Scripture: Matthew 9:35-10:8
Often the word missionary brings up images of a faithful disciple who has traveled overseas to a foreign county in order to bring the good news of Jesus Christ and help make converts of the native peoples. While there are missionaries that focus on medical and justice issues this more evangelistic model is still one that is still sued, but we are likely picturing it wrong in our heads. Because when we imagine a missionary leaving their home country to take the gospel to the people who do not know it, we are likely imagining a white missionary going to people of color but increasingly that is not that case. Sub-Saharan African Countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Angola are places where over 90% of the country identifies as Christian. In the global South Christianity has continued to grow, which is radically different from the stagnation that is found in the United States and the rapid shrinking seen in Western Europe. In the 19th and 20th century these countries had foreign missionaries come to them, and now they are sending missionaries back to those places like the United Kingdom and the United States. Right at a year ago in June of 2022 the Chicago Tribune ran a story about two churches in the Chicago area that were planted by the Redeemed Christian Church of God, one of the largest Africa based Christian denominations in the world. Much like the original American and English missionaries sought to establish a church in an overseas community and share the gospel with that community, these two churches in Chicago have Nigerian born missionaries who serve as the pastors. In the coming decades it is likely that this kind of missionary endeavor is going to become more and more common.
The good news about this development is that it shows that the gospel will always find a way. As long as there are people who are in need of the good news of Jesus resurrection, saving grace, and the forgiveness of sins. On the flip side, the fact that our brothers and sisters in Christ from places like Nigeria are sending missionaries here should be convicting. There are an estimated 380,000 churches in the United States. There are already plenty of resources here to share the good news. We should not need missionaries, yet here we are. There will always be people who need Jesus. There will be people who might be receptive to God’s love. The harvest will always be plentiful, but it seems the workers are never enough. There are a couple of convicting questions that this scripture leaves us with. First, are we among the workers and if not what changes need to be made to get there?
The act of sending out the twelve disciples in this morning’s scripture gives us two insights into Jesus and how Jesus operates. The act of sending out the twelve would have been highly unusual. Jesus ministry on earth was roughly three years, and Jesus sent out the twelve in the second year. Which means at most some of the twelve would have been following Jesus for about a year, but since they were not all recruited at the same time some had only been with Jesus for a few months. Sending out followers is not the way a first century Jewish rabbi typically operated.
The way the rabbi-disciple model normally work is that the disciple followed the rabbi and learned everything from the teacher, so that they could essentially be an exact copy of a teacher. After years of meticulous learning, only the best of the best disciples would be entrusted by a rabbi to go out and teach in the rabbi’s name. Jesus forwent that process, and after twelve months or less training, sent his disciples out. It is worth noting he did not send them out to just be hype men. They were not a PR team for Jesus, but they were sent out to do some heavy lifting as verses 7-8 state, “As you go proclaim this message: The kingdom of heaven has come near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleans those who have leprosy, drive out demons.”
Jesus entrusted his disciples to do far more, far earlier than the way rabbis normally worked. This morning’s scripture gives us a reason for why Jesus did this in verse 36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus knew his time was limited, he knew that the window he had to meet the needs and tend to the hurts of people was limited. The primary reason why Jesus sent his disciples out on their own was because of compassion. He saw people suffering and he wanted to ease that suffering, he saw people in need of help and wanted to help. This is different than the normal rabbi approach. Other rabbis would send their disciples out to proclaim the rabbi’s yoke or understanding of the Jewish law. They sent out their disciples in their name, to proclaim their message. This is not what Jesus did. Jesus was not motivated by getting his name out there, by attracting more followers, or building a platform. Jesus did not seek growth for the sake of growth. Jesus was not motivated by clout, fame, celebrity, or a sense of importance. Jesus was motivated by compassion. As his followers today, we also should be similarly motivated.
Jesus was motivated by compassion and he sent out his disciples to be agents of compassion. Yes, they were to preach the kingdom of heaven has come near but the vast majority of what they were to do was to work at meeting the needs of people. This morning’s scripture tells us that Jesus did not send out his disciples unequipped. Verse 10:1 states, “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” This scripture reveals another key aspect of how Jesus works. Remember, these twelve disciples had been following Jesus for a year or less. None of them had necessarily been the top of their class, and with a tax collector in their ranks they all did not have reputations of being righteous, upstanding people. Yet Jesus entrusted them and empowered them to do the work. Jesus does not call the equipped, he equips the called. Jesus equipped the disciples with the authority they needed to accomplish the task he was sending them to do. In the same way, the called are still equipped today. When our desire to follow Jesus leads us to seeking the meet the needs of others, then we can confidence that the disciples of Christ are still equipped for the task at hand.
