A People on the Way

(Isaiah 61:1-3Matthew 28:16-20Acts 1:1-11)

What is this building? What are these walls? We call this room a “sanctuary,” which means “holy place,” a place set aside and dedicated to God, and that it is; and through centuries in which fugitives were immune from arrest within the walls of a church, “sanctuary” has also come to mean a place of refuge and protection, and this is that, too, or should be. But what else? What is this building? Is it a church? Certainly we talk about it that way; people come in and they say, “You have a beautiful church.” It’s a beautiful building, no doubt, but is the church really made of bricks? No! But if we think of this as “the church,” then logically, everything outside of it is “not the church”—that’s why we talk about “going to church,” after all—and if we think that way, then what are these walls, really, but a box that holds us in, confines us, constrains us?

This idea that we go to church, we have church, and then we leave church and go back into the “real world” is a common one, but it’s completely unbiblical. We are the body of Christ, the covenant people of God; I think we know that, but we haven’t really grasped that fact until we realize it’s just as true on Monday afternoon as on Sunday morning. The church is not a place; the building’s just something the church has to enable it to do certain things, most notably to gather to worship God. The church is all of us together, and we are every bit as much the church when we’re out buying, selling, working, playing, and the like as when we’re standing here singing. Here, we carry out the central part of our mission, worshiping God, but we also prepare for the rest of it—which happens out there, in the world at large. That’s part of really being the church, that we are as much the church when we’re apart as when we’re gathered together.

The problem is, we lose that when we let our walls define us. “Oh, those walls? That’s the Presbyterian church. And those walls over there, that’s the Free Methodists. And those walls down the road, that’s the First Church of the Brethren.” And those walls define out—everyone not within them doesn’t belong there. But Jesus didn’t define the church by walls, he defined us by our mission in this world; and if you look at the first mission statement he gave the church, just before his ascension—we have it in our passages from Matthew and Acts—you can see three parts to that mission. Remember, he’s talking to a group of devout Jews who understood that worship was at the core of everything; but that still leaves the question, what else? This is Jesus’ answer to that question.

First, go into the world. The church is not defined as a group of people who all like to worship in the same way, though you wouldn’t always know it from the way we do things; nor is it defined as a group of people with the same cultural expectations, though if you look at the way so many churches tend to segregate by age, you might come to think otherwise; nor is it defined as a group of people who all believe the same things, though our longstanding denominational boundaries could give you that view. The church is defined as a group of people who have obeyed Jesus’ call to go.

For some people, that means packing up and moving across the world; for more of us, it means sending and supporting those people, while at the same time remembering that we too are missionaries when we go down the street to buy milk. Wherever God leads us, whether Outer Mongolia or here in northern Indiana, that’s our mission field; wherever we are, we’re his missionaries. That is what defines us as the church—not the details of our beliefs, not the details of how we do church, but the fact that we are a people on the way, following Christ in mission on the road to his kingdom. That’s why my other denomination, the RCA, defines its mission this way: “Our task is to equip congregations for ministry—a thousand churches in a million ways doing one thing—following Christ in mission, in a lost and broken world so loved by God.” That’s the church: a community of people, a community of communities, “following Christ in mission in a lost and broken world so loved by God.” That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Go.”

Next, he says, “Be.” Specifically, he says, “You will be my witnesses.” Note that. He doesn’t say, “You will do witnessing”; he says, “You will be my witnesses.” Evangelism has gotten a bad rap with a lot of people thanks to the approach of a few—you know, the folks who grab random strangers, stick a half-dozen Scripture verses in their ear, badger them into saying a certain prayer, stuff a tract in their pocket, and walk off confident they’ve “saved another soul.” I’m sure God can use that; after all, God used Jacob, he used Jonah, he used Peter—who am I to say God can’t use anybody or anything? But our call isn’t to “save souls” in that sense, we’re called to share the life Jesus has given us with the people around us; and we aren’t called to witness to Jesus just by memorizing some spiel, we’re called to be his witnesses by the way we live our lives. As St. Francis of Assisi put it, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

Now, the downside at this point is that we often don’t hear this correctly; we have the tendency to mentally translate this into “I don’t have to tell people about Jesus, I just have to go out and live my life and that’s good enough.” Well, yes and no, sort of. Go back to that quote from St. Francis and think about this for a minute: “Preach the gospel at all times.” That’s the standard: our lives are to be sermons on the word of God, backed up by our words. Our call as disciples of Christ is to go out into the world and live in it as he did—talking with others about our Father in heaven, and just as importantly, showing his love to those around us in every way we can think of. We are called to do the work he did: to feed the hungry; to care for the sick; to welcome the outsider; to defend the oppressed; to lift up the downtrodden; to love the unlovable; to break down the barriers between race and class and gender; and to speak the truth so clearly and un-flinchingly, when the opportunity arises, that people want to kill us for it.

After all, what is a witness? Look at the justice system, which depends on witnesses—on people who have seen something important and are willing to tell others what they saw. That’s what we’re called to be. We too have seen something important—we have seen the work of Jesus Christ in our lives and the lives of others, through the power of the Holy Spirit—and we too are called to testify to what we’ve seen. In our case, though, our testimony is to be not only the things we say, but everything we do, the way we live our lives, because our lives must provide credibility for our words; a witness who isn’t credible convinces no one. Kamikaze evangelism is hard for most people because it’s unnatural; but it’s easier than being witnesses, because you just go do this one thing and then it’s over. To be witnesses, to bear witness to Jesus with our lives, means that at every point, our lives are to reflect the love and testify to the truth of Jesus Christ.

