January 19, 2014

Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

“United for Mission”

The theme that stands out most strongly in this morning’s scripture readings is evangelism – the missionary call to tell others the good news of God in Jesus Christ. From the Gospel of John, we heard about John the Baptist spreading the news about Jesus, and different people hearing, turning to follow, and becoming disciples. “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” said John, pointing to Jesus. And they did. They looked. They listened. And they followed Jesus with their lives.

From Isaiah we heard an articulation of the mission of God’s People, Israel, a mission that Christians, as God’s people also share: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” In other words, our purpose is not to get focused on ourselves, on caring for, teaching, and directing those in our own group about following God. Certainly, that is important. But we can’t get stuck there. Isaiah says, “it’s too light a thing,” it’s not enough.

Most Christians would agree they feel an obligation to spread the good news about their faith in Jesus to others. Articulating what the good news is and knowing how to best tell others about it in their context is the challenge many of us face. Too often, one or two bad experiences either telling or receiving the gospel cause Christians to be hesitant and unsure about this obligation.

In a way, I think I have it easy as a minister. I get to preach the gospel from a pulpit – a context in which it is perfectly acceptable and appropriate to make statements about Jesus and who I believe him to be, and the difference he has made in my life. But preaching the gospel can’t be confined to this space. It’s supposed to go out to the ends of the earth, and we are supposed to bring it in our words and our deeds to our neighbours, friends, families, and to those in need in our communities.

Of course, many people who are Christians today learned the faith because their parents brought them to church and they grew up hearing the gospel proclaimed in church school classes, from the pulpit, and from the members of the Christian community all around them. But there are many people throughout the world, and perhaps especially here in North America, who have not grown up in families of faith, who have not heard the good news, and will not show up on Sunday to hear it from the pulpit.

Our Presbyterian Church has a great tradition of sending missionaries around the world, and setting up Sunday Schools to teach the children here at home about Jesus and his love. Christian mission has developed and changed over the years, and in recent decades has been more careful to try to separate the gospel message from the cultural practices and patterns of European or Western societies.

More than a hundred years ago, the Christian Churches started to realize there was a significant impediment to their missionary activity. It was the problem of disunity between the Churches. Christians from different denominations would go into the same communities in different parts of the world, and the differences and divisions between Christians would cause confusion and other problems. “They say they’re Christians, and you say you’re Christians, but you do things differently, and you don’t cooperate or even to get along with each other sometimes! And you are telling us that God loves us all, and we ought to love one another, but you don’t seem to love each other…”

Way back in 1910, well before the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948, Churches from around the world got together in Edinburgh to talk about mission. They were discovering that our divisions are an impediment to our mission in Christ’s name, and they were making a very important early step in the ecumenical movement to work for the reconciliation and unity of the one Church of Christ.

After all, in John seventeen Jesus himself prayed that his followers would be one so that the world would believe. Our unity and our mission are tied very closely together. Let me give you an example. When Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission held a National event here in Saskatoon back in 2012, we had the opportunity to listen to stories from many First Nations and Métis people who had been negatively affected by the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools.

The Christian Churches and the Government of Canada cooperated to establish and operate the Indian Residential Schools all across the country, in which Aboriginal children were taken from the homes, families, and communities, and brought to boarding schools where they were educated, inculturated, and Christianized.

Our Churches, and many of the people who worked in the schools, sincerely wanted to share the gospel with these children and their families, and in some cases that was successful as many First Nations people discovered Jesus Christ and became his followers. But in most cases, the gospel message came wrapped in European culture, language, and social customs. These children lost their own languages, cultures, spiritual traditions, and connections to their own families and communities, not to mention the physical and sometimes sexual abuse, neglect and malnutrition that they experienced in many of the schools.

I will always remember one story that I heard during the TRC event, though I don’t remember the name of the man who told it, or the community where he grew up. He told about the Anglican and Catholic Churches coming to his small, northern town when he was just a boy. They each set up their churches, their missions, and their schools, and some of the families went to the Anglican Church and some to the Catholic one.

He recalled a fist fight that he was involved in as a teenager with one of the other boys (he was a Catholic and the other boy was an Anglican), and he tried to remember what had started it. But looking back, he realized that there was no reason for the fight. It was symptomatic of a division that had been formed in the community, in which fights happened all the time. “They taught us to hate each other,” he said about the divided Churches. “They taught us to hate each other, and we never recovered from that.”

As most of you know, this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is a special time for Christians and Churches to come together to pray for unity – for a resolution to the divisions that hinder our mission in Christ’s name. Here in Saskatoon, we began the week’s events yesterday with a workshop to introduce the theme of the week, the scripture passage from 1 Corinthians 1, and to discern together the spiritual gifts that each of our church traditions brings to the body of Christ – the one Church.

We heard part of that theme text this morning because it’s the epistle reading set for today in the lectionary. And we’ll hear the second part of the theme text next Sunday as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes to an end.

In the first chapter of First Corinthians, Paul is giving advice and instruction to the Christian Church at Corinth. He is telling the Corinthian Christians that they are called to be saints – called to be God’s holy people. And he is assuring them that they have all the gifts they need to fulfill that calling: “for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But just like the Christian Church at Saskatoon, or the Christian Church at any particular place today, the Corinthian Church was full of divisions and factions. While we say, “I belong to the Presbyterians,” or “I belong to the Ukrainian Catholics,” or “I belong to the Baptists,” those in Corinth were saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas.” “Has Christ been divided?” Paul challenges the Corinthian Christians who continue in their disagreements and divisions, as he challenges us today with the same question.

Unlike our adversarial history, those who gathered yesterday for the workshop were able to recognize each other as Christians, and even to identify the spiritual gifts in the other Churches that they appreciated and wanted to receive as gifts for the whole Church.

We didn’t have all the churches of Saskatoon represented at our workshop yesterday, but we had quite a few. It was beautiful to listen to people sharing about the gifts of other church traditions that they valued and that made positive contributions to the one Church of Christ. I definitely had the sense that the “Church at Saskatoon” like the “Church at Corinth” has been enriched by God in every way… so that together we are not lacking in any spiritual gift.

When it comes to evangelism and our call to share the gospel in word and deed in our church and in our world (to quote St. Andrew’s own mission statement), we may want to receive the gifts of our evangelical brothers and sisters who can teach us how to speak about our faith freely and boldly. We may want to receive the gifts of our Mennonite friends who proclaim the gospel through amazing work for peace and justice around the world. We may want to receive the gifts of our United Church neighbours who lead the way in welcoming diversity and striving for inclusiveness in their church communities.

But as Presbyterian Christians, our first place to look for help in this regard will probably be to the scriptures. And there we will see the model of John the Baptist and his effective proclamation of the One coming after him, Jesus the Christ. While Christians sometimes ask ourselves, WWJD (What would Jesus do?) in order to decide how to live and act as his followers. In this case, we might want to ask, WWJBD (What would John the Baptist do?).

And I think the answer would be that John would simply point to Christ. He would not get caught up in his own particular way of following Jesus. He would not say, “Come and follow Jesus like I do, or like my group does,” but he would say, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” He would point to Christ, testifying to his faith that in Jesus we follow the Son of the living God.

I love our church, and its distinctives and its gifts, but our mission is not to make Presbyterians. Our mission is to proclaim the gospel in word and deed in our church and our community. Together with all Christians, our mission, as Isaiah put it, is to be a light to the nations, that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

May God bless and guide us in this mission, and give us the courage not to point to our particular traditions and denominations, but to point only to Jesus Christ, our Saviour and our Lord. And may the Spirit make us one, so that the world will believe. Amen.