Today is the second Sunday after Pentecost. It begins the longest season of the Church Year.
To the outside observer, the Sundays after Pentecost don't constitute the most exciting or compelling part of the church calendar. There’s no Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost to enliven it.
Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers and other fellow Christians don’t speak of the season as “the Sundays after Pentecost,” but lump it in with what they call “Ordinary Time.” That’s how most people will see this season of the Church Year, just ordinary.
It is in some ways. I think of it as the Season of Getting Down to Brass Tacks.
The question that our Bible lessons throughout this season ask and help us answer is a simple one: After God has entered our world in Jesus, died on the cross for our sins, risen from death to open life with God to all who repent and believe in Him, filled us with the Holy Spirit to empower us to believe and share the Gospel news of new life through faith in Jesus, what now? While we await our personal encounters with Jesus, either at our deaths or when He returns to this world, how do we live? What now?
That question takes center stage in our gospel lesson for this morning.
It comes at a transitional spot in Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
After the exciting beginning of Jesus’ ministry and following the incredible time of teaching we call the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins what may seem like a fairly routine portion of His ministry. (If anything about Jesus’ time on earth can be called routine!)
Our lesson finds Jesus at what we might call a hinge of His earthly ministry, one on which a door is closed on one phase and is opened to a brand new one.
Here’s what I mean: Up to this point, Jesus has been the One doing all the ministering. Jesus has been the Actor, His disciples the audience.
But in our lesson, things change. Here, Jesus calls and empowers His followers to enter into the same ministry with the same power--the same authority--He possesses as God the Son.
There will be another hinge in Jesus’ ministry, coming after He dies, rises, and ascends into heaven, when all who follow Him will be unleashed not just onto the small land of Judea to share Him with others, but when all of His disciples--everyone who bears the name of Jesus--will be sent into the whole world to share and live out the Gospel so that their neighbors of all colors, races, ethnicities, and backgrounds can come to know and follow Jesus.
We, in the Church, live on the other side of that doorway.
But today, let’s take a look at what we can learn about living in this green season, this ordinary time, from what Jesus says and does in today’s gospel lesson.
Matthew 9:35: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.”
This was Jesus’ ministry before His death, resurrection, and ascension summarized: He taught, he shared the Gospel of new life with God for all who repented and believed in Him, He brought God’s healing to people’s lives.
But that ministry was about to expand beyond Jesus, motivated by the loving compassion of God for all people.
Read on, please: “When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed [The word that Jesus uses here, in the Greek in which Matthew wrote his gospel, means more literally, troubled] and helpless [This word in the Greek carries the meaning of cast away, thrown away], like sheep without a shepherd. [The people were lost, set adrift in the world without hope, untethered from God by their inborn sin.] Then he [Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’”
Don’t miss out on the importance of that last sentence. These sheep--lost in sin, lost to death, losing out on purpose for their lives--are troubled. They’re the world’s throw-aways. But, unlike the world, Jesus has compassion on them all...on all of us. They, like us, need a shepherd, someone to lead them to life and peace with God.
Jesus was, while on earth, a shepherd to many people.
But, for the sake of being the perfect human sacrifice for all of our sins, Jesus had voluntarily accepted the limitation of living one human life while on earth, able to reach, touch, and speak to only so many people.
It’s possible that He could have talked to all the residents on Planet Earth at a single time (and Scripture says He will do just that when He returns one day), but it is in the nature of our loving God to want to meet us and offer us new life intimately, one to one.
By accepting that limitation, Jesus fulfilled the desire of the little boy I’ve mentioned before who couldn’t get to sleep, afraid in his bedroom by himself. His dad pointed out that he and mom were just down the hall and that besides, “God is right here.” “I know that God is right here,” the little boy says, “but I want someone with skin on them.”
Jesus was God with skin on Him.
But it’s Jesus’ intent that we should all meet God through people with skin on them, through people who believe in Jesus Christ and whose lives have been changed for all eternity by Him. It's people who know, follow, and love Jesus who can bring the God we know in Jesus close to others.
