Those of you who have been listening to my sermons for a while will know that I am a great admirer of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Twelve Steps were created as a spiritual program to help alcoholics find freedom from their addiction with the help of God, who they call ‘the Higher Power’. The Steps take addicts through a process of admitting their inability to rescue themselves from alcoholism, coming to belief that a power greater than themselves can help them, and committing their lives to God ‘as they understand him’. The alcoholics admit their moral defects, ask God to remove them, and make amends to others who have been hurt by their behaviour, and they go on to practice regular prayer and meditation to improve their conscious contact with God. But the Twelfth Step, the last one of all, is the one I want to focus on this morning:
‘Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs’.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing many AA members over the years, and all of them have agreed with me that alcoholism is a very selfish, self-centred way of life. To me, that’s why the Twelfth Step is a stroke of genius. If all we had were the first eleven Steps, it would be possible for the recovering alcoholic to continue to focus all their attention on themselves, and on their own recovery. But the founders of AA knew that, if that were to happen, in the end the alcoholic would return to his or her addiction. Unless there was some way of focussing attention outward, the fundamental direction of their lives would not be changed. And so they came up with this simple step: what has been done for you, you must now do for others. Although they would not have used the word, with this single step they turned AA into a missionary organisation.
Now what’s that got to do with what we’re doing in church here today? Well, as most of you know, throughout Lent we’ve been thinking together about godly habits that can help to shape us as followers of Jesus. I’ve chosen six habits to focus on - prayer, study, action, worship, giving, and mission. Today, Palm Sunday, we’re at the end of the series, and so we’re turning our attention to the Christian discipline of mission. And this discipline of mission isn’t an optional extra, something we can tag onto our spiritual life if we happen to like that sort of thing. No, like the Twelfth Step of AA, it’s an essential part of our growth as Christian disciples.
When Jesus first chose people to be his disciples, he didn’t enroll them in a program that was exclusively focussed on their own spiritual growth and development. Nor did he tell his new followers that they could spend the first few years learning the new life for themselves before they tried to spread it to others. No - he enlisted them right from the beginning in a program of training for mission. In Mark chapter one we read these words:
‘As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”’ (Mark 1:16-17).
It’s clear from this statement and from what followed that fishing for people – taking the message of Jesus to other people and inviting them also to become his followers – was on the discipleship curriculum from day one. It wasn’t like a fourth year university course; it was an entry-level course, to be taken in year one. Jesus didn’t call people to become his disciples so that they could focus only on their own spiritual development. He wanted to change the world, and he trained disciples to help him do it.
We see this in all the gospels at the end of the story of Jesus; all four of the biblical gospels have some version of what has become known as the ‘Great Commission’ that Jesus gave to his church. The best known is Matthew’s version:
‘And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”’ (Matthew 28:18-20).
The version in chapter sixteen of Mark’s gospel goes like this:
‘And Jesus said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned”’ (Mark 16:15-16).
Luke’s version is worded somewhat differently:
‘And Jesus said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high”’ (Luke 24:46-49).
Finally, in John 20, in the story of Easter Sunday, we read these words:
Jesus said to (his disciples) again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit”’ (John 20:19-22).
Why are there different versions of this commission? Well, the book of Acts tells us that after he was raised from the dead Jesus appeared to his disciples regularly over a period of seven weeks, speaking to them about the Kingdom of God. This was not a brief conversation! In fact, we can assume that there were several conversations, in which some of the same themes reappeared regularly, with different nuances on each occasion. And so it shouldn’t surprise us that the Great Commission takes different forms in each of the gospels; the gospel-writers were summarizing, and each of them was underlining themes that were important to him in the way he told the story of Jesus.
What can we learn from these words of Jesus? Let me underline two things.
First, Christian mission is based on the mission of Jesus. In John’s gospel Jesus says to the disciples – and, through them, to the Church and to us – ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ (John 20:21).
We get the word ‘mission’ from the Latin word ‘missae’ – ‘to send’. It’s a fundamental theme of the gospel of John that Jesus was sent into the world by the Father to do the Father’s will. When we look at how this was actually worked out in the ministry of Jesus, we see that there was a twofold emphasis: words, and actions. Jesus preached the gospel and challenged people to repent and believe in him, and he also relieved human suffering by healing the sick, spending time with outcasts, reaching out to marginalised people and so on.
So we are called today to be in mission for Jesus by our actions and by our words. We reach out in action by relieving human suffering, and we reach out in words by sharing the gospel of Jesus and inviting others to become his followers. Jesus taught us to pray: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. Our involvement in Christian mission is our way of being part of the answer to our own prayer. God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done as people become followers of Jesus and as the world is transformed into a place of justice and peace, a place where everyone has enough and no one has too much.
