July 7, 2013

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“Sent Out in Jesus’ Name”

In the final year of my seminary training, I had to write an integration paper. The class was called “Church, Ministry, Sacraments, and Polity” and the final paper was a fairly long assignment in which I was supposed to try to integrate what I had been discovering and learning over the course of my time at Knox College.

I don’t remember the mark I got on that paper; It was probably a reasonable grade. But soon I was sharing that paper with the Ministry Committee of the Presbytery of Ottawa – the group of ministers and elders who would examine my faith and my preparedness for ministry, and certify me for ordination within the Presbyterian Church in Canada. And although the experience was generally pretty positive, I still remember the one little critical comment that one of the ministers made about my paper. I remember it because it was such a very important point that I had missed.

You see, I was writing about what it meant to be a Christian. I was writing about what it meant to be a member of the Church. I wrote about the variety of gifts shared by ministers and elders and members, and the diverse people that come together in communities of faith. But despite the fact that I was acknowledging that lay people must be involved in the work and ministry of the church (It’s not up to ministers alone to do the work of ministry!) when I wrote about ministry, I was still focused on what happens inside the church building.

I wrote about preaching and teaching, about music ministry and the proclamation of the scriptures, about pastoral care and hospitality. I think I probably included mention of missionaries, people who respond to a particular call to serve in missions within their own communities, or sometimes far away in other countries. But what I neglected to mention was the missionary activity that every single Christian, every member of the church, is called to do each and every day within our families, our circles of friends, our work places, our schools, and communities.

Of course there are other religions that are very well known for the fact that they know that all their members must be missionaries. When I was in university, there happened to be a Jehovah’s Witness who lived across the street from us. And although she was elderly and didn’t do a lot of door-to-door evangelism, she still came to visit the group of young university students that lived across the way. She didn’t ever get very far with us… two of us being very committed Presbyterian Christians, and the other two not that interested in talking to her at all. But she kept at it… faithfully and cheerfully, and we respected her for it. It was clear that she cared about her neighbours.

When Nick and I lived over in Sutherland when we first moved to Saskatoon, we used to get regular visits from Mormon missionaries who lived in the apartment block across the street. In that case, the missionaries were all young men. But ALL the young men take their turn at being missionaries. They study hard, and they work at it, and if they can’t convince you of their theological points, they are still quite determined to do something to help you out. Before I could close the door, they would always ask, “Do you have a couch that needs to be moved or anything?”

Sometimes we give the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses a hard time when they show up at our doors, but we’ve got to respect their courage and their dedication. It can’t be easy to put yourself out there like that!

We did try it one time… at one of our Saskatchewan Presbyterian Youth events. We were in Yorkton for the weekend, and we were talking about servanthood, or something along those lines. So we divided up into a couple of smaller groups, and we went out into the neighbourhood around the Presbyterian Church. We literally went door-knocking, and offered to do something to help. Maybe we could wash your windows? Maybe we could weed your garden? Maybe we could move your couch, if you happen to need it moved?

We didn’t get a lot of people interested in having us work for them for free, though we did get invited in for a cold drink and a chat at one house. What an unusual experience that was for most of us! There we were… sitting in the living room of a random family in Yorkton… explaining to them why we were offering to rake their front lawn, telling them about ourselves, about the church, about what we were learning at our youth retreat…

No, I guess I’m not going to suggest that the folks of St. Andrew’s should start going door-to-door to tell the people of Saskatoon about God and God’s love. I imagine that most of you would balk at such a suggestion, and it might not be all that effective anyway. We might just end up with a reputation like that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses – faithful, but kind of annoying to the neighbours.

But today’s Gospel reminds us that we do need to go out from here; God is sending us out. And God is not just sending out the minister or the elders either. God is not just choosing very specially commissioned missionaries to share the good news with the world.

Of course, the “going out” began with Jesus. God sent Jesus into the world to make God’s presence and God’s love known to us in preaching, and teaching, and healing. Jesus gathered followers, and then he sent them out as well. In the ninth chapter of Luke, Jesus sends out the inner circle of disciples that he referred to as “the twelve.” He sends them to preach, and teach, and to heal in his name… twelve of them, a very symbolic number of disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Israel.

But just a chapter later in Luke, Jesus sends out another group. Some early manuscripts of the Gospel say it was 70, and some say it was 72. But again, it’s a symbolic number. Way back in Genesis, chapter 10, there is a list of the nations of the world. The Hebrew text of Genesis includes 70 nations, and the Greek translation includes 72.

