Sermon - 7th July 2013
The disciples' mission: our mission
Scripture - Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
At the risk of sounding like Walt – let’s start with a little bit of congregational participation. It’s a question that Walt asked a few weeks ago – can we name the 12 disciples?
Luke 6: 13 – 16 has them thus:
And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
Even if we couldn’t name them all we would probably recognise their names and have some idea about them from the Gospel narratives, from the stories of some of them in the Acts of the Apostles and from other stories about them preserved in the Early Church. Thomas, for example – what do we know about him? (Doubt, India) Peter – (lots from Acts, died at Rome, thought to have led the first church there).
But we don’t know much, if anything, about today’s disciples – just that there were 72 of them. We might be a bit surprised that there were 72 disciples as we’re used to thinking about the 12 – all the films that have been created in recent years about Jesus’ life and ministry focus on his relationship with the 12 not with 72 others but it’s clear from Luke’s account of Jesus life that there was this larger group who related to, and followed, Jesus. And, in today’s reading we hear of their commissioning as missionaries and their response to their first missionary trip.
One of the respondents to our survey made a very thoughtful comment about the term Mission Project. If you were here last week you will know that we’re currently, as a congregation, discerning the best path for our future together. We’ve looked at a number of options – from remaining with our denomination, the Metropolitan Community Church, becoming independent, becoming part of the Congregational Federation, becoming part of our host congregation or becoming Mission Project of the United Reformed Church. All through the week people have been praying, considering and responding to a survey about this and we’ve had 28 responses so far – and we’re expecting a few more before the survey closes tonight. One person commented that the term “Mission Project” reminded her of the old Missionary Congregations of priests in the Catholic Church whose calling was to convert people – and this resonance was uncomfortable for her. It’s a very interesting point and it does highlight how the term “mission” has changed over the last 100 years – not that I’m suggesting that this respondent was around 100 years ago!
The Mission of the Church used to be thought of as converting people. Actually, it was thought of as converting people outside Europe as the assumption was that, in Europe, everyone was Christian. Mission in Europe was, for Catholics, about converting Protestants! To be fair, Protestant Missionary groups also saw Mission as the task of converting those who were not yet Christian – thought they were quite happy if Catholics became Protestants! Mission was something the Church did and was about conversion.
You can see why passages like today’s commissioning of the 72 disciples would help bolster this idea – the disciples were told to go and preach the coming of the kingdom and heal the sick and cast out demons. There is an assumption that we make that they were called to convert people to what we would now call Christianity – though this isn’t exactly what Jesus told them to do.
Jesus’ instruction to these disciples wasn’t to convert people. He gave very clear instructions to these disciples:
- Don’t take a purse, beggers’ bag or shoes.
- Don’t stop to greet people on the road.
- Say “peace be to this house” when you enter.
- If they aren’t peace loving take the greeting back!
- Stay and accept hospitality from one family – don’t move around.
- Where you are made welcome heal the sick and tell people the Kingdom of God has come close.
- If not welcome shake the dust from your feet.
He didn’t say have a Bible study, start a church, tell people how to pray. Jesus assumed that those who would hear the disciples would know their Bibles, would know about God but needed to be made aware of the coming kingdom – healing the sick was a work of compassion and evidence that the Kingdom was coming. It seems that the disciples also performed exorcisms so that could have been part and parcel of healing the sick.
So, to these people, the mission they were given was a bit more complex than simply converting people - it was about how they behaved and the urgency of the task to heal and proclaim the coming Kingdom.
Over the last 100 years the Church has changed how it thinks of Mission. Instead of thinking of mission as something the Church does, there is now a consensus that Mission is something the Church is. This is a subtle, but important, difference. We are the mission of God – and mission is more than simply converting people. The churches now think of Mission as comprising a number of things:
- Teaching the Christian faith – after all Jesus did tell us to go and teach and baptise.
- To work for human liberation – after all Jesus proclaimed a kingdom of justice and peace.
- To live as citizens of that Kingdom – our lives reflect that coming kingdom.
- To dialogue with those of other faiths – Jesus often spoke with Samaritans and Gentlies – even though as a good Jew he should have been suspicious of their religious understanding.
- To heal – this has always been a part of Christian mission.
- To build up the Christian community – we’re stronger together.
So Mission means more than conversion – it’s about how we live our lives, how we treat others, how we work for liberation, how we speak to those who follow other, or no, faiths, how we heal and how we build up the Christian community. This doesn’t sound too far removed from Troy’s vision of what MCC’s mission should be – to proclaim Christian salvation, build up Christian community and engage in Christian social action.
Why does Jesus need them? Why Does Jesus Need Us?
Jesus needed the 72, as well as the 12, in order to further his mission. He couldn’t do it all alone and he knew that his proclamation of the Kingdom would lead to his death. He denounced corrupt religion – he cleared the Temple of the money changers who cheated the poor in God’s own house, he was sharp to those who were in charge of the religion of his day, and seemed to break the Jewish law when it suited him. So Jesus knew that his own mission would lead him to death and destruction. He needed others to continue that work – he also knew that even after resurrection and new life he would not continue his ministry on earth.
The 72, and the 12, clearly continued their work after the events of Holy Week and Easter and helped change the world forever. But Jesus’ work, and their work, isn’t over yet as it continues through us.
I said earlier that the Church now realises that it doesn’t do Mission – it is the Mission of God in our world – or at least it’s part of God’s mission in our world. That means that we have to work out how best to be God’s mission in our world.
We are in a different situation than most of our Christian forebears but, perhaps, are nearer the situation of the Earliest Church. We no longer see Europe as a Christian continent which sends missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, overseas. We are now a post Christian – or possibly pre-Christian – continent which, increasingly, receives missionaries from around the world. Our culture both rejects the message of Christianity but is fascinated by the supernatural. It is passionate about spirituality but believes that the Church is the last place where people can express it. It is eager to be just but sees the Church as a bastion of intolerance and prejudice. So we are more like those original 72 disciples than we may realise.
The task for us, for the Church, is an urgent one – just as it was for those first disciples. Like them we can learn to work with people who are of good-will – “peace loving” in the words of Jesus. Like them we should try and avoid working with those who aren’t of good will – and it’s fascinating to realise how many Christians fall into this latter category! Like them we should avoid the temptation to get excited by the signs and wonders – they rushed back to Jesus to express their amazement that demons obeyed them – Jesus rather shut them up by telling them he had seen Satan fall from heaven like lightening! And then reminds them to focus on what is important.
Some contemporary Christians focus too much on signs and wonders – miraculous healings and extraordinary exorcisms – others focus on large churches, powerful congregations and hanker after political influence – these too are signs and wonders. Instead, we need to realise that God has placed us, in this generation, on the margins and it is from the margins that we are called to minister.
Our mission as a congregation is the same as it was when Troy first founded MCC in 1968 – to proclaim Christian salvation, to build Christian community and to engage in Christian social action with, from and for the LGBT community in particular. That mission won’t change no matter what we do in our future – remain in MCC or become part of the URC. It’s that very mission to, in the main, the LGBT community that makes us missionary – we know the mission that is ours as a church, the mission that God has given us.
As individuals, however, we all have our own mission – or, perhaps it’s better theology to say that we all have a God given task which, together, becomes the mission of our congregation. Our mission may be to teach, to raise a family, to heal, to administer, to work for justice, to work in public service. The issue is that we need to be clear about that mission and keep focused on it – both as individuals and as a congregation – just as those 72 disciples of old were.