Right out of college my sister signed up for the Presbyterian Church’s Young Adult Volunteer program. This program – one of the best things our denomination does – sends young adults to sites across the world to work with partner churches, to learn, to meet needs in Christ’s name. Sarah was sent to the Philippines. Initially eight of them worked together with a site director, learning about the history of that country, about dynamics in play in their communities, the way the church functioned in a heavily Catholic context. Then she was sent out to a neighborhood north of Manila. Kalookan is a sprawling poor neighborhood, concrete block and corrugated metal as far as the eye can see.
Crowded streets that flood knee-deep every time it rains; drowned rodents floating by. Chickens squawk and the air often smells of trash. Sarah was led down a small alley, pointed to the block structure of two small rooms where she would live, pointed at the spigot that was that alley’s shower. At the end of the alley a door opened up into a bigger room, around the size of our parlor. It was the church, a congregation of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. Her first Sunday the pastor, Pastor Petz, introduced this young woman who had moved across the Pacific, to the thirty or so gathered. And he did so in a way that it surprised her. He said, “Sarah is going to be our missionary – a missionary from us – back to the United States, and she is here with us for a year of training.” She was there to learn, he said, and then to be sent back to the States to tell of what God was doing in Manila.
The disciples trudged up the rocky slopes, following Jesus’ directions. There were only eleven of them; Matthew is quick to remind us. 1 And they were haunted by that absence, by how the chief priests had worked out a deal with Judas for those thirty pieces of silver. By how Judas slipped away to summon the guards as they prayed in the Garden. They had seen him coming with the crowd, to arrest Jesus, betrayed with a kiss. For a moment they glimpsed his shame.
They hadn’t seen Judas again, though they heard something of his repentance; about his hurling the money back at the chief priests later on, 2 of his death. But a lot of that got lost in their agony of Jesus’ suffering, the gut-wrenching grief, the stunned surprise when Mary and Mary ran in that Easter morning and said that He was alive, that they had seen Him, that He told them to go to Galilee, that there they would see Him. 3 And they were so hopeful as they trudged up the mountain, like they had before for sermons and for prayer, where thousands were fed, where a few of them saw Him transfigured. [4.Matthew centers many critical events on that mountain. That mountain is a place of revelation, of the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:27); it is a place of prayer, before he comes down and walks on the water (14:23); it is a place where thousands are fed (15:29ff); it is a place of transfiguration, where they met Jesus with Moses and Elijah (17:1). This list comes from Tom Long in his WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p 325.] They climbed, nervous, praying it was true.
Best as I can tell, though, it wasn’t all a joyous reunion. It was cautious, tentative. Matthew says, “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” I do not take this to mean that, for example, seven of them believed it was him wholeheartedly, and four still held back. Most congregations are not filled with only two groups – the stalwart disciples and the people who don’t get it. Most, it seems to me, are like this first Matthean one – filled with people who both believe and doubt at the same time. 4 It is not to angels or perfect believers but to the worshipping/wavering community of disciples that the world mission is entrusted. 5 And they are just there for an instant. He claims His own authority, and then sends them on their way. He was never one to stay still, anyway. Matthew tells about many an episode when Jesus speaks, teaches, and then immediately moves on to somewhere else. One can almost see, Will Willimon writes, the disciples tagging along behind Jesus, breathlessly trying to keep up with him. Jesus is on the move and we can’t follow him without moving, too. 6
For a long time the church did the going part pretty well. Paul got us off to a great start, planting churches on the Mediterranean coast. As the church became more established Christians in all nations sent missionaries throughout the globe, trying, desperately, to follow those words, going to make disciples, to baptize all peoples in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And they remembered Christ’s remarkable promise that He would be with them, to all corners of the globe, even to the end of the age. But the church also made a tremendous mistake. We thought Jesus belonged to us, was the possession of the church, or whatever government ran the church at the time. We felt confident Jesus wasn’t out there in foreign lands, that we had him, that he had come to us, and He was ours. We neglected to attend to the ways Christianity and political power and militarism often became intertwined, and we sent priests and explorers to enslave native peoples, confident our culture was superior to theirs. David Bosch, in his important book called Transforming Mission, traces Christian understandings of mission from the beginning. In the introduction he points us to Lars Dahle. In the year 1900 Dahle, the General Secretary of the Norwegian Missionary Society, compared statistics of the numbers of Christians in Asia and Africa in 1800 and 1900, and produced a mathematical formula that predicted that by the year 1990 the entire globe would be converted to Christianity. That was the goal. A few years later a colleague published a book entitled The Living Christ and Dying Heathenism. The church was baptizing, and thought they almost had the job done. 7
Bosch reminds us that this text, that the Great Commission is not to be used as a slogan8, as we play our trumpets and head off to convert the world. Jesus has just told us that all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Him. As we go ‘in mission’ to Durham, and to the world, we don’t go to convince everyone we meet that He is Lord, we don’t go to try and make everyone believe the exact way we believe. We must take great care, in Mexico or anywhere else – as I know you have talked about in your meetings – to listen, to honor someone else’s faithfulness, to know that Christ has been at work there before you came, and Christ will be at work after you leave. We must go with great humility, trusting in the sovereign God, as we seek to bear witness to the ways we see Him as you work side by side or as children sing.