So, switching metaphors from sheep to crops ready for harvest, ready for eternity-changing good news, ready to be brought into the shelter of God’s kingdom, Jesus commands His disciples, including you and me, to pray for workers to move into that harvest.
I can think of no other command we have received from Jesus that is more ignored by His Church. We're even more obedient to Jesus' great commission command to make disciples, to evangelize, than we are to this one.
We Christians often lament the sorry state of the world. It bothers us to consider how many people go through their lives without ever knowing Jesus Christ, the only One Who can save them from sin, the only One Who can give them the life with God that they yearn for even of they don’t know it.
But we fail to do what Jesus tells us to do in our gospel lesson this morning: To pray that God will send disciples with skin on them into the lives of all people in order, by the power of the Holy Spirit Who lives in every Christian, to duplicate the ministry of Jesus--the ministry of teaching, proclaiming the good news, being agents of God’s healing--to the harassed and helpless who need Jesus as much as you and I do!
Praying that God will send workers into all of the harvests of the world should be something that we as Christians do every single day!
We need to pray that God will send workers to bring in the harvest of the lost among the elderly, baby boomers, GenXers, and millennials, to bring in the harvest of those presently lost in Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, atheism, to bring in the harvest from all who do not yet know Jesus.
But be careful what you pray for! When we pray in this way, we must also be prepared to be the workers that Jesus sends into these harvests.
We may be the disciples with skin on them that Jesus sends out.
Consider what happened to the Twelve that to whom Jesus first commanded this prayer. He called them to be workers in the harvest. He sent them out to do exactly what He was doing, at first only in Judea. Later, He would send His whole Church with the mission to go to the whole world to make disciples. That’s our call--yours and mine--today.
It is a daunting mission. But it’s one we take seriously at Living Water.
When we revised our congregation’s constitution a few years ago, we knew that we had to adopt a new mission statement. The old one was more of an observation than a statement of our mission.
But we became convinced that we didn’t need to formulate some snappy new wording. We didn’t need months of input or study.
That's because the risen Jesus gave His Church its mission just before He ascended to heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand: “...go 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 I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
This is Jesus’ answer to our question, “What now?”
- We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, what now?
- We’re given the Holy Spirit at Baptism, what now?
- We are told to pray in Jesus’ name, what now?
On Tuesday night, we’ll have an open house, allowing you to ask questions about our proposed three-phase building project.
I must tell you that, as a pastor who has been through two previous building projects, I face this one with some apprehension.
I’m not concerned about arguments over the bricks and mortar; the plan reflects the prayers for God’s will and the extensive input of our members.
I’m not concerned about leadership or financing.
The thing I pray about as your shepherd is that, in the excitement over putting up the first phase of this project, we forget about our mission of being and making disciples.
Listen: If we see any building we erect as anything other than a tool for being and making disciples, we shouldn’t bother building at all.
The first disciples of Jesus followed Jesus, taught others about Him, proclaimed the good news of new life through repentance and belief in Jesus, and brought Jesus’ healing to others without having sanctuaries, fellowship halls, offices, kitchens, or classrooms. And history shows that they did pretty well at the mission of being and making disciples Jesus gives to His Church. The first permanent church structure wasn't even built until the fourth century.
I believe that the first phase the Vision Forward team and the Church Council is proposing can help us with the mission that Jesus has given to us. So, can the subsequent phases...but only if we refuse to see our buildings as ends in themselves.
We must not see any building project as a destination, only a route by which we get to our destination. The destination, the constant journey of the Church, is to fulfill Christ’s great commission, to make disciples. And Jesus even tells us to cheat in pursuing it; we’re to pray the power of God’s Holy Spirit on all those disciples with skin on them who have been sent by Jesus Christ to turn the world upside down--one person at a time--with the life-altering good news of Jesus Christ. Whatever we do, we must always remember and pursue our one and only mission!
For the Church, that’s always the answer to the question, “What now?” Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message prepared for worship today.]