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Church as embodiment of Jesus' mission (Matthew 9:36-10:39).

Throughout his presidency and teaching career at Wartburg Seminary, Roger Fjeld has exhibited a passion for the church's mission and its primary task of evangelism. This article about the mission discourse in Mt 9:36-10:39 (1) is a tangible way to express my genuine affection and esteem for Roger as a person of integrity with a deep concern for the life of the church.

For most contemporary Christians, the "great commission" in 28:18-20 represents the preeminent evangelizing text in the Gospel of Matthew. We miss, or even distort, Matthew's full perspective on mission and evangelism, however, if we do not consider his carefully designed mission discourse in 9:36-10:39. In fact, Jesus' final commission in the Gospel implies as much. His followers are to go and make disciples of all peoples; this process involves not only baptism but also teaching-teaching them "to pay attention to" (2) all the things that Jesus has commanded his disciples (28:20a). Hence, the "great commission" itself invites attention to Jesus' instructions regarding discipleship throughout the entire Gospel, including the mission discourse.

Joining the "God movement"

Most people today, if they think of the church at all, view it as a building that they can enter or an institution they might join primarily to meet their own needs and those of their family. They do not understand church more expansively as consisting of assemblies of people called and gathered by God to be part of a movement. In Matthew, Jesus never speaks of the church (3) as an end in itself. Rather, from the outset of his public ministry (4:17) Jesus announces and enacts God's sovereign reign in fresh ways. Jesus' words and actions embody God's gracious and reconciling rule on earth, and he bids his followers to do the same. Thus, for Matthew's day, the ecclesial assembly's mission is also to announce as good news the nearness of God's reign and to undertake its healing and restorative ministry (see 10:7-8).

Contemporary Christians are to view themselves as participants in what Clarence Jordan named "the God movement." It makes a huge difference if a critical mass of assembled Christians in any place catches this expansive vision of the church' s role--not merely as serving the needs of those gathered but also as showing concern for the world. Joining the church means joining the movement--God' s humanizing movement in and for the world.

Participating in Christ's compassion

The mission discourse begins "When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (9:36). The strong words used to describe the crowds picture weary and dejected people whose pitiful plight was a direct consequence of having no leader ("as sheep without a shepherd"). (4) Professor Dan Olson, a colleague at Wartburg Seminary, maintains that "a crowd is not a community." In Matthew's narrative, the crowds are depicted as needy in search of food and healing; in contrast, the discipleship community is enabled to move beyond its own needs to be in ministry for others. For Matthew, the church exists to identify with needy people (all people). In responding to this mission, Christians experience their own healing and real life.

Whenever a Christian congregation takes a close look at the geographical neighborhood in which it exists (which we designate as "parish"), (5) it discovers weary and dejected people with neither direction nor help from leaders. The challenge is: Will a congregation allow itself to be drawn into Jesus' compassionate care for the people in its parish? When Jesus saw the needy crowds, he was moved with compassion. The Greek word translated "compassion" implies a visceral response to the plight of others, allowing one to connect with their pain. If identification with others' pain leads to concrete action on their behalf, then Christians are drawn into Christ's compassion for needy crowds.

In 9:37-38, Jesus' saying portrays the harvest as plentiful and the laborers as few. He directs his hearers to pray "the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." In Scripture, harvest is an end-time image that suggests not only God' s final saving activity but also the possibility of divine judgment (10: 13-15). (6) This harvest involves God' s mysterious work, in which the church participates (see 19:28). Faced with a seemingly overwhelming mission, the church is to initiate its involvement through prayer. Mission begins with prayer to "the Lord of the harvest" to send workers into "the Lord's harvest." Christians must petition and trust God to disclose workers and resources for the congregation's missionary endeavor, and finally they remember that their outreach ministry is nothing less than Christ's urgent mission of bringing healing and hope to hapless crowds, a ministry that represents divine mercy.

Focusing evangelical outreach

Straightway in 10:1-5, Matthew reveals the answer to the implied prayer for workers--Jesus summons his twelve disciples and grants them authority to cast out unclean spirits and to heal diseases. Those who petition the Lord of the harvest become the answer to their own prayer. By specifying the twelve disciples as the twelve named apostles (only here does he use apostolos), Matthew is likely suggesting their transformation from followers/learners to ones sent with authority.

Next in 10:5b-15 Jesus issues specific instructions for mission, some of which presuppose an itinerant movement of missionaries who traveled from village to village and were hosted by receptive households. Although the church's context for mission in North America is dramatically different, there are underlying principles and patterns that can still hold relevance for a contemporary mission strategy.

