(Daniel 7:9-14; Matthew 28:16-20, Acts 1:1-11)
The message of Christmas is that God was born as an ordinary baby—that there was at one time on this planet a man, perfectly normal to look at, with a normal set of experiences and challenges, who was—while still being fully and completely human—fully and completely God. No, we don’t understand how that could be, but it’s apparently one of those things God can do even if it doesn’t make sense to us.
The message of Easter is that God didn’t come down just to enjoy the sights. This man who was God, who was completely innocent of any wrongdoing—not just any crime, but even any inappropriate thought—allowed himself to be wrongly convicted and brutally butchered, to take on himself all the evil and all the pain and all the brokenness of the world and to pay the penalty that justice demanded for all of it; and then he made himself the victor over death by rising from the dead. Through this, he saved us from sin and death—he put sin to death in us and replaced it with his life, which has overcome death and Hell. His life is at work in us by the power of his Holy Spirit, swallowing up what is dead; his light is shining, burning away the darkness in our hearts.
Because of this, we have hope; and we need hope. Few can drive themselves to live without it, and no one can do so in any kind of healthy and fruitful way. But there is nothing in this world in which we can put our hope that will not ultimately fail us; every one and every thing will ultimately die and be lost to us, subject to the fatal finality of this world order, and the remorseless passage of time will grind it to powder to be blown away on the wind of forgetfulness. Where there is death, there is no hope; to have enduring hope, we must have an enduring resurrection. And in Jesus Christ, we do.
But the reality of our fallen time is that there are many who don’t know this, and many more who have turned their backs on this hope for one reason or another. Some know, more or less, what they’re rejecting, and refuse the hope because they will not accept the surrender to God that goes with it; but there are many more who have rejected a false version of Christianity, not knowing that it isn’t the true gospel.
Because of this, the hope we have been given brings with it a mission: to share it with those who don’t have it. That mission isn’t the sole reason we exist, for our most important purpose is to worship God; as John Piper says, “Mission exists because worship does not.” But because there are many who worship false gods instead of the one true God, or who worship a false understanding of God, one of the ways in which we worship our Lord and Savior is by carrying out the mission he has given us.
As we talked about a few Wednesdays ago in our afternoon Bible study, we see that mission—we see Jesus commissioning the church—in these passages from Matthew and Acts; and it has three parts. First, go into the world, as individuals and together; if all we do is sit here and try to get people to come to us, that’s not enough. 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 to Owen’s to buy milk.
Wherever God leads us, whether northern India or northern Indiana, that’s our mission field; wherever we are, we’re his missionaries. The structure of the church exists to enable and empower that, which is why my other denomination, the RCA, defines its mission this way: “Our shared 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.” I love that, because that’s who we’re called to be as 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,” and that’s the job he’s given us to do.
Next, he says, “Be.” Jesus doesn’t say “You will do witnessing”; this isn’t about just an activity that we go and do for a set period of time every so often. Rather, as we’ve been talking about, he says, “You will be my witnesses.” What we think of as formal evangelism can definitely be a part of that, but there’s a lot more to it; this has to involve our whole lives. Chuck Knox, the old football coach, used to tell people, “Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear a word you say”; if our words say we believe in Jesus but our actions tell a different story, our words will fall on disbelieving ears.
We certainly need to be able to tell people the truth about who God is, who Jesus is, and who we are in him, but that’s the sermon minor; it’s there to support and explain the sermon major, which we preach by the decisions we make, the values we show, and the way we treat those around us. Both are necessary, but it’s the sermon people see in us, not the one they hear, that carries the greatest weight. 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 part of the connection between witness and worship, because when we worship God together, we open ourselves up to the work of his Holy Spirit, purifying us, preparing us, teaching us, and empowering us for the work to which he calls us, 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.
Which means that if we’re serious about evangelism, we have to be willing to be disconcerted and discomfited. As the British Columbia pastor Mark Buchanan put it, drawing on the story of the paralytic whose friends tore open the roof to lower him to 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.
We need to face up to it, though: these are the things that come with following 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. If we’re going to be faithful to him, our commitment has to be that broken people matter more than broken tiles.