In this morning’s scripture, we see that Jesus is motivated by compassion and empowers his disciples to compassionately meet the needs of others. Jesus’ original disciples, so empowered to be the workers for the kingdom. Today, the harvest is still plentiful but it seems the workers are still few. There is a common figure used in church circles called the 20-80 rule. That is twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work. I have heard this figure repeated over and over again for twenty years, but I do not think there is a lot of data to back it up. This figure keeps getting repeated because of a gut feeling that a small number of people seem to do so much. That is true, but it seems that the actual number is a little bit higher than 20%. Church consultants Ministry architects have reported from the data they have collected that on average of church goers only 45% volunteer in some capacity in the ministry, mission, or outreach of the church. Jesus said the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. In a church the goal should be for 100% of the people to do 100% of the work. Not everyone can chip in at the same level, but everyone can use their time, their gifts, or their resources to make a real difference for the kingdom of heaven.
In this morning’s scripture Jesus used a farming metaphor. He used the image of a harvest to describe meeting needs, having compassion for people, and sharing hope that redemption was about to be possible. To continue the farming metaphor, I wonder if one of the reasons why the workers are still too few is because too many Christians treat their church buildings like the wrong kind of farm building. Too many church buildings are treated like granaries. A granary is a building built for one purpose. It exist to hold grain. When the grain is harvested it put in the granary and it sits there until it is time for it to move on. A granary keeps the already harvested grain safe and comfortable inside the walls. Too many churches act like granaries, as holding areas for those who are already harvested- who already know Jesus. A granary church is not worried about what happens outside the granary. As long as there is still room, a granary church has no problem with more people coming in, but they will do nothing to get them there because they are already safe and secure inside the granary.
Instead of granaries we need more churches to be like barns. A barn still holds things, but only temporarily. The barn keeps the tractors and the other farming tools safe, until it is time for them to be sent out for the harvest. It is in the barn that equipping takes place, it is in the barn that regular maintenance is kept up, but nothing is meant to stay in the barn. The barn is staging area for the harvest. It is the building that workers leave from to go out into the fields. The barn is a working building and by its very nature is focused on the work that takes place outside its walls.
Let me be as clear and direct as I can be. We should not be a granary. We should not be a church where only 45% do the work of the church. We should be a barn where 100% of the people do 100% of the work. This is how it should be because the mission of the church is too important not to give it our all. There are people outside these wall, in this town, who need Jesus. There are people who outside these walls, in this town who are harassed and helpless, who are like sheep without a shepherd. African churches should not need to send missionaries here, because we are already right here! There is work to do, and our church should be like the barn that is equipped and ready to go to send works out into the field.
Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We will never do that, if we are like a granary that waits for other people to come in. We must be a barn. We must seek to show love by serving people outside our doors. In his book the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Bishop Robert Schnase writes “service is one of the fundamental activities of church life that is so critical that failure to practice it in some form results in a deterioration of the church’s vitality and ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ.” To put it bluntly, we cannot fulfill our mission, we cannot make and nurture disciples, we cannot transform the world if we do not seek to serve the world around us. If we want to join Jesus out in the fields and make a difference for the kingdom then being the church cannot just happen on Sunday mornings between 9:30 and 11:30. Being the church, being the disciples of Jesus Christ that love and transform the world needs to happen outside our doors in the community around us.
In this morning’s scripture Jesus instructs his disciples to “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into the harvest field.” We should pray that prayer because again there are people who need Jesus. However, if we pray that prayer we should not be surprised if we find God handing us the tools we need to gather the harvest. May we be willing to do that. As our own time and abilities allow, may we join in the work. Like Jesus, may we have compassion for other people. May we seek to meet their needs, may we seek to serve them, and may we seek to provide for them. Just as we have freely received the love of God and the grace of Jesus, may we freely share that with others. May we not just be a church that gathers and sits around, but may we be a sending church, a church equipped by Jesus himself to transform this world.