Acts 1:1-11 audio (5MB)
Can I begin by asking you to cast your mind back? For some of us it will only be a short time for others it may be somewhat longer. Cast your mind back to the first time your Christian faith really came alive for you. When was it? Why was it?
When I was in primary school my parents sold the property we were living on and we moved to another town, to another school, and to another church. St Barnabas' Anglican Church was little wooden building like many in the country with a congregation of just five ladies, all of them over seventy years of age. When my mother and my younger sister and brother went we swelled the attendance by eighty percent. There was just one service a fortnight at 7.30 a.m.! The service was very formal and ritualistic. (I should say that those five ladies were women of great faith and I want to say a little more about them in a moment). But I am telling you this because there was no youth group, no CLAY, no STOMP, no beach missions, no Summer under the Son. As a child I didn't know such things existed. But miraculously when I enrolled at university I just "happened" to meet a couple of members of the Christian Fellowship group on campus. I didn't expect to become part of such a group because it never occurred to me that such groups existed. I had expected to go to the local church now once in a while but not to be part of a group of young Christians living out their faith on the university campus. And what first made my faith come alive was the way that group prayed for each other and for the fellow students and the way they talked to their friends about Jesus. And at our university in that part of Queensland many young people were living a long, long way from home for the first time, and the Christian Fellowship supported many who found that experience difficult. And they looked after the drunks! As with most universities alcohol abuse was a serious problem - probably worse there than most. And often it was the Christians who were there - sometimes at 2 or 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning to help frequently ungrateful drunks safely home. It completely changed my understanding of my Christian faith. When did your Christian faith first come alive for you? Why?
Before I go on let me just briefly go back to that church at St Barnabas and those five senior Christian ladies. It should not be left unsaid that in no small part because of their faith there is now a congregation of over forty people. And the town has a moving population so many more have been part of the congregation over the years. And four members are now ordained ministers, including myself - proof that aging congregations can grow and prosper.
Today we are continuing our series on Christian "discipleship". But our focus is moving from our individual commitment to Christ to our role as a group of disciples. But our mission as God's people presumes what we have seen over the last 2 weeks: that we are individuals who are both "walking with Jesus" and "students of Christ". Those of you who remembered the 1980s will be glad I'm sure that I have resisted the temptation to wear a black suit and black sunglasses and use the phrase ... "We're on a mission from God" - partly because it has become a cliché, but also because it risks trivialising our real mission from God.
I this series we have focussed on reading from Luke's Gospel. And Luke draws attention to the range of disciples beyond the Twelve who were around Jesus. He mentions many others, especially women, as we saw last week in the case of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). In today's Gospel reading Luke tells us that: "... the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go." He said to them, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest'. Go on your way" (v. 1-3). The questions I'd like to ask from this passage about our discipleship are these:
Firstly, WHAT did Jesus want them to "Go on your way" and do?
Secondly, WHO did Jesus appoint and send to do it?
WHAT mission from God?
WHAT did Jesus want them to "Go on your way" and do? In chapter 9 (verses 51-52) of Luke's Gospel, just before today's reading, Luke tells us that "When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him". And in the reading today Jesus sent seventy of his followers ahead of him with a very simple message:
"Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' ... 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you'." (Luke 10:5, 8-9)
Jesus intended to visit the towns on the way to Jerusalem. So when he tells his followers to say to people in those towns that "the kingdom of God has come near", it was quite literally coming true, wasn't it? The king in God's kingdom was literally coming near. But the kingdom was also coming near not just because the king was in town, but because the good news of God's "peace" was being brought among them in both the words and the actions of Jesus and his followers. What Jesus told his followers to do was to go into those towns and do the things that he was already doing himself.
We get a hint of this if we look back to Luke chapter 4 where Jesus goes to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and reads the Bible from the prophet Isaiah:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)
After reading these words Jesus basically tells the congregation: "this is my mission statement". And the mission that Jesus gave his seventy followers was to proclaim the same message - even if he abbreviated it a bit: "bring good news". Tell people "the kingdom of God has come near", which is the New Testament equivalent to saying "proclaim the year of the Lord's favour".
Speaking the message of the KOG and demonstrating it with actions were to go hand-in-hand: "eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you'" (v. 8-9).
WHO is on a mission from God?
The second question I wanted to ask from this passage is WHO did Jesus appoint and send to do it? One of the things that seems to me to be very significant about this reading is that it is the second time in Luke's Gospel that we read about Jesus sending out a group of his followers with a mission. The first time was just a little earlier at the beginning of chapter 9:
"Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money - not even an extra tunic. 4Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. 5Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them." (Luke 9:3-5)
Do these words sound familiar? Sounds very like today's reading doesn't it?
