What Are We Doing? The Mission of the Church

Luke 4:16-21 & Acts 10:34-43
8th Sunday after Pentecost
Elizabeth M. Deibert

School is about to start again and all around the world, in all arenas, people are gearing up for the work that begins with the end of summer. We’re having “Back to Church” week next Sunday, hoping that everyone will invite a friend and get more intentional about involvement in the worship and learning of the congregation. Tomorrow morning, school teachers will be handing out papers and writing on the board answers to the question, “What are we doing in this class?” Expectations will be expressed. Schedules will be distributed. I had a tall and imposing algebra teacher in high school who often said with negative tone, when the class getting noisy and distracted, “What are we doing here?” Often we wait until things are not going well to say, “What are we doing?” But it is much more fruitful to ask early and often, in positive voice, “What are we doing?” Every organization, every school, every business or enterprise needs understand its mission, and the church is no different. In fact, the word mission originates with the church, from the Latin word, meaning “sent.” Jesus gave what’s called the great com-mission, recorded at the end of Matthew. He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

So while the word mission originates with the church, it is now broadly used to mean the fundamental purpose of an organization, succinctly describing why it exists and what it hopes to achieve. When mega-church Pastor Rick Warren wrote his best-selling devotional, The Purpose-Driven Life, his word “purpose” was just another word for mission. He asked the question, Why are you here? His five answers, in brief, are worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, evangelism. Not too different from the answer we give in our five goals for Peace Presbyterian: Inspiring Worship, Authentic Relationships, Nurturing Discipleship, Compassionate Outreach, and Responsive Stewardship.

Those are not very different from United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase’s Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations: Passionate Worship, Radical Hospitality, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-taking Mission and Service, and Extravagant Generosity. Another simple way to say it is Love God, Love People, Become Like Christ, Share the Spirit, Serve the Needy.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has spent the last several years working on a new Form of Government, which opens with a Mission Statement. Presbyterians are not known for our brevity, but for our careful attention to every word, which sometimes requires adding more words for clarity. Over the next five weeks we will be examining in one way or another, this purpose statement which is called the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity,

Today we consider the opening paragraphs called the Mission of the church. To do that, we will turn to scripture which is at the heart of the Mission Statement: the first sermon of Jesus where he announces his purpose and a pivotal sermon of Peter, where he announces the mission of the church. Listen for the Spirit speaking to her church.

Luke 4:16-21

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (NRSV)

Acts 10:34-43

Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ-- he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." (NRSV)

Preach to the people. Say that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, whom God anointed with Holy Spirit and power. He is the One who did good and healed everyone because God was with him. They put him to death by God raised him on the third day. Christ rules over life and death. Everyone who trusts in him receives forgiveness of sins. This news of peace is not just for some exclusive group of people – it’s for everybody. Everybody – not just some – everybody. This is the early church's mission - to tell everyone, to preach this peace of Christ, this power of the Spirit, this forgiveness of sins.

Have you ever been so excited about something that you just had to tell someone? Our 22 year old daughter Emily called us this past week to tell us about her new life as an English teacher in Korea. She was bubbly with enthusiasm about the food, the cultural differences, the elementary students whom she’s teaching English. Yesterday she posted photos on Facebook so we could see her apartment, neighborhood, fellow teachers, and even some of the work her students have done. Her excitement is contagious. Suddenly everything Korean is more interesting to me. We had Korean beef for dinner last night. Contagious enthusiasm.

That’s the way it was for Peter, sharing this amazing news about forgiveness. He wanted to get this news out – to speak it, to have it written down and shared with people all over Galilee and Judea.

I am afraid much of the church has lost its enthusiasm for sharing the good news of Christ’s love. Have we let the world shame us into believing that our news is not so good? Some Christians and group of Christians in history have been mean-spirited and unkind. Have we let scientists tell us our news is not provable? Have we let historians tell us that our story is not factual? Have we let sociologists tell us that our faith is a human construct? Have we let psychologists tell us that the real issue is our need to just feel good about ourselves?

Don’t get me wrong. I value the excellent contributions of science, history, sociology, and psychology. I’m just against their deconstruction of what theology and faith offer the world. I guess I’m tired of the church being seen with jaded eyes. We’re not the bad guys. We are followers of the best good guy there ever was. Our good news is great news! Jesus Christ came preaching peace, forgiveness, love, and opening the doors to all people. Jesus said himself, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Good news to poor people. We do that on Thursdays by packing bags of food. Release to captives and recovery of sight. We do that by challenging the values of our culture and by inviting people in worship and in education to live according to perspective of Christ. To let the oppressed go free – we resist all injustices, sometimes marching with farmworkers for a fair wage, sometimes speaking out against laws that are inhospitable to aliens and strangers in our midst. We proclaim the good news of Christ’s love for all people. This may sound like craziness to the world, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others, but to us who have be called, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

Our mission is to be like Christ, so much like Christ, that people are amazed at how we care for the poor, and how we work for the liberty and dignity of all people. We are to be so much like Christ that people begin to see life differently – to view life with a new set of lenses. We have to know Christ to be like Christ.

When we are like Christ, we see differently, with more compassion, and this new view frees us and bring joy to others. Christ lived a life of sacrificial love, not me-centered self-gratification. It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about following Christ in caring for others. Try that one in your troubled marriage or irritable workplace – it’s not about you or me, but about following Christ in caring for others.

Our mission is to make God known, not to make our own personal needs known – to make God known. Sure, your needs matter to God and to us, but our mission is to make God known. We cannot make God known if we are not growing as disciples of Jesus Christ, building a community of peace and caring for the needs of others. That’s what Jesus did in his earthly ministry and we are charged to keep doing his work. To do his work, we have to know him. Jesus said to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” To do his work, we have to know who Christ is. To know him, we have to work on building relationship with him. What are you doing about that? I must ask. Are you making plans to nurture your faith more intentionally? In close relationship with him, we can better follow his ways and be his faithful disciples.

Finally, I guess if we are really living according to our mission by growing as disciples of Christ, building a community of peace and caring for the needs of others, then our faith will be more contagious and inviting.

You know the best teachers you ever had were the ones who were excited about their subject, as well as knowledgeable. They cared about the subject and cared about you. Teachers or profess-ors of the Christian faith (all of you who have joined the church have professed your faith) Profess-ors of faith need to care deeply about the subject of their faith -- Jesus Christ – and be willing to grow in knowledge of him. They need to care about others, whom they would like to share the subject of Christ. There’s the mission of the church summed up in one great commandment – love God and love neighbor.

If we can uncover the joy of trusting in Jesus Christ, shaking off the need to reduce our faith to the least common denominator -- something that harmonizes perfectly with other religions or something that can be reconciled perfectly with the hard sciences or the social sciences, then we might just get on with growing in discipleship, being fruitful. Then people might be curious to know why we live such with such love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those fruits of the Spirit would mark our lives and folks would say, “Hey, what’s with those people? Those Christians are really great people to be around. See how they worship God. See how they love and forgive one another. See how they care for the people in need. See how generous they are.”

If our character and life is not shaped by Christ’s, how can people to understand our name “Christian” or our mission as the Church? As a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian, I am also known as a teaching elder, so as we approach the beginning of another new academic year, I challenge you to remember what you are doing here. Remember who is leading you – not me – Christ. Remember what distinguishes you as the church. Remember where you are going – what your goals are. And remember, Jesus said, “I am with you always – to the end of the age.”