But the point is that Jesus is sending out his followers to ALL the nations of the world. He’s not just sending out a select, chosen few. He’s sending out a whole big group because there’s a lot of work to do and a lot of people to tell. “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few,” Jesus tells them.

Now there’s a statement we can relate to in the church today, don’t you think? How many times have you heard your minister or others within the church asking for help, looking for volunteers, inviting you to do something for the mission of the church? Sometimes we even spend some of our time bemoaning the fact that we don’t have enough ministers in the presbytery. We don’t have enough elders on our session. We don’t have enough church school teachers, or people to help with funeral teas, or singers for the choir, or Board members to take a turn on lock-up or counting the offering.

But once again… it’s so easy to slip back into being concerned about what is happening here, within the walls of the church… when Jesus is clearly trying to get us to go out in mission. And not just to go out through our gifts and offerings that support ministers, and missionaries, and outreach programs… but actually to go out with our bodies to meet people and share God’s love with them in word and deed.

I was reading a little Reformed Ecclesiology last weekend. Ecclesiology is just a big word for what it means to be “church.” And I was reminded of a classic Reformed definition of the church. The Reformers of the 16th century, including John Calvin, taught that the “marks” of a true apostolic or biblical church are the “pure preaching of the Word of God and the right administration of the sacraments according to the institution of Christ,” with proper administration of church discipline sometimes added.

But Shirley Guthrie, a prominent American Presbyterian theologian, points out that the problem with this orthodox doctrine of the church is not what it does say, but what it doesn’t say. What it seems to imply is that ministers are responsible for making the church… you know, by preaching the Word properly and conducting baptism and communion in the way Jesus instructed us to do. Maybe the elders have some responsibilities too, in that they are involved in the order and discipline of the church community. But that seems to be it.

And the other thing that the classic definition seems to imply is that church takes place within a building such as this… that church is what happens when we gather here to listen to God’s Word and celebrate the sacraments. Guthrie explains that “a too exclusive emphasis on [preaching, sacraments, and internal discipline] has resulted in the idea that the main function of the church is to care for itself and tend to the spiritual needs of its own members.

“But that is only half of it. The New Testament Greek word for apostle means ‘one who is sent out.’ According to the New Testament, Christians enter into the company of God’s people by baptism, hear the Word of God preached, receive new life and strength as they break bread together, and discipline themselves in order to be sent back into the world as servants or ‘ambassadors’ of Christ.”

Guthrie points to another Reformer, Martin Luther, who emphasized this mission in his doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” – the idea that every Christian (not just clergy or just elders) – every Christian is called to be a priest to every other person. That’s what we see happening in today’s Gospel reading. The mission is not just to get together in churches and worship God and take care of each other, although that’s a good first step. The mission is to go out… all of us, into all of the world… to heal, to help, to love, and to be a part of God’s Kingdom coming.

As Guthrie explains, “To believe in an ‘apostolic’ church is to believe that every Christian is called and sent out to be a minister, missionary, and servant of God – not just part-time but full-time, whatever his or her occupation. That means you!”

So here’s the part where we have to think carefully about this call. It’s a question of what we’re going to do with ourselves after the coffee hour after church. Most of us won’t be called to go door-to-door, I imagine. But what are you going to do when you meet your neighbour later this afternoon? What are you going to do at work on Monday morning? What are you going to say to the odd fellow on the bus who strikes up a conversation with you, or to the tired-looking clerk in the store who is serving you? How are you going to respond to the relative who always seems to need your help, or to the friend who is too proud to ask when help is desperately needed?

What becomes very clear from the Gospel story is that there is much work to do. We are all being sent out from this place… to risk rejection, to engage with people… not to argue, or hassle, or annoy our neighbours… but to care for the people around us as Jesus teaches us to do… to bring peace to the people we encounter, and to receive whatever hospitality is offered to us.

I wonder. I wonder if we were all very intentional this week as we go out… If we all thought of ourselves as missionaries this afternoon, and tomorrow, and through the next seven days… I wonder how much good God might do through our lives, through our efforts, through our prayers and our words and our listening and our caring hands…

Perhaps, like the seventy, when they returned, we will be amazed at our success. But even if we can’t see what difference we have made, even if some of our attempts don’t turn out as we had hoped… Jesus tells us to rejoice, because by God’s grace, our names are being written in heaven. Thanks be to God.