Listen to the sermon from Sunday, July 3, 2016 titled “Co-Missioners” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
Last week we heard the call of our spiritual freedom in Christ to be part of a community creating God’s space on earth. Still have your piece of the puzzle? We each took one as a reminder of our place in God’s space. You are not the whole church, but the church is not whole without you.
Today we are hearing Christ’s call to be the church sent into the world as his agents. Jesus sends out 70 disciples. The Greek verb for “send out” is ἀποστέλλω – apostle! – a loaded word in the early church. The apostles were witnesses of the resurrection and leaders of the community.
I remember this very text in Luke surprising me when I first read it years ago. I knew about the twelve disciples of Jesus whose names I memorized in Vacation Bible School (along with Santa’s reindeer), how all twelve became apostles (except for Judas, of course). But I was surprised Jesus had seventy followers instead of just twelve, and that he sent them all ahead to prepare his way. Now I know this is the Divine design: to place us in circles of meaning centered in Christ and sent to serve.
In Bible-speak seventy is the perfect number times ten. For the rabbis seventy was the number of nations in the world. It points to the diversity of Christ’s community and the inclusivity of their mission: from every nation to every nation. It points to the scope of Christ’s call: every Christian sent to everybody. To be a disciple is to be an apostle! Not just an elite group of authoritative leaders, but every one of us is called by Christ to be an agent of God, carriers of the contagious Christ-Spirit. What a privilege, to be co-missioners with Christ, his mission our mission, together.
He sends us in pairs, which includes male and female. We are never alone, but partners with Christ and members of a worldwide team. We leave the gathering to fulfill the mission, but we are always tethered to one another, supported by one another, and accompanied by Christ as we go. And then we come back together to celebrate with Christ.
By God’s design, we first learn the importance of relationship, partnership, community, and team in the nuclear family of our birth. You don’t get to choose your nuclear family. For some this is a great blessing and foundation for life. For others it’s a curse to be overcome. That’s why it’s so important for the church to support families and to be family for those living apart. As we age we may choose a partner for life, form our own family team, try to correct the mistakes we’re sure our parents made with us. I thank God for a life partner who has taught me so much about love and family and ministry.
As we age we learn to be community with people beyond our family, joined by a common mission. I learned this by playing church baseball and high school football, singing in the school choir and acting in plays. We learned how to cooperate, to do our own part as we relied on each other.
In my adult life I have been part of several teams, groups of friends who support each other, call out each other’s best gifts, and hold each other accountable. Six pastors who gather semi-annually and communicate every day. We call ourselves “The Neighborhood.” An ecumenical lectionary group that meets weekly to study scripture in preparation for preaching. Three Baptists, three Lutherans, two Presbyterians, one Rabbi, one Roman Catholic Priest, and One Christian (as the Disciples of Christ smugly call themselves). We named this group “The Friends of the Mammon of Iniquity” after an obscure Catholic text. Our mission is to study scripture, but it’s a clergy support group, too, because they all have problems in their churches.
An interracial racial pastor’s group, The Texas Freedom Network, The University Area Senior Pastors, Micah 6… Each group gathers around a common mission, but mutual friendship becomes the sustaining strength that makes us each more than we would ever be by ourselves. These are my circles of meaning. What are yours?
In his recent book called Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger observes:
We can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning… For many people war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.
Of all the tribes I have been part of, one stands above all: The University Baptist Church! I love being part of an historic spiritual community with a critical mission that changes in particulars with the changing times but is consistent in its core: to be a place of grace shining the light of God’s inclusive love in healing, reconciling, and advocating for the dispossessed. What mission is more important in this moment?
I am reminded of Jesus’ sermon that day in Nazareth: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Today we are the seventy sent to prepare the way of Christ. We are his co-missioners, and our mission together is to be countercultural to the dominant culture of the Powers, to be subversive to the chapter and verse of the politics of hate, to embody the love and justice we proclaim.
I celebrate the staff team gathered to serve the church in fulfilling this mission: diverse in age, gender, orientation, and race. I celebrate the teams who work together to serve the church: the choir, the ushers, greeters and tellers; the sound and screen team; the committees and coordinators, the teachers, the church council, the deacons – everybody doing his or her part for the rest of us according to the abilities of each and the needs of all.
Notice in Luke, how Jesus calls them to a variety of tasks and not just one. Each person has some job to fulfill that serves the whole. Every person matters. You are not the whole church, but the church is not whole without you. It takes a team of people working together to make worship happen every week. It takes a team of people working together to pull off one of our family celebrations. I celebrate the people who invest their lives in the spiritual growth of our children to show them what it means to be partners in the Divine design. I celebrate the UBC youth and the people who love them into the community of Christ as they negotiate the terrifying transition from childhood to adulthood. I celebrate the generations who have loved students during their brief time in town and helped them grapple with a mature and thoughtful spirituality, then sending them around the world to be church in other places.
I rejoice in our ministries to the homeless and hungry, to street kids and seniors, to internationals and friends from other faiths. When we were disfellowshipped from the local Baptist Association, we created a new association through ecumenical and interfaith ministries so that we now have co-missional partners in Micah 6, with other churches in children, youth, and college ministries, even with other congregations, and other faiths, student groups, and local businesses at God’s Family Dinner on Thursday nights. We also have a share in the mission of Christ around the world through the missioners sent out by our global partners, the American Baptist Churches of the USA, like Dwight and Barbara Bolick serving the indigenous Mapuche people of Chile.
Our mission matters! But like those other teams I mentioned earlier, as we do this mission together, we grow close to one another, take care of each other, become an extended family. We become, as Junger describes it, a tribe that gives us meaning. The relationships, the mutual support, the accountability, the hardships we endure, the victories we celebrate, the experience of belonging and knowing we matter: it all creates God’s space.
Jesus doesn’t tell the seventy to go out and preach, or to share the plan of salvation, or build their own kingdoms and call it his church. He tells them through their different ministries to embody the news they share: “The kingdom of God has come near.” Well that’s good news for most, but bad news for some, who want no part of it. We leave them to God and leave them in peace. But the mission and the message are the same, wherever we go, whatever we do: to be the beloved community and include more and more people in it. That mission is our salvation and that is the “kingdom of God.”
In Genesis, God makes Adam and Eve partners in creation. Adam even gets to name everything God has created. And then human error messes it all up. We see the results of that today: hell is division, isolation, fear, narcissism, separation, violence. But Christ invites us to be partners with God in a new creation, the habitation of God, a loving people who dwell in God’s space. Find your place, do your part, and celebrate the gift of God’s call to be co-missioners in Christ. Amen. May we pray?
Thank you, Lord, for calling us away from a world of us against them, of me and mine, of division and violence, of fear and hate. We confess we are infected by the culture and the world around us. Give us the grace to create a space that invites people to a better way, to your way, and by our growth in being members of your loving community, let us spread the joy of loving community so that we ourselves will know and proclaim the kingdom of God has come near. In the name of Christ, amen.