But it must not come at the expense of our proclamation. Too often churches like ours who seek to be sensitive, who don’t want to be lumped in with our brothers and sisters who go overseas or downtown simply to try and save souls, are too slow to speak of our faith. If Jesus Christ has transformed our lives, and informs our living, we must not be ashamed. We must surely listen before we speak, but we need not remain silent. Presbyterians traditionally do a really poor job of evangelism, of speaking the Good News we know through Christ. But the best way that conversation begins is not by quoting bible passages, but in the power of our service. As we hammer nails, as we lead children at VCS this week, as we stand in airport security lines on the way to Mexico, might there be something about the way we serve, the joy with which it comes, the patience and humility in our voices, that leads people to wonder – what is it that has gotten into those strange people? There is something about them that has weight, and power, that draws people to us, that sends us out, in courage and in faith, to go all sorts of odd places, where people are hungry and hurting and left behind, to meet needs, to serve a hot dog and some chili at Urban Ministries which you can sign up for today, by the way, to gather up the road at Montreat with 1200 other Youth to talk about things that matter, as much as anything can matter, about God’s work even in those darkest places.
Week before last I went to Montreat for a few days to see some good friends. A clergy couple like Carrie and I, she was leading recreation for 2 weeks, and he was there to write a sermon and hang out with their four year-old son and play golf with me. As we sat on the porch one evening he told me about a guy he had met that day, on the planning team for weeks One and Two of Youth Conferences. This guy gets 2 weeks of vacation for the entire year, not counting federal holidays. He is giving those entire two weeks to be in Montreat, to be on planning team, to work and never sleep and run around and be exhausted and have people complain to him about silly stuff.9 All of his vacation. Because he knew that God doesn’t stay still. Because he knew that church isn’t just a place you come and consume the religious good and services and leave feeling vaguely satisfied. He knew we are called out into the world, over and over again, as our youth and adults head out this summer, as we are relentless in our movement out into the world, to try and catch up with Jesus, to track Him down on the road, seeking out all those strange and dirty and mysterious places He tends to hang out. Matthew’s Jesus doesn’t ascend, doesn’t disappear off into heaven. His last words are a promise of his continuing presence with the church.10 As we head off on trips, as we call a pastor today, as we seek Gods’ great future to be a part of. He remains with us always, even to the end of the age.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- This insight, as well as a good bit of the angle I take here at the beginning, comes from ‘Living By the Word,’ by Tom McGrath, in the May 6, 2008 edition of The Christian Century, page 21.
- Matthew 27:3-10.
- Matthew 28:1-10.
- Boring and Craddock, 103.
- Boring and Craddock support this exegesis in their “The People’s New Testament Commentary,” (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), 103.
- William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 39, No. 2, year A, April, May, June, 2011, p 54.
- David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1991.), p 6.
- Bosch 57. Bosch’s chapter on Matthew, pp 56-83, informs much of my reading of this text, and is well worth one’s time!
- I am grateful to the Rev. Pen Peery for this story. I was reminded of it by a similar story of one of Willimon’s coworkers in Pulpit Resource, 55.
- Boring and Craddock, 104.