Sunday, June 22, 2014

Don't Be Afraid to Spread the Gospel: A sermon for June 22nd on Matthew 10:24-39

This week a number of us at St. Margaret’s attended an event called ‘Launch Pad’, at which Michael Harvey spoke about our call as Christians to be an invitational church. Michael, as you may know, is the founder of the ‘Back to Church Sunday’ movement, which has taken root in churches all over the world. The basic idea of ‘Back to Church Sunday’ is very simple; on a Sunday in September, churches will hold a service to which members will invite friends and family who do not normally attend church. So the heart of ‘Back to Church Sunday’ is the simple act of invitation: one Christian going up to a non-churchgoing friend and saying, “Would you like to come to church with me?”

This is nothing new, of course! Christian churches have been doing this for years; when I was a teenager, in St. Leonard’s Church, Southminster in southeast England, we used to hold regular guest services, and we were encouraged to invite friends to join us on those days. Over and over again, it has been shown that this is by far the most effective way to reach people with the Christian message. I know a number of people who are Christians today, whose Christian journey began when a friend invited them to come to church with them. Michael Peers, who used to be the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, often told the story of how, when he was a university student in Ottawa, a friend invited him to church. Up until that point Michael had not been a churchgoer or a practicing Christian, but that day he began a journey that led him to faith in Christ, and eventually to offer himself for ordination as a priest.

Of course, the thing that holds us back most often is fear of rejection. At the launch pad events, Michael Harvey told the story of how, every day, he makes ten phone calls to church leaders and bishops around the world, asking if they would allow him to come to their diocese or region and talk with people about being an invitational church. Nine times out of ten, the answer is ‘no’. Michael says that he now knows that he has to get through nine ‘no’s before he will get to a ‘yes’. But most of us are terrified of that ‘no’ – so terrified that we won’t even try one invitation, let alone ten. We let fear paralyze us, instead of remembering the command from God that appears most often in the Bible: “Don’t be afraid”. Yes, that is the command from God that is repeated most often in the entire Bible.

So I find it interesting that our gospel reading for today picks up this theme! In Matthew chapter 10, Jesus warns his disciples that they will certainly face opposition, and then he says, “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known” (Matthew 10:26). A bit later on he says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (v.28). And then, talking about how not even a sparrow can fall to the ground without our Father in heaven noticing, he says, “So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (v.31).

I think in order to understand what Jesus is saying to us here, we need to take a step back for a minute and look at the big picture of this chapter of Matthew. In fact, we need to go even further back. Look with me at the last few verses of Matthew chapter 9, verses 35-38:
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. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest”.

So the foundation of all this is the compassion of Christ. In his view, people who have not yet heard his gospel message are ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’. This is a reference to several Old Testament texts that talk about the people of Israel being scattered on the mountains ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. What it usually means is that they have no leader, no king, or that the leader they have is not caring for them properly. Jesus, we know, saw himself as sent by God to be the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for the sheep; he would draw God’s people together as one flock under his authority as God’s anointed King, and he would provide the tender care that they needed.

This, of course, is a challenge to us: do we see people in this way? If we do, then sharing the gospel with others is not an act of conquest, and if it comes across as an act of conquest, then something has gone badly wrong! Sharing the Gospel is meant to be an act of compassion; it’s meant to be an invitation to come to the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to experience his tender care for us. To Jesus, this is an urgent issue, and he encourages us to pray that God will send out more labourers into his harvest field: in other words, more witnesses who will share their faith with others and invite others to come to the Good Shepherd.

But what’s the next thing Jesus does? At the beginning of chapter ten we read of how he calls his disciples to him and gives them authority over the power of evil. He then sends them out as travelling evangelists – in other words, ‘sharers of the good news’. Their basic task is given in 10:7-8:
“As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near’. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment”.

So the message is about the kingdom or rule of God: God is acting in power to heal the hurts of the world and restore it to his original intention when he created it. Jesus believed that God was doing this through his own ministry: he is the Messiah (that’s what ‘Christ’ means), God’s anointed king, and God is working through him to defeat the power of evil and establish the rule of love. That’s what the healings are all about: they are demonstrations that God is healing the hurts of the world and restoring it to the wholeness that is his will for it.

Some of the instructions in Matthew 10 are obviously related to the specific time and situation: the sending out of the Twelve at that time without any money or food or spare clothes or even shoes for their feet. Jesus does not repeat those specific instructions at any other time, but there are several other times in the gospels and Acts, as we’ve seen, where he sends his followers out to spread his message. At the end of all four gospels we get some sort of command from Jesus to go out and proclaim the good news, to make new disciples, to baptize them, to teach them to follow Jesus. And we know that when the early Christians did this, they didn’t go out in wealth and power, but in weakness and humility, armed with nothing but the power of the Holy Spirit and the command to love everyone they met.

