A Community of Mission
Presented -October 26, 2014
(Dt. 6:5-9; Lev. 19:1-2, 15-18; 1 Thess. 2:1-8; Mt. 22:34-46)
As I look back over these past years, I am proud of the fact that First Baptist has been guided by a sense of mission “out there” in our community that is determined only partially by our numbers (either in terms of people or dollars), and much more by a sense of the kind of community we believe God is calling us to be, and going in the way we believe God is calling us to go. It is important that this continue into 2015 and beyond. It is crucial that our mission continue to be guided predominantly by our vision rather than by how much money we can raise. You and I both know that we cannot survive without people and dollars, and we are a little short of both right now, but I think that, if we truly trust that our vision is following where the Spirit of Jesus is leading, we can be creative in finding ways through which we can do what we need to do.
Each of our three scriptures contributes something to a vision of a vital community of faith. The Old Testament reading comes from a biblical book in which many of us do not look for exciting contemporary insights – the Book of Deuteronomy. The Gospel lesson adds a reference to the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, which on the surface at least, is even less promising. Without doubt, there are enough obscure things in these books to puzzle us for a long time, but we can understand these passages that give us the foundation upon which the community is built: an intense love for God on one hand and for neighbour on the other. In other words, God’s people, as conceived by the Bible here, is not a community that is founded on rules but on relationships. The nature of the partners in the relationship, and the intensity of it, demanded a whole range of behaviours that defined it, but these were, for the most part, not intended to be eternally valid lists of obligations so much as ways in which commitments to the relationship could be lived out in the flux of the everyday life in the world. Of course, the real world of ancient Israel isn’t our real world here, today, so we must continually be thinking and re-thinking what the principles behind some of these specific biblical behaviours are so that we may enjoy a living relationship with God and neighbour today, and not just the remnants of an ancient and dead, one.
The determination and commitment to one another to think and re-think how the relationship with God and neighbours works out in life gives shape to the community of God’s people. The biblical word for that determination and commitment is covenant. A covenant is an arrangement that allows people who are not family to relate as though they were. A covenant community is not based on contracts and legalities, but on mutual obligations, commitments and bonds of good will and respect, and these bonds are only as good as the word and determination of those involved. God was, of course, the initiator of this covenant, but God’s people were the other party in it. And the struggle to be family with one another and with God is ever before God’s people. So our basis as a community is covenant commitment to one another to find and do God’s will in our day. It is to love God and others intensely.
In our Gospel Lesson we see that Jesus affirmed this same basis of a covenant community. According to the story that Matthew’s Gospel tells, Jesus came from Galilee to Jerusalem toward the end of his life, and almost immediately became embroiled in a struggle with those who were in charge of the religious establishment. He had been welcomed into Jerusalem a bit before this by the crowds of ordinary folks at what we call Palm Sunday. He had gone straightway into the temple and driven out those who had undertaken to transform God from a “not-for-profit cooperation” into a “for-profit corporation.” He was challenged directly for his preaching and teaching that contrasted doing works of love and mercy rather than simply being interested in defending the status quo and talking about religion. Our Gospel readings over the last few weeks have noted these challenges to Jesus’ authority. Every challenge brought Jesus closer to death at the hands of the powerful.
I have reminded us, all through these stories, to remember that Matthew tells his story of Jesus, not to satisfy historical curiosity about Jesus, but with a view to shaping a community of mission in his own time in the late first century CE where there were many different kinds of folks with many different ways of seeing how a relationship with Jesus worked out (much as, in different terms, exists today). Matthew told these stories in order to point out what was central to such a community of mission, and what was peripheral, and could be left to individual conscience.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asked to cast his eye back on all the best that Hebrew tradition had tried to build and to do with the covenant people of Israel. He was asked where the centre of gravity of all that was. He summed it all up in the same two commands from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The nub of it all, he said, is the command to love God intensely, and to love neighbours with the same zeal with which we tend to our own self-interest. I will remind you of something I’ve said before. In Hebrew thought, the word “love” (or its opposite, “hate”) do not, primarily, denote emotions or feelings, but actions that positively or negatively show our care for others. We love by what we do rather than, or in addition to, what we feel.
