As we have heard this morning, evangelism is an issue for us. And in today’s story from the tenth chapter of Matthew, we get right into the heart of the matter, because it is a story about evangelism, spreading the word, making the good news of the Kingdom of God known.
This is the next logical step for Jesus as he has been giving the disciples his view of the Kingdom of God. Now he is looking for people to do something with it.
In my last couple of sermons, we’ve been talking about the Sermon on the Mount and how seriously Jesus took the Kingdom of God. We’ve been talking about how too quickly relegate such things in the Gospels as the rantings of a hopeless optimist while Jesus took it all quite seriously. We also talked about how in the Sermon on the Mount we found testimony to the kind of faith Jesus had, the God he believed in.
There have been all kinds of graduation ceremonies lately. I heard a story about some students who had just graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, and they were all standing around congratulating each other on their accomplishment. A drunk guy came up to them and asked what was going on. They were very proud of their accomplishment and said they had just graduated from college. “So,” the drunk said, “now what?”
I don’t think he was drunk, but Jesus was ready for the
“now what?” part with his disciples. He had laid out his vision for the Kingdom of God. They had heard his words, they had seen his compassion, they had watched him heal others. Then one day Jesus said “see how great the need is. Everyone is lost and vulnerable just like sheep without a shepherd. So pray,” Jesus tells them, “for more harvest hands.”
As soon as they are done praying Jesus says, “Hey, your prayers are already being answered. God is faithful! You are the harvest hands.”
So, we get the list. There are twelve of them. And it is a motley crew. There is Matthew, a tax collector who is a collaborator with the occupation forces. And there Simon the Zealot, a member of the counter insurgency who would rather slit Matthew’s throat than join him at the feet of Jesus. There is Judas who betrayed Jesus, and Peter who denied Jesus and ran when Jesus needed him most. In fact all the rest of them men ended up running. It was only the women with Jesus who had the courage to stay. But these were the laborers that Jesus was praying for, and he was glad that God had sent them.
They don’t look like much to me, but they were good enough for Jesus. The gospel writer calls them Apostles, the only time that phrase gets used for them in Matthew’s Gospel. We assign such a significance to the word. All it really means, though, is that these disciples or learners were now ready to be Apostles or messengers, ready to take Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God to the lost sheep of Israel. Well, at least Jesus thought they were ready.
“You are going to be my messengers, God’s apostles by what you say and how you live. I’ve shown you and told you what this is all about. Now, it’s up to you.
“Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them the Kingdom of God is here. Bring healing. Bring life where there is death. Love the unlovely. Take what you have learned from me about love, mercy, gentleness, forgiveness, peace, humility, and trusting God and drive out the demons that are terrorizing all of us.”
This is why Jesus was so serious about the things like he talked about in the Sermon on the Mount and other places. He saw what he was talking about as what would bring healing and hope and life to this world. And he wanted the disciples, and all of his followers, to take that message and run with it, and eventually carry it to all the world.
Throughout the gospels Jesus was turning everything inside out and upside down, because that was the way to get things right side up. But he wasn’t going to do this all by himself. Now he had messengers. Now it was a movement.
“Tell them to love the Lord their God with all their heart, and mind, and strength, because that’s how God loves them; with all God’s heart, and mind, and strength. Tell them to love their neighbor because God loves their neighbor.”
Jesus knew this was not going to be easy. “If they are going to call me ‘Dungface,’ (as he says later in this chapter) what are they going to call you?” There would be opposition from political leaders, religious leaders, from the trend setters, and even opposition from family and friends. The message of God’s Kingdom that Jesus was trusting to the twelve, was too radical. It challenged society’s core at too many levels to not provoke a violent response, as Jesus knew all too well.
But part of the message was don’t meet their violence with more violence. If they curse you, offer a blessing. If they run you out of town, go to the next town. If they hang you on a cross, forgive them and trust in resurrection. That’s the way of the kingdom of God.
And Jesus told his disciples, now turned messengers, that not everyone is going to get it. But that’s okay. Others will. Their charge wasn’t to convert everybody. It was to proclaim the message. Along the way they would find people who welcomed them and their message. “And when they welcome you,” Jesus said, “they are welcoming me and The One who sent me.”
This passage gets at the heart of evangelism. Jesus has entrusted the message to us. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” he tells the disciples right before his ascension.
Part of the reason we get so uncomfortable with evangelism is that so much of what passes for evangelism seems to have very little to do with the message of Jesus that we read about in the Sermon on the Mount and in other places in the gospels.
We know of too much evangelism, though not all, that is overbearing, judgmental, exclusive, unloving, uncaring, and unthoughtful. But that surely wasn’t the way Jesus was, nor does any of that reflect his message.
What I think the gospel tells us about the message of Jesus is that we are called to love God and love each other. Make peace. Work for reconciliation. Welcome the stranger and invite the marginalized into the center of things. Forgive each other. Cross boundaries and borders. Reject war and violence. Comfort the sorrowing. Bring hope. Care more about God and others than our possessions and pension plans. Give to those who ask. Turn the other cheek. Don’t substitute lust for love. Treat everyone fairly, just like you want to be treated fairly. Tend to the needy first. Set the oppressed free. Visit the prisoner and lonely and the sick. Look for what is eternal. Believe that God is a god of life, not a god of death. Make yourself more vulnerable, so others can be less vulnerable. Remember that in God’s eyes the last are first and the first last, and that God is planning on changing this world through people like us.
That is not a message we need to be ashamed of, because it is the message of Jesus, that he has entrusted to us. We don’t have to qualify it with phrases like “if we could only live that way,” or “or it’s only an ideal and that Jesus doesn’t really expect us to live like that,” or dismiss it as something for another age as the dispensationalists do. Jesus was serious and he sent out those first twelve, not to tell fairy tales, but to show people the path of life.
We just watched the film this week about the Christians in Le Chambon, France who rescued so many Jews and other refugees during World War II. That was Sermon on the Mount stuff they were doing. And they did it with little fore thought or discussion. They did it because it was the kind of thing Jesus told us we should do. They got the message.
We are celebrating in our own community, the 150th anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington rescue. The abolitionist movement that was so strong here, that shook this nation, was built on the foundation of Christian faith. Rescuing slaves, challenging oppressive laws is just what followers of Jesus do, our earliest Oberlin ancestors believed. It’s a Sermon on the Mount thing. They got the message. It was the kind of thing Jesus believed we could do without extraordinary effort. The people of Le Chambon called it ‘a conspiracy of good.’
I don’t have to be super articulate, or able to respond to everyone’s objections and counter arguments to my faith. I don’t have to have everything figured out about God, life and the universe or even what I believe to be an apostle, one of the messengers of Jesus. All I know is I believe in the God Jesus believed in, and that the way Jesus lived and taught us to live, and his death and resurrection is what saves us. I can do no better than follow him and help build his church.
The Rabbi and philosopher Abraham Heschel said ‘words create worlds.’ He said the holocaust didn’t rise magically from the ground. People talked about it’s possibilities and then began the work of making it into a reality. Their words built that world.
There are lots of messages out there. But our words, our message, can build other kinds of worlds, including the one Jesus talked about in The Sermon on the Mount.
If those twelve that Jesus sent out can be apostles, we can be apostles. Because it’s not about us. It’s about the message of Jesus that is not some kind unreachable ideal, but what can save us.