to receive some gift from Jesus only to have him give you an assignment! To repeat what I said earlier: What if the church isn’t the means whereby you get what you want but rather the place where God gets what God wants out of you? What if Christian discipleship isn’t the way God meets your needs but rather you are the way God meets the world’s needs?
I think the church makes a mistake when it presents the gospel as the solution to your problems, the way to get more of whatever it is that you think you just must have in order for your life to be a bit easier. Note that in today’s Gospel lesson Jesus doesn’t greet his first disciples with, “What can I do for you? Tell me where it hurts.” Rather he says, “I’m sending you! Go! Do the same things in the world that I do!”
On the basis of this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, being a Christian isn’t when you’re able to squint your eyes and say, “I believe, I believe all of it, even the part about the miracles.” Or, “I’ve been searching for more meaning in my life and now I’ve found what I’m looking for.”
A Christian is someone who has been found by Jesus, who has been assigned a job by Jesus, who realizes that their greatest need is not to have their wants met, their aches and pains soothed, but rather to join in Jesus’s mission into the world.
In mission thought today, it’s sometimes stressed that mission is not so much what we do but first of all what God does. Notice in today’s Gospel that Jesus first preaches, heals, and casts out demons. Then he turns to ordinary people and says, in effect, “I’ve enjoyed embodying the outbreak of God’s kingdom. Now you try it!”. God in Christ invites us to come alongside him and participate in mission with a simple, “Come and follow me.”
I hope this has been edifying for you, possibly comforting and encouraging, a source of strength and hope. But even more than any of that, I hope this has been a time when you’ve gotten a new sense of the good work that God has called you to do in the coming of God’s kingdom. There are people near you, sitting beside you on the pew, living at your home, or working beside you at the office or assembly line, who need the preaching, teaching, healing, and helping that Jesus has commissioned you to do.
So, go forth from here and join with Jesus in his mission. You are sent in Christ’s name. Amen.
- William Willimon