The Mission of the Church
When I was first aware of my call to ministry it was not a call to be a pastor. It was a call to be an evangelist. I wanted to seek and save the lost. The seeking part was easy, the lost were all around me. It was the saving part that had me baffled. In my early delusions of grandeur I imagined that work almost completely in terms of preaching the gospel to the unsaved masses. You might say I was a Billy Graham wannabe. I was only a little disappointed when I enrolled in a school of preaching when I really wanted to find a school of evangelism. Fortunately, evangelism was a high priority in the school of preaching so I soon found myself being introduced to methods and strategies for teaching the gospel to others. I also discovered that I was very uncomfortable with the ‘sales' approach that seemed to inform our efforts. I attempted to be an evangelist by wearing my piety on my sleeve, I took my huge black Bible with me to the Laundromat in the hopes that someone would approach me and ask to be saved. You can imagine how well that worked. I attempted to turn every conversation into an exploration of the state of one's soul and eternal destiny and soon lost the ability to have a conversation about things other than salvation, and the repentance that accompanied it. In my zeal, and as part of the school's curriculum, I attended revivals in Texas, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas. I knocked on doors. The offer was usually the same, "Would you like to study the Bible with us?". Imagine a twenty year old at your door asking to study the bible with you. I do not exaggerate when I say this was a very ineffective method. But there was always some anecdotal evidence that this method could save at least one soul from the fires of hell, so we persevered.
In college my evangelistic zeal was outfitted with a new approach. No longer would we knock on doors and ask people to study the Bible with us. We appreciated John Stott, an Anglican and Evangelical, who when asked if he believed in evangelism, said something to the effect, ‘if you mean grabbing someone by the lapels and pounding them with gospel fragments, then no, I don't believe in evangelism.' I had done my share of gospel pounding. In our new approach we would knock on doors and invite people to attend "Life Seminars". I spent a summer in Miami in an internship with about twenty other college students practicing this "Friendship Evangelism", as we called it. The emphasis was on building relationships without the pressure of ‘closing the deal.' To keep our evangelism mission clear we coined the motto, "don't go all the way on the first date." A good motto because our earlier attempts had been just that: Let's study the bible for an hour and then hop into the baptismal pool! This new style of evangelism suited my personality much better.
Lately, we have heard much about evangelism, especially in Episcopal circles. As we reaffirm the mission of the church today Isaiah and Matthew have much to say to us.
In the expansive vision of Isaiah, the Servant is to broaden his mission from Jacob/Israel to all the nations. In fact, a mission only to Israel is ‘too light a thing' for the servant so God assigns the servant to a universal mission. In Matthew Jesus too expands the mission of the disciples from the lost sheep of Israel to the nations. Go and make disciples of all nations. Isaiah's "I will give you as a light to the nations" has he same resonance. God's interest in all people is highlighted in these passages and the promise made to Abraham that his seed would be a blessing to all nations is realized in Judah and in the church.
The command is to go and make disciples, baptizing and teaching are the means by which disciples are made. The command is to make disciples, not Episcopalians, or Lutherans, or Methodists, or Baptists. Make disciples. Bishop Andy Doyle emphasized this in his lectures last year when he said we should be in the world serving, loving, and being a light in the darkness without consideration for whether or not someone would join our church. Our mission is to live out the kingdom values that define us. Isaiah and Matthew reach outside the bounds of one group of people extending blessing to all peoples, nations, and races.
Go, we are told and disciple.
Matthew's verse 17 offers an important glimpse into that early community and the response of those near to Jesus. When he appeared they worshipped him, but some doubted. At first we may be surprised by this but on further consideration we recognize this reaction as typical of commissioning narratives. Consider Moses who, after a number of failed objections, finally said "get someone else to do it." Or Jeremiah's "I'm too young". Or Isaiah's "do you know what I am like? Have you seen where I come from?" Commissioning is often met with hesitancy, refusal, fear, and doubts. The task seems to great for us, it is not a light thing but a heavy one, we question our skills, we fear our inadequacy. The only thing that can strengthen us is the living presence of Christ. So it is fitting that the scene ends with Christ saying "remember, I am with you always". It is easy to remember this when we are gathered in here, when we meet the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is more difficult outside these walls, but that is where Christ has already gone. The cross standing outside of this chapel is a reminder that Christ's presence is in the world as much as in here, and that as disciples we must go with Christ outside so that we might be a light in our world.