The Gospel Call: The Mission
Matthew 18: 21-35:
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, `Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 17He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
The Word of the Lord, Thanks be to God.
I was in 9th grade, the day it happened, on this day ten years ago. I was no older than 14. Like just everybody else I’ve talked to about it, it was just a day like any other. I was in Geography class when I found out. It was actually about an hour after it had happened. The T.V. was on in the room, with CNN talking about an explosion in New York, at the Twin Towers, the World Trade Center. As I looked at the TV screen in uncomprehending horror, several things went through my head. What’s going to happen next? Who did it? Was there going to be World War III? Will I be drafted, when I get older? For the next few weeks, questions abounded. Questions of what we should do, how we should go about doing it, what was the responsible and right reaction to an attack of this size.
I start out with this because, quite honestly, it’s hard to be in front of you all this morning. The events of September 11th, 2001, reminded us of how fragile everything is. It reminded us what sin is. It reminded us about the monstrous capacity for evil that lies within humanity. And, for me, it reminded me of how much I just didn’t know.
And now, at 24 years old, I’m going to try and work my way through it with you. I still don’t know everything, and I’m seriously doubting the possibility that I will know everything someday. Despite that, I’m going to try and figure out today’s bold and befuddling scriptures. And, yes, I’m going to talk about Evangelism. If there was any time to talk about Evangelism, it’s now, because Evangelism is our mission to the world. I realize that it’s a thin line I tread when I talk about 9/11, because it is an event that shook us to our core, not just as Americans, but as people called “Little Christs,” or Christians. But, I can’t ignore it. So bear with me.
I’m going to use a definition of evangelism that is more robust, more complete than just getting people into pews on Sunday morning. I want to get away from Evangelism that is manipulative, that uses people, or even potentially is damaging to people’s faith, like the evangelism that many people encounter today, like the evangelism I’ve encountered in my life. The definition for evangelism that I’ll be using in the next few weeks is this: Evangelism is the process of bringing people into the kingdom of God, heart mind and soul, to reveal Jesus Christ, to help people be empowered by the Holy Spirit, to be anchored in the church, for the transformation of the world. That’s the ultimate goal Jesus sets out for us when he calls us to evangelize. It’s nothing less than the transformation of the whole world.
Last week, I talked to you all about what the message of Jesus was. What we came to was the idea that we as Christians charged with spreading the gospel should preach the kind of message Jesus taught when we evangelize, specifically that Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recover sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the day of the Lord’s Favor, the day of Jubilee, when all are made one and all are set free. Guess what? That’s the easy part. We’ve only begun to think about evangelism.
Another far more intrinsic part of evangelism, a part that’s woven into the fabric of evangelism is mission. Mission is evangelism, evangelism is mission. The two are linked so thoroughly it’s nearly impossible to separate them. But Grant, you say, I thought Evangelism was just talking to people about Jesus? Short answer: no. No, evangelism is just not talking to people. Believe it or not, THIS IS A GOOD THING, because not everyone is good at talking about Jesus; but everyone can be good at living out the words of Jesus.
I can’t remember where I heard it first, but there’s a quote out there that’s often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. It goes like this: “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary use words.” Now, nobody knows for sure if he did say that, but it certainly sounds like something he would say. You see, he lived during the middle ages, and he was the son of a very wealthy family. One day, he had a vision of Christ in an old run-down chapel, and from then on he decided to give up everything he had and dedicated his life to Christ, walking around the world and preaching. If you have the time, I’d tell you to read a biography of his life, because it’s thoroughly fascinating. He’s a little bit nutty every once in a while, but what was at his core was boundless compassion for everybody, especially the poor. He started an order of monks now called Franciscan, and their primary focus is to preach. Evangelism is their daily bread. But here’s a quote that he for sure said, and it sums up everything he stood for. “It’s no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”
St. Francis was a primary example of missional living. What does it mean to live missionally, to live with mission in your heart? To live missionally is to live as a sent-out people, who become the gospel for their neighbors. (Repeat.) This means that in everything you do, buying groceries, talking with your family, at work, whatever it is that you do, you do it as if you were trying to live the gospel out in your life. Live like you just heard the good news for the first time. Make the good news your breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sleep with it on your heart, and wake up with it on your lips.
Missional living, as with all good things, is rooted in scripture, and it’s in our scriptures today. At the root of these scriptures is one very crucial concept, a concept you probably wouldn’t want to hear about today. I’m talking about the fruits of the spirit, what comes out of living out of love for God. That fruit, that crucial core of missional wisdom, is reconciliation.
