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When the Missouri West and Missouri East annual conferences voted to merge, the bishop said, “we want to focus on spiritual leadership for our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ whom God can use for the transformation of the world.”
“Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
As my father was noted for facetiously observing: “Doesn’t that sound easy?” And don’t we wish that it were! Scripture can send us mixed messages. Sometimes it looks easy; sometimes, not.
In the thirty-fifth verse of the ninth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, we read, “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Well, Jesus made it look easy; but he knew it was not, and he knew that there was a huge task ahead, a task that he could only just begin. And, like any intelligent leader, he knew that he could not do it all by himself.
“Then he said to his disciples, the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
A few years ago, when I was in Columbia for annual conference, as I was standing outside my motel room, just getting ready to put my keycard in the lock, I heard a voice behind me ask, “Are you a priest?” I was still wearing my clergy collar.
And I answered, “Not exactly. I’m a United Methodist pastor.” And the fellow who asked the question introduced himself. He was a pastor of a non-denominational church in the Springfield area. In fact, he had started four churches.
He said he would always begin with a handful of people, and by the time that handful had reached a stable group of about fifty, he would turn the responsibilities of being a pastor over to someone else.
Then he would leave to go somewhere else to start another church.
“The harvest is plentiful.”
And Jesus tells his disciples, “therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
“Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”
It’s interesting that when elders are ordained in The United Methodist Church, our authority is a bit different. Instead, the bishop says, “take authority as an elder to preach the Word of God, and to administer the Holy Sacraments.”
“These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector;
James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.”
Now we might wonder, if Jesus is so concerned with the shortage of laborers, why did he have only twelve disciples? I suspect there may be several reasons. One is symbolic: the twelve represented the twelve tribes of Israel; and Jesus saw himself as Messiah to the children of Israel. But another is practical. Without benefit of a regular classroom, it’s probably difficult to teach more than a dozen at a time. And I suspect that there were many times when he was instructing only three or four at a time. Also, Jesus did considerable traveling on foot; and an entourage of even twelve was probably a bit much.
We don’t know, but there may have been numerous times when all twelve were not with him. Indeed, I suspect that after Jesus selected his twelve, and got them committed, he then set off on his journeys just assuming that they would keep up with him.
And some may have lagged from time to time.
“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans.”
Now, if you have not read this before, or heard it before, this may be startling to you. After all, is Jesus not quoted in the nineteenth verse of the twenty-eighth chapter of Matthew’s gospel as saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of ALL nations”?
Are we to believe that in giving instructions to his disciples, Jesus is EXCLUDING people rather than including everybody? Well, there is a good reason for this given later in the text. In the meantime,
“but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Yes, Jesus is playing favorites. Or, at least it is the way the writer of this gospel would have it. Matthew was writing for the Jews, and he was portraying Jesus as a Messiah who had come for the Jewish people.
“As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Now, we’ve heard something like this before, in the seventeenth verse of the fourth chapter: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
But if I understand the word “repent” to mean some kind of change, how can that be good news? Most folks I know think change is some kind of disease: “We’ve never done it that way before!”
So maybe the good news is simply in the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, coming near in the long-anticipated Messiah, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”
That may be one of the most demanding verses in scripture. On the one hand, work miracles; but on the other hand, don’t expect any rewards for them.
At my first meeting with the board of ordained ministry of the former Kansas City South District shortly after I had begun my first appointment, in response to the question, “How are things going?” I answered, “I didn’t expect I would need to raise the dead.”
You see, one of the two congregations I was serving had an average attendance of about three. But then, I think its total membership was fifteen, and many of them did not live near the church. My first charge conference was to discontinue a congregation.
“Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.”
In other words, don’t pack as if you’re going on vacation. It seems that whenever I go somewhere for more than a day, I feel compelled to fill the trunk and back seat of my car with stuff. And to stuff my wallet with cash.
But Jesus is telling his disciples to travel light, that they don’t need to haul stuff around, that as they do their work, they will be rewarded.
“Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.”
Jesus’ disciples would be dependent upon the hospitality of others. But Jesus did not want them to be shopping for the best deal. In other words, he did not want them hopping from house to house to find out where might be the best place to stay. Notice that he does not instruct them to find out who is MOST worthy, just find out who IS worthy.
Jesus thought his disciples should be more concerned with their work than with the details of their lodging.
“As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.”
So, now are we talking to houses? No, we are talking to the families who live in the houses. And Jesus is simply saying that if we are welcomed, we should accept the welcome. If we are NOT welcomed, we should shrug off the rejection.
More specifically, he says,
“If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”
I had a pastor friend of another denomination who was going through a very agonizing time in his life. It seemed that EVERYTHING he proposed to his congregation was being rejected.
And then he recalled those words, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words.” So, he shook the dust off his feet and found another congregation that was more accepting of him.
“Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
And what we have here is a description of Jesus’ situation and his strategy for dealing with it.
Indeed, it was John the Baptist who declared, in the twenty-ninth verse of the opening chapter of the gospel according to John, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
And Jesus had his own wolves to contend with in the ever-present Pharisees.
And Jesus tells his disciples,
“Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.”
Now, let’s back up to that quotation from the bishop I cited earlier: “our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ whom God can use for the transformation of the world.”
Do we have any takers? “they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues.” I suspect that most folks, when confronted with interrogation and torture, would just as soon pass on transformation of the world.
As I heard another United Methodist pastor remark, “we don’t want to lose our pensions and our guaranteed appointments; and superintendents and bishops are empowered to take away our credentials and threaten our livelihood.”
And even if we have the courage to be outspoken, we are fearful of what we speak. But Jesus responds to that fear:
“When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
And the point that I believe Jesus is making is this: in such situations, if we are obedient to the will of God, we are not the ones in control--God is. We are not the authors of our testimony; we speak as witnesses to God’s truth.
But sometimes we discover that we truly do not know what to say. When confronted, we back down. Been there. Done that. We lose courage, and the spirit withers within us.
But Jesus knows how difficult these struggles are.
“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
What a sordid mess. Siblings against one another. Parents and children against one another. Clashes within and across generations. But the significant part of this passage is the last sentence: “the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Jesus is telling us that this journey may be a rough one, but the destination is worth it.
I told you earlier that Jesus had a reason for being exclusive in giving instructions to his disciples regarding to whom they should witness. Here it is:
“When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
In other words, Jesus is just being practical. We don’t have enough time to get around to everybody, so let’s just stick with our own people.
The commissioning of the disciples was a complicated matter. It still IS. But as Jesus tells us, for those who endure to the end, the destination is worth it. Amen.
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