4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. (Luke 10:4-7)
This is a case where I think the little details are very important. Both what was the same and what was different about the two missions is important. What was the same? Well both groups get the same marching orders don't they? - take nothing, go to the same house, if they welcome you stay, if they don't leave. The same mission even if we get a bit more information in chapter 10. So what was different? There are probably more but two things stand out to me and both of them involve the people who were actually sent out on the mission. In chapter 9 it was the Twelve. In chapter 10 it is the Seventy (or Seventy Two in some translations, but that difference is not important for us this morning).
(1) One difference is that what happened in chapter 9 is repeated on a bigger scale in chapter 10. Jesus is getting more people involved in his missionary work. (2) The second difference is that this time it is not just the Twelve apostles who are sent out. It was not just those 12 who were closest to Jesus, the ones who were later the leaders in the earliest Church. This time Jesus sends seventy of his followers. This second missionary journey shows us that the task of mission was not confined to the Twelve apostles.
I think this leads us to two divisions that have damaged the church (and are still damaging the church). The first division between "clergy" and "lay" people we often talk about. This division has been damaging not because the church shouldn't appoint people to teach the word provide leadership in the church - after all I am one of them. It has been and still is damaging the church. (We reinforce it every time we have an ordination service and the clergy sit in the best seats at the front. We reinforce it when the clergy where special clothes to church and other people wear ordinary clothes). This idea is damaging because it has fostered the idea that the special, professional Christians are the ministers and everyone else has a secondary role. There is an expression I hope you haven't heard: pray, pay and obey. For much of church history this has been the role of the "lay" people.
But there is another division which we rarely talk about: between so-called "missionaries" and non-Missionaries. It seriously concerns me when we use restrict the use of the term "missionary" to people who train with CMS and ABM and other organisations and go overseas to do their mission work. It concerns me not because we don't need overseas missionaries and many more of them. God knows we do! Jesus said to his followers that "the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few" and they still are! This language concerns me because it implies that people who don't go overseas with a missionary organisation are not missionaries. But while we may not be part of the Twelve apostles we are intended, I believe, to understand ourselves like the Seventy sent out by Jesus in Luke chapter 10.
A kingdom in which WE are significantly involved
In the sermon two weeks ago I quoted from the webpage on discipleship which a friend e-mailed me. I have found the way the author Dallas Willard puts our discipleship into the big picture of what God is doing in the world very helpful (and he puts it so well I'm going to risk borrowing his words again): "God's intent was to have a kingdom in which we are significantly involved." Do you find that extraordinary? A kingdom in which we are significantly involved! Its God's kingdom and we are significantly involved! You are significantly involved in God's kingdom! I am significantly involved in God's kingdom! We are all significantly involved in God's kingdom! Willard goes on to say that this means that "Every human being, wherever they may be, is given the opportunity to enter into a companionship, a working relationship with God. The kingdom of God is what God is doing. And his plan was that he would be doing many things with us." It follows, Willard adds, that "A disciple is a person who has decided that the most important thing in their life is to learn how to do what Jesus said to do."
As I was writing this section of the sermon I was reminded of a personal discipleship statement used in a church I once attended:
· one service
· one small group
· one ministry
The church believed, as we do, that personal commitment ("Walking with Jesus") is a fundamental Christian value and so they encouraged everyone to be committed to one worship service on a regular basis. The church also believed, as we do, that studying the Scriptures on a regular basis with other Christians (being a "Student of Christ") is a fundamental Christian value, and so they encouraged every member to be involved in a small group. And they believed, as we do, that God wants to be in a working relationship with each of us and wants to do many things through us, so they encouraged everyone to be committed to (at least) one ministry. They used the word ministry but I am using "mission" here. What would this commitment to one mission look like?
Well for one person it may mean being committed to the mission of the playgroup. One person would be committed to attending the playgroup regularly. They would get to know the playgroup members and pray for their needs and that they would come to know Jesus as Saviour and Lord. They would try to spend some time with them socially by meeting them for coffee or have them around for a meal. They would pray for the leader of the playgroup mission and encourage them. They would look for opportunities to invite parents to bring their children to the playgroup. For another person this might mean a similar commitment to the men's breakfast and to praying for and supporting the men and seeking out new members to invite to the breakfast. The details would vary for each person depending upon their gifts and circumstances but the commitment to mission remains the same.
In today's reading Jesus reminded his followers that "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way'" (v. 2-3). It seems right then that I conclude by asking you to join me in praying that God will send more people into the mission fields at home and overseas.