In the Christian spectrum over the past hundred years, there’s been a polarization between liberal and conservative, between mainline and evangelical, on this issue of Christian mission. Mainline churches, especially those of a more liberal bent, have tended to focus on action to help the poor and needy, and have shied away from evangelism, seeing it as ‘ramming our beliefs down other people’s throats’. Evangelical churches, on the other hand, have stressed personal conversion and our responsibility to help non-Christians come to faith in Christ. Nowadays, though, this division is more and more a thing of the past. In the evangelical and conservative Christian world, more and more people are recognizing that the relief of human suffering is an integral part of our Christian responsibility, and so you have organisations like World Vision that come from an evangelical background and work hard to help the poor all around the world. And in the mainline churches, slowly, we’re coming to see that evangelism is also part of the job that Jesus gave to his disciples.
So as you and I think about how the Christian discipline of mission can be an integral part of our daily lives, we have to consider both these areas: our practical work to relieve human suffering, both near and far, and also our spoken witness for Christ with our friends, neighbours, and family members.
In our church, of course, there are plenty of opportunities for us to get involved in the relief of human suffering. This year we are raising funds for four different outreach projects, from the chaplaincy at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre to the Canadian Association of Medical Teams Abroad, from the Salvation Army to the work of World Vision in providing micro-loans for small businesses in the developing world. We can all help in this by giving generously to these causes. And in our city there are plenty of ways we can get involved in caring for the needy: we can volunteer at the Mustard Seed or Hope Mission, hammer nails with Habitat for Humanity, help with lunches at the Bissell Centre and so on. We can get involved in political advocacy so that public policy helps shape a better world for everyone, not just for the rich and powerful. There are many avenues for us to help in the relief of human suffering, and we need to ask ourselves, ‘What is God calling me to do?’
When it comes to our spoken witness for Christ, again, it doesn’t need to be complicated. Jesus tells us to be his ‘witnesses’; a witness simply speaks about what he or she has experienced. Hopefully all of us can think of ways that our faith in Christ is making a practical difference in our daily lives. As we build open and caring relationships with other people, we can take the opportunities that come our way to share our stories.
This business of being a witness for Christ can mean something as simple as being willing to admit that we are regular churchgoers. It can involve being ready to have the conversation when people want to talk about religion – as people in today’s world often do. It can include an invitation to church; over 90% of non-churchgoers who start going to church do so because a friend invited them. And sometimes it can involve helping people take that simple step of saying ‘yes’ to Jesus’ invitation to follow him.
So Christian mission is based on the mission of Jesus, and it includes both working to relieve human suffering and also sharing the gospel and inviting people to put their faith in Jesus. But the second thing we can learn from these words of Jesus is that Christian mission is impossible without the power of the Holy Spirit.
The texts are very clear about this. In Luke’s gospel Jesus tells his followers not to rush off enthusiastically right away, but to “stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). In Acts Jesus says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:8). And in John’s story, after Jesus has appeared to the twelve and said to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”, we read that ‘he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”’ (John 20:22).
This is not rocket science; it’s about beginning each day with a prayer that God would fill us with the Holy Spirit, that he would open our eyes to the opportunities through the day to reach out with his love to others, and give us the resources we need to take advantage of those opportunities when they come our way. Prayer is the most important channel of the Holy Spirit’s power into our lives. In prayer we ask for the Spirit’s power; in prayer we ask God to guide us; in prayer we bring the needs of other people to God; in prayer we have a sense of being in partnership with God, so that we aren’t doing the work of mission alone.
The Twelfth Step of AA says, ‘Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs’. I hope that each of you here has had a spiritual awakening in your life. For some of us it was a dramatic experience, a movement from darkness to light. For others it was a more gradual growth in our awareness of the presence of Christ and the difference he was making to us day by day.
The wisdom of AA is that love isn’t love until you give it away. If you take all the blessings God has poured out on you and hoard them for yourselves, eventually you’ll lose them; the joy will go away, and your spirituality will be an empty shell. So today, as we come to the end of this series on basic Christian disciplines, ask yourselves these two simple questions: First, what is one simple, practical way that God wants me to help to relieve human suffering, whether close at hand or far away? And second, what is one simple step I can take to commend my faith in Christ to the people I meet who are not yet followers of Jesus? And having come up with answers to those two questions, let’s put the answers into practice, so that the kingdom of God can go forward and our own faith can continue to grow.