Jesus' initial instruction regarding the mission's scope reflects the situation of Jesus' historical ministry: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (10:5b-6). Jesus was called to gather and heal his own people--Israel. Only then could Israel serve the larger purposes of God's rule for all peoples in the world. By the end of the Gospel narrative, the evangelist makes clear that Jesus' newly assembled people (for Matthew, the church includes both Jewish and Gentile Christians) are commissioned by the post-Easter Jesus "to disciple all peoples" (28:19) (7) In this expanded mission, the church shares in the cosmic authority of the risen Jesus and is promised his continuing presence (28:18, 20b).

Today no one congregation can take on the entire world. To be effective in outreach mission, congregations need to focus their work, lest the problems and needs of the larger world appear overwhelming and cause well-intentioned Christians to feel so impotent that they give up. Moreover, congregations in a given area need to strategize about outreach mission, planning together and then praying for one another's evangelical efforts.

Congregations in the heart of Milwaukee, for example, do just this. Pastoral and lay leaders of more than a dozen Lutheran congregations plan together for an outreach week in the spring of each year. Each congregational group plans what fits its peculiar context. Mary Rowland, a pastor at Reformation Lutheran Church, listed examples: Bible study sessions for five weeknights, outreach into a local school, a self-esteem workshop, a potluck dinner hosted by partnering congregations, and a faith support group for young women. Such a strategy can be extremely effective because it helps each congregation select an achievable outreach endeavor and helps congregations be supportive of and accountable to one another.

Preaching and practicing full mercy

Often North American Christians do not take seriously the second part of Jesus' twofold imperative to proclaim the nearness of God's sovereign reign and to enact that rule by healing and restorative action (10:7-8). For the early church, healing events were fundamentally important. They represented concrete experiences of salvation for physically afflicted individuals.

Western Christians with financial independence and generous medical care often easily dismiss the importance of tangible actions that address concrete needs of parishioners--help with a rental payment, food in times of little or no income, transportation for visits to the sick or incarcerated, advocacy when harmed by unjust practices, child care, or reconciliation in a fractured relationship.

The verbal testimony to the gracious gospel of God's reign must find concrete expression in a congregation's acts of kindness and justice for those in need. While a spoken witness prepares for and interprets what is done for others, the activities themselves provide evidence of the risen Jesus' generous power that enables congregants to accomplish amazing things as part of God's reign. The church's mission becomes credible only when the preaching of God's mercy is accompanied by merciful deeds.

Sharing Christ's vulnerable love

Next Jesus informs his disciples how to travel (10:9-10). They are to avoid taking--or acquiring during the journey--not only any money (gold, silver, or copper coins), a knapsack for food, and an extra tunic for warmth but even a staff for walking and sandals for their feet. They are to accept hospitality of food and lodging. Yet the anticipated hospitality would not eliminate their need for sandals for arduous walking or a staff for steadying themselves in bad terrain and warding off dangerous animals. It appears that Matthew has intentionally heightened the vulnerability of the proposed mission. But why? The lifestyle of Jesus' disciples must correspond to the content of the kingdom message, good news for those poor and vulnerable. Its bearers confirm that message by their own surprising poverty and defenselessness. Missionaries need others' help and hospitality, thereby trusting the gift of God's daily provisions (so 6:25-34). At a more profound level, they would begin to understand Jesus' risking everyth ing as the bearer of God's vulnerable and suffering love.

Jesus' instructions to travel lightly convey a necessary challenge to us today. Any congregation that becomes too established, too financially secure, or overly comfortable, or functions too much like other "successful" institutions in society, will not convince outsiders that its members share in the pain of the hurting people. Any congregation unwilling to risk its resources and itself for evangelical and restorative actions beyond its members' own comfort zone will not win the trust of others who do not possess the same level of prosperity and personal security. Sharing Jesus' good news invites us to enter into the movement of God's vulnerable love for the world, and in doing so we experience that love's amazing ability to transform ourselves as well as others.

Sharing God's generosity

"You received without payment; give without payment" (10:8b) provides the pivot between the disciples' call to announce and enact God's reign (l0:7-8a) and to undertake their mission without provisions and protection (10:9-10). These words offer a "not-for-profit" principle, necessary in the first-century Mediterranean world because itinerant preachers and healers often offered their services for money. In contrast, the church's missionary endeavor was not to become a money-making enterprise. (8)

The method had to conform to the message. Jesus' disciples (and the later Matthean Christians) were to share the gospel in a way that reflected how they received it--without payment or "freely." Eugene Peterson's rendering catches the spirit of Jesus' words: "You have been treated generously, so live generously." (9)

Jesus directs the disciples in a new place "to make a careful search" (10) for a worthy host household, to accept its hospitality without subsequently shopping around for more favorable accommodations (10:11), and after entering the dwelling to pronounce God's peace on the selected household unless it later proves unworthy (10:12-13). Jesus concludes this set of instructions with a directive to perform a ritual of judgment outside any household or town unreceptive to the disciples' message ("shake off the dust from your feet," 10:14) and with a final sobering comparison of the fate of that place to the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (10:15). Rejection of the kingdom message can have devastating consequences.