And this command still applies to us today. That’s what being an invitational church is all about. It’s not just about getting more people to come to church; that might be gratifying to our egos, but by itself it’s just a step on the way. What Jesus wants is to spread the Kingdom of God by making more disciples, who will commit themselves to following him and learning to put his teaching into practice. And Jesus calls every one of us to participate in this; if the Holy Spirit fills us, then we too can be witnesses for Jesus.

But then Jesus goes on to confront the spectre of fear. He’s quite clear that his followers should expect bad things to happen to them if they are faithful to this command. What? We’re afraid that our friends might say ‘no’ to our invitation to come to church with us? That they might even ‘unfriend’ us on Facebook? That’s small beans compared to what Jesus warned his disciples about:
“Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in the synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me…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” (10:17-18, 21-22a).
And later on, in today’s passage, we’re told,
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother in law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (10:34-36).

So Jesus is quite clear about this: being a witness for him will get us into trouble. Not everyone will be jumping for joy because we are sharing the good news of the kingdom of God! Some people will ask us to shut up about it. Some people will reject it. Some people will do bad things to us because of it – much worse things than refusing our invitation to Back to Church Sunday! And we’re to expect this. Jesus tells us that if we care for the good opinion of father or mother or son or daughter more than him, then we aren’t worthy of him. He is God’s anointed King; we are called to follow him.

“So have no fear of them”, Jesus says in verse 26. I don’t think he literally means ‘feel no fear’. Fear is a natural bodily reaction to danger, and all of us feel it from time to time. What I think Jesus is calling us to do is not to allow fear to determine what we’re going to do.

Leonard Cheshire, who was a British bomber pilot during World War Two, once talked about what ‘courage’ actually is. He said that there are some people who genuinely feel no fear; they are a small group, and they are actually a little bit crazy. But there is a much larger group who feel fear to the full, but do their duty nonetheless. That, he said, is what courage is. Courage isn’t feeling no fear; brave people actually feel fear just as much as anyone else. But brave people have made the decision that they are not going to let their fear decide what they are going to do. They’ve made the decision that they are going to do their duty, whatever happens.

So Jesus is calling us to do the work that he wanted his church to do from the very beginning: spread the gospel, invite people to become disciples of the Good Shepherd, teach those new disciples how to follow him in their daily lives. This is not an act of conquest; it’s an act of compassion, because people are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. It’s our job to help them find their way home to the Good Shepherd.

So let me finish with four instructions from Jesus for each of us.
First, trust in God. Look at what Jesus says in verses 29-31:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs on your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows”.
Jesus is talking to disciples who are about to go through great suffering for him, and in verse 28 he says something that we might not find very encouraging: ‘Don’t worry, boys, the worst they can do is kill you!’ But his point is that we are totally secure in the love of the Father; even death can’t separate us from God. Each one of us is infinitely valuable to the Father, and he will keep us in his care. So the safest place for us, in the long run, is right at the centre of his will. Trust in God.

Second, take up the cross. Look at verse 38:
“Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me”.
In the time of Jesus, if you were carrying a cross it meant that the state was about to execute you as a traitor and a rebel. So Jesus is saying, ‘Stand by to accept suffering for your loyalty to me’. That’s what the cross is: it’s the suffering that we go through because of our loyalty to Jesus, whatever that suffering might be. Don’t run away from it; take it up and carry it willingly because of your love for Christ. Take up the cross.

Third, stand up and be counted. Look at verses 32-33:
“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven”.
In other words, don’t hide the fact that you are a Christian; be open about it. I spend a lot of time with people who are outside of organized religion, and I notice that people don’t respect you more if you’re so afraid of offending people that you never say anything. Rather, they respect you if you have the courage of your convictions, and they respect you even more if they can see that your life matches your words. So don’t hide your light under a bushel: stand up and be counted.

Fourth and last, proclaim the message. Look at verse 27:
“What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops”.
Or, as the New Living Translation puts it:
“What I tell you now in the darkness, shout abroad when daybreak comes. What I whisper in your ear, shout from the housetops for all to hear!”
This, of course, is the simple promise that we make every time we participate in a baptism service: ‘Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?’ To which we all reply, “I will, with God’s help”. That promise doesn’t allow us to take refuge in that pious-sounding phrase: ‘Some people talk about their faith; I just live it”. The promise doesn’t just say ‘by example’, but ‘by word’ too. Yes, we put our faith in Christ into practice, but we also use words, whatever words we can find to tell people why we love Jesus and how they can find their way to him as well.

So here are the words from our Lord to us: trust in God, take up your cross, stand up and be counted, proclaim the message. And, of course, don’t be afraid. May God the Holy Spirit give us courage and strength to put these things into practice. And in case you’re wondering how you can put them into practice, we’ll be doing Back to Church Sunday at the end of September. Who might God be leading you to invite to join us on that day?

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