The reading from Matthew is the first half, and it’s a doozy. This scripture actually comes out of what is called the Revised Common Lectionary, and that’s a list of scriptures organized in a way that you go through almost every part of the bible in about 3 years. Now, this system was organized in about 1983, so when this scripture was assigned, they had no idea that the tenth anniversary of 9/11 would fall on the day that it has a scripture about forgiveness and reconciliation. Churches around the country will be reading this scripture today; it’s not just something I came up with. Some would call it coincidence and not think anything of it at all.
But you know what? I would give anything for it not to be forgiveness. Not today. Not on today of days. Not when the biggest scar in our nation’s history pains us the most. But I can’t escape it. I looked at all the other scriptures for today, and you know what they were? Joseph forgiving his brothers for selling him into slavery. The psalm, psalm 103? “The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. He will not always accuse us, nor will he keep his anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” Everywhere forgiveness, forgiveness! Why?! Why can’t it be vengeance? Why can’t it be hatred?! Why can’t it be everything that we want it to be! If God is supposed to punish the wicked, why are we called to forgiveness?! It’s maddening!
The lectionary could have prescribed literally any scripture on today. It could have very easily been a scripture about divine vengeance, of which there are many. It could have been about repentance. It could have been a song of lamentation. It could have been anything. But today, it’s a sobering reminder of what it means to be a Christian in the face of evil. It stands as a testament to what we stand for. We believe in something greater. We are to forgive, not just 7 times, but 70 times 7 times.
This is a reminder that when we try to make demands on God, to get him to do all the things that we want him to do, we cease to have a religion that is focused on God and begin to have a religion that’s all about us. My brothers and sisters, when God isn’t at the heart of our religion, when we replace God with ourselves, religion becomes corrupted. When that happens, the words of God can be twisted into anything, the result of which can be catastrophic.
But this is not the only place that an ideal of reconciliation is given for us to live into. Paul gives us a reminder of this in Romans 12:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Vengeance belongs to God. Overcome evil with Good. I would love to believe that we could attain a peaceable kingdom on earth by our own hands, but sadly we do not live in these times. Sometimes it is up to us to constrain the forces of evil, so that Good might one day overcome Evil. I’m not naïve. I know the world is far more complex. I would love to be a pacifist, but today, I’m a realist. Never forget though: Vengeance belongs to God, yet our job is to overcome evil with good.
In John, it’s no surprise that the one that Jesus talks to is Peter. Peter, who denied Christ 3 times. Peter, who succumbed to cowardice when the chips were down. Jesus had every right to be angry at Peter, furious even. Supposedly one of his best friends betrayed him. But in John, we’re given this scene, early in the morning, fish cooking over the fire by the side of the sea.
“Simon (using his real name), do you love me?” “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my lambs.”
“Simon, do you love me? “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” “Tend my sheep.”
“Simon, do you love me?” … a pause. Peter, racked with sadness, face cast down: “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep.”
When we are quick to call out the sins of others, it’s easy to forget our own sins. When darkness rears its ugly head, Jesus is there to put a mirror to our face and remind us of when we ourselves have been consumed by darkness. When we have failed. When we have sinned. Yes, even when we have done evil. And yet Jesus shows us relentless, incredible, overwhelming compassion. Jesus reconciled us to himself when he died for us and was risen. So too, we die to this world, and are reborn. We are born again. But as soon as we are, we’re given a mission.
Feed my lambs.
So we live with the mission in our hearts. We live with the reconciliation and forgiveness we have received. Because we know forgiveness, we have been given the strength to be light in a dark world.
We are called to go into the streets, to the prisons. We are called to rich and poor alike. To schools, to offices, to ranches, even to First Mondays. We are called to be a family that does not just preach the Gospel but lives it.
Our world is in dire need of good people. Our world is in desperate need of transformation. But here’s the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. That proves to us God’s love for us! In the name of Jesus Christ, by the power of the blood of Jesus Christ, we have been forgiven! It’s up to everyone of us to live as a reconciled people to a forgiving God. Reconciliation is the core of mission. In feeding the poor, in building a house, in handing out lunch sacks, in rebuilding after a hurricane, in visiting a nursing home, in helping a halfway house, in visiting the prisons, in forgiving and showing how Christ has worked in your life, not just with words but with action, we live with reconciliation in our hearts. By caring for people’s bodies, we care for their souls.
So live with mission in your hearts, because the world is in desperate need people with a mission. The world needs Jesus; today is proof of that. Only light can overcome darkness. So let’s live on fire for Jesus, in our body, mind and soul. Amen.