Which is impossible, for us; but what is impossible for us is possible with God. That’s why Jesus says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” and then says, “and you will be my witnesses.” Unfortunately, though, when the Holy Spirit fills us with the love and the grace and the power of God, we don’t stay filled; as the great evangelist D. L. Moody put it, we leak, and so we need to be constantly filled and refilled by the Spirit. That’s one reason we’re called to gather together each week to worship, because when we worship God together, his Spirit works in us in a powerful way. As we’ll talk about later, when we spend time focusing on God, both by ourselves and together as a church, we open ourselves up for his Spirit to change our hearts and our lives, so that more and more we will be the people, and the church, he calls us to be.

So, Jesus says, “Go”; he says, “Be”; and he says, “Do.” Specifically, he calls us to do his work: as his disciples, to make more disciples. Our mission as the church is to go out into the world, not to hide behind our four walls—to live, in full view of the world, lives powered and guided and changed and being changed by the Spirit of God—so that people will be attracted by our example and thus be drawn to follow Christ as we follow him. We are God’s light in the window, calling home those who have wandered far from him, giving direction to people lost in the darkness; but when people come, it isn’t enough just to get them in the door. It’s our call at that point to nurture them as we nurture ourselves, to give them a place by the fire and feed them, body and soul, to share our life with them, and to disciple them so that they, too, can take up the call in their turn.

Now, this can be a lot harder than it sounds, because it requires us to take some risks that we might not want to take. Around this time last year, the magazine Leadership put out an issue with the theme, “Going Missional: Break free of the box and touch your world.” It was one of their better issues, highlighted by an article by Mark Buchanan called “Wreck the Roof: Are you willing to take apart the church to bring people to Jesus?” He takes his inspiration from Mark 2, the story of the paralytic whose friends tear open the roof of a house to get him to Jesus for healing—provoking a strong negative reaction from the religious leaders who were present. From this, Buchanan talks about “Roof-Tile Syndrome,” which he defines as “when we care more about keeping things intact than about restoring lives that are shattered. . . . It’s when we are so fearful about upsetting [people] in our midst that we stop taking risks to get people to Jesus.”

The fact of the matter is, as Buchanan notes, if the church is truly focused on going into the world to be witnesses for Jesus, if we’re truly focused on drawing people into our community to make disciples of Jesus, there will be roof tiles broken. Some people will take advantage of us; others will, with good intentions, completely disrupt our comfort zones (this is especially true of children); there will be damage done by people who just don’t know any better yet; and some of the risks we take will fall flat, leaving us looking and feeling a little foolish. The thing is, these are the things that come with fol-lowing Jesus, with seeking to serve Christ faithfully in our community; we cannot avoid them without amputating our witness and turning aside from our mission. Ultimately, we have to decide what’s more important: keeping all the roof tiles in place, or making disciples for Jesus Christ; and our commitment as the church has to be that broken people matter more than broken tiles. Making disciples is the mission Jesus gave us, and it’s what we have to be about, if we’re truly going to be his church.

There are two parts to that task that Jesus specifically mentions. One, baptizing, is important because it’s through baptism that people enter the covenant community; as we’ll talk about later, it’s the sign and seal of our death and resurrection in Christ, and of his promises to us. The other is teaching—specifically, he says, in making disciples, teach them “to obey all that I have commanded you.” This includes the Old Testament, which is fulfilled in Jesus, and the rest of the New Testament, which gives us the teaching of the apostles in obedience to Jesus’ command, but the core of our message is and must be the words and actions of Jesus Christ—the hard parts as much as the easy ones.

Now, this isn’t just a matter of teaching people to believe true things; by itself, that’s not discipleship. Discipling people is a matter of teaching them true things so that they will go out and live true lives. Our call and our purpose as disciples of Christ is to become like him: to think with his mind, to love the world around us as he loves it, and thus to act as he would act, to follow him in his mission in this lost and broken world so loved by God; and to do that, we need to place ourselves under the authority of his word, to obey his commandments and learn from his example. That’s why preaching and teaching are central to our life as the church, not just because we learn things, but because God builds what we learn into our lives, using it to form and shape us as his disciples.

Finally, Jesus says, “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” This is, of course, a promise, but it’s also a framework and goal for our mission. We remember that Jesus is always with us by his Spirit, that we are never alone, without comfort, guidance, protection, or care; but we also remember that there is an end to this age, and that we don’t know when it will be. We remember that Jesus is with us to comfort us, yes, but also to challenge us; he’s with us not only for our sake, but for others’ sake and his own, to enable and empower us to be Jesus to the people around us. We remember that his purpose is in part to prepare us for the end of the age, when he will come again, and to use us to prepare others. We remember that he is with us, not to make us comfortable inside our four walls, but to take us beyond them to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted and comfort those who mourn, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to declare the year of the Lord’s favor—and to warn of the day when his judgment will come—so that when we come home to his kingdom at last, we will hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the rest I prepared for you from before the foundation of the world.”