I recently heard the story of church that received a new pastor. His first Sunday, he preached a powerful and dynamic sermon. The congregation was thrilled to have such a passionate and energetic new pastor. The following Sunday, the pastor delivered the exact same sermon as the previous week. The people were somewhat confused, but gave him the benefit of the doubt…after all, he had just moved into the parsonage that week and maybe thought the first Sunday was practice. The third Sunday, the pastor delivered the same sermon as previous two weeks. The chair of the Pastor Parish Committee decided to speak up. “Pastor, we’ve notice that you are preaching the same sermon over and over. It’s a nice sermon, but we need something fresh and new.” The pastor responded, “Yes, I am aware I have preached the same sermon the last three weeks. I will move onto my second sermon when we begin living out the first one.”
This morning, we’ve heard a familiar text. And, we will hear a message with a familiar theme. So, if we’re tempted to ask “why”, let us remember the story of the pastor preaching the same sermon week to week!
This morning, we heard the “Great Commission” that Jesus shared with his followers in Matthew 28. We often use this passage of Scripture to encourage missions and evangelism. To be honest, there are times when it seems like we confuse evangelism and missions.
At a basic level, evangelism is speaking the Good News of Jesus Christ. Through evangelism, we speak the Good News in hopes that a person will make a decision to follow the Way of Jesus. Many refer to evangelism as sharing our testimony or extending an invitation for others to follow Jesus.
At a basic level, mission is showing the Good News of Jesus Christ. Through missions, we show the Good News, with no strings attached, in hopes that our missional acts will alleviate suffering, meet the basic needs of our brothers and sisters in practical ways, and potentially produce a desire to know more about Jesus.
Let me share with you an example of how we confuse evangelism and mission. When I return from various mission projects, people often ask, “Well, how many people did you save?” What they really mean is “How many people did you lead in the ‘sinners prayer’?” I generally respond with one of the following:
- “Well, at the very least we saved one…me!”
- “Well, we helped build a feeding center that will provide nutritious snacks and lunches for 50-75 students each school day each school year. We helped build a medical clinic that will provide affordable healthcare and access to affordable treatments for a village of 300. We helped build 10 stoves in 10 homes that will greatly reduce fire-related accidents and health issues, while also reducing the economic strain of purchasing firewood and providing a safe heat source. So, I’d say we can’t count the number of people our acts of service will save!”
When we go on mission trips, our goal is not necessarily to lead others to salvation. Our goal is to meet basic needs in practical and tangible manners. Again, evangelism is speaking the Gospel, mission is showing the Gospel.
There are times when evangelism and mission overlap. There are times when we are speaking the Gospel of Jesus Christ and, in doing so, are made aware of situations to which we can respond with practical actions to meet basic needs.
For example, we are sharing our testimony with a co-worker and find out that they are struggling to put food on the table. So, we pause our testimony and take them to the grocery store and buy their groceries. If a person is hungry and we don’t feed them, it will be hard for them to truly hear the Good News! So, evangelism can turn into mission.
Or there are times when we are involved in a mission or outreach project and while we’re working someone asks why we are doing these acts of service. So, we pause to share our testimony and our mission turns into evangelism.
Or we are doing a good deed, like Trunk or Treat, and someone asks, “Why in the world would you do this?” So, we stop and share about our faith and our church and extend an invitation to join us for worship. These two aspects of following Jesus, evangelism and mission, are closely related.
In the Great Commission, we read that God authorized and commanded Jesus to commission his followers. A commission is an instruction, a command, a duty given to a group. Jesus commissions his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
We are commissioned to make disciples. We believe that disciples are followers of Jesus Christ who are committed to grow, give, and go. In order to make disciples, we need to speak the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who do not know Him and invite them to join us on this journey.
We are commissioned to baptize. Now, in the United Methodist Church, only the clergy can baptize. So, we can’t just decide to throw some water on our friends and loved ones and say, “you are baptized.” Baptism is a declaration. Baptism is an outward symbol of an inward grace and commitment. Baptism represents purification and regeneration. Baptism is a public declaration of our commitment to follow Jesus on this faith journey. It’s initiation into the family of God.
Sometimes, in modern-day evangelism, we stop short. We get people to make a commitment to follow Jesus. We get them baptized. And, then, we leave them on their own to figure it out. We forget our call to teach!
We are commissioned to teach people to obey. In teaching others, our goal is not the acquisition of knowledge. I know several atheists who know a lot more about the Bible than many Christians. They have acquired a great deal of knowledge. That’s only part of the goal of teaching. The ultimate goal of our teaching is obedience. Knowledge is great. But, if it doesn’t translate into obedient actions, have we really learned anything? Our teaching should produce disciples who love God, love one another and even love their enemies. Our teaching should lead to an obedient lifestyle, which motivates missional acts and service.
James has a great deal to say about how our faith should produce obedient actions. James 2:14-24, 26 says, “My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity. Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear. Are you so slow? Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all? What about Abraham, our father? Wasn’t he shown to be righteous through his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? See, his faith was at work along with his actions. In fact, his faith was made complete by his faithful actions. So the scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and God regarded him as righteous. What is more, Abraham was called God’s friend. So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone. As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.”
James presents a powerful question, “What good is it to proclaim our faith without acting on our faith?” In other words, don’t tell me what you believe, show me!
James asks, “What good is it to see our neighbor hungry or naked and not do something about it?” We see our neighbors struggling and we have the means to do something about it. But, instead, we just say, “I’ll pray for you. And, good luck with that whole hungry and naked thing.”
I’ve got to be honest, I’m fully convinced that the phrase, “I will pray for you” is one of the biggest cop outs and excuses we Christians make. Oh, sure, it sounds good. And, if we actually do it, it’s great. Prayer is a powerful, necessary, and a wonderful thing. But, listen, Jesus has given us the means to do more than simply pray.
Pope Francis has said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works!”
Yet, too often, we followers of Jesus stop short. We pray and then wait for someone else to do something, we wait for God to miraculously intervene. And, the whole time God is saying, “The answer to that prayer is you!”
James is proclaiming that our faith should motivate action. Our actions compliment and prove our faith. Faith without action is no faith at all.
A couple of weeks ago, we talked about how small, simple random acts of kindness can be risk-taking mission and service. Missions are not limited to trips to Guatemala, the Henderson settlement or community clean up projects. Missions can be using our time, talents, and treasures to support others in their efforts.
Some of us are no longer physically able to do some of those projects we typically think of as missions. But, we can pray. We can write letters of encouragement. We can make financial donations. We can support those who are able to go. When we do that, we are joining together in missional partnership. The reality is that we all can do something. As James reminds us, faith without action is dead.
Sometimes we allow fear to hold us back. We are afraid that if we give our time, our talents, or our treasures to this or that we might not have enough for ourselves…we might not have enough for that rainy day…it might not be appreciated…Yet, we have no reason to fear. Jesus, in that last verse of Matthew 28 promises to be with us as we go. In Matthew 28:20, Jesus proclaims that he will be with us every step of the way.
We have been commissioned to “go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
I guess the question for each of us to consider this morning is, “Are we ready and willing to go?”
Will we speak and show the Good News as we have the opportunity?