He went on, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” by which he meant that the Torah (the Hebrew word we translate as law) was meant, not to represent a way of getting to God, but as a way of showing that God has gotten to us. It is a way of showing that we already live in a covenant community of mission with God and one another, and are responding to God and others. By saying that both the Law and the Prophets hung on these two commandments he meant to cause his hearers to remember how many times the prophets spoke up for the love of God, seen through the lens of the love of neighbour. We show our love of God by our love of our neighbour, and we define who our neighbour is by seeing the universal care and concern that God has for all people. In Luke’s Gospel this is the place where Jesus illustrated the whole matter by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The lesson is that my neighbour is the one I meet who is in need, not the one whom I can use to advantage. This is the only kind of love in action that makes any sense to Jesus. Matthew wanted his community to know that Jesus intended the identity of God’s people to be a covenant community of faith that is centred in mission – the mission of caring for others, inside and outside the community. So it is also to be with us today.
But, then, Matthew adds a little paragraph that takes some explaining. Here Jesus turns the tables on his questioners and asks them a difficult and tricky question that ends all the discussion. He started by asking a question that seemed to these Pharisees as if it had a religiously “right answer.” He asked “Whose son is the Messiah?” The “right answer” was, “David’s son.” Now, in Hebrew, “son” not only means the male child of a parent, but also one who shares the characteristics of another, as in the “Son of Man,” which equals “one with human characteristics,” or “son of God,” one who shares characteristics with God.” The Messiah is one that shares characteristics with David. Well, by giving the “right answer” Jesus’ conversation partners fell into his trap. Here, Jesus is arguing just like a first-century rabbi would, and in ways foreign to us.
He started out with a quotation from Psalm 110:1: “The LORD said to my lord, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.” The first word “Lord” in this Psalm indicates God, the second “lord” (‘my lord”) indicates the king descended from David, so “God says to the king…” Now, everyone in that discussion would have assumed that David wrote Psalm 110. Everyone there would also have interpreted those words “my lord” that originally referred to the king as now referring to the Hebrew Messiah who would come and restore David’s kingdom, since there hadn’t been a Hebrew king for about 600 years. To sum up, Jesus said, “If you say that the Messiah (to which Psalm 110 was thought to refer) is David’s son, how can David himself (who wrote Psalm 110) call the Messiah “Lord” (The Lord [God]) says to my lord (Messiah)].
We have had to explain a lot in order to see what Jesus was up to here. He was trying to say that the Messiah was more than just “related to” the royal line of David. The Messiah, is not only the son of David, but, as Matthew and the other Gospel writers call him, “The son of God.” We also need to remember that Matthew (and all the writers of the New Testament) identified the Hebrew Messiah with Jesus. So, Matthew meant this to be the ultimate answer to the question about Jesus’ authority. Jesus is more than son of David. Matthew also hereby reminded his community that Jesus is the unique figure related to God in a special way, as Messiah and Son of God. Jesus’ person and values will be at the core of Jesus’ community and be the beating heart of its mission.
Finally, we come, briefly, to Paul’s in 1 Thessalonians. In this text we read that his ministry within the Thessalonian community hadn’t been easy. He had been roughly treated, accused of false beliefs, deception, and trickery. Even so, he summed up his method of ministry as follows:
…Though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ…we were among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
I sometimes find Paul a little prickly and don’t always identify too closely with the way in which he explains the faith, and deals with people. Nonetheless I often point these words out to students studying for ministry and commend them to us. Paul found that ministry together wasn’t just playing a role, but really being together, caring for one another, and sharing together.
These three lessons give us direction as we look to being a community of mission. That mission is determined by our nature as a covenant community whose basis is Messiah Jesus’ commitment to the way of sacrifice and service, to intense love for God worked out as intense love and respect for others. These commands also point us to the way things work within a covenant community. When we are learning to treat one another as family, we do not simply function in offices and set budgets within which we must live, but we learn to live gently and openly with one another and with God.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
Sermon created by Rev. Dr. Timothy Ashley