Despite the obvious differences between the first-century context and ours, an underlying principle is important for contemporary mission. In light of Jesus' equipment restrictions, those engaging in mission are unavoidably tied to those receiving the mission. Michael Crosby emphasizes this "mutual sharing of relationships and resources [as] reflecting that just order which results in peace." (11) The shalom of God's inbreaking rule implies fundamental mutuality of all involved.

Mick Roschke, pastor of Reformation Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, distinguishes between what he terms "charity" and "generosity." He views charity towards another as a controlling and condescending act in which people think of themselves as the benevolent givers and others as needy recipients. It is as though a person offers in one hand a gift to another while keeping his other hand tightly clenched in an unreceptive posture. In contrast, generosity is like an enthusiastic embrace or hug, where the distinction between giver and recipient vanishes. In a genuine embrace both parties become vulnerable and open to each other; both give and both receive. The gospel discloses the heart of Jesus' kingdom work--all humans involved are caught up in the embrace of divine generosity and are simultaneously conveyers and recipients of God's enormous love.

Christians who continually recognize the restorative generosity of God in their worship assembly will live generously. They will seek to express this generosity in their daily living in multiple ways. In a congregation's outreach mission, Christians will learn to welcome God's unexpected and generous gifts through the contributions of those outsiders touched by the gospel. The shared gospel meets people at the point of their need but quickly draws the newcomers in, welcoming their contribution to the life and work of the community. (12) Both old and new participants in the community experience the generous living that is like breathing in and breathing out, both as natural and necessary movements for a community's life together.

Fostering hope beyond this life

Jesus' instructions about mission are realistic. Preaching and practicing the reign of God in public ways invariably meet resistance and outright hostility from those who profit from the way the world is currently managed. Because the kingdom's shalom initiates just and mutual relationships where no one profits at the expense of others, those with power routinely denounce as subversive the kingdom workers.

Jesus begins the next segment of the mission discourse with a menacing warning regarding the danger of the disciples' mission ("See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves," 10:16). His concluding words in 10:24-25 provide a christological basis for suffering: how opponents maligned Jesus foreshadows how adversaries will treat his disciples if they make a bold public witness. Jesus' words in 10:17-23 recount life-threatening situations experienced by Jesus' original disciples and also by Matthean missionaries. They were flogged and put on trial before Jewish and Roman authorities, and they even experienced betrayals within their own families, leading to death sentences. When on public trial, they were assured, the Spirit would provide their words for testimony.

A critical element of Jesus' warning about their coming suffering occurs in 10:23: "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes." First-century missionaries were not to court persecution when their gospel message was clearly rejected. They were to move on to the next village or town. But this saying also functioned as promise- that the coming Son of Man was about to bring God's reign into full view, thus causing them to persist in the risky mission despite its current ambiguity filled with threats. Ulrich Luz states bluntly: "The deepest problem posed by this text is often today--especially in the first world countries--the church that glibly talks about suffering does not suffer, although according to Matthew suffering is a necessary consequence of the proclamation and of Jesus' lifestyle." (13)

Overcoming fear for the sake of mission

Jesus then addresses the problem of fear (10:26-33). A simple "don't be afraid" will not vanquish the feeling of fear. Rather, Jesus repeats "do not fear" fourtimes (10:24, 26, 28, 31) as a rhetorical means of reorienting the listeners' view of who is worth fearing-God or humans. Though currently hidden, the truth of the mission will be revealed (10:26-27) and represents God's authority and power. "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul ("essential life"); rather fear [God] who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (10:28). Urging disciples to rethink their fear of human beings is then followed by Jesus' reassuring word that God's care for them is immeasurable (the "how much more" argument in 10:29-31).

Jesus' words conclude with an eschatological promise and caution: "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven" (10:32-33). This end-time perspective underlines the importance of the disciples' bold public witness to Jesus' message and ministry despite the cost. The negative power of fear often causes individuals to withdraw from important commitments or flee from hostile environments. The text does not ignore Christians' fear when under attack; nonetheless, it claims that God's promises can be trusted.

Gaining life by losing it

In 10:34-39, Matthew begins with a startling statement of Jesus' own prophetic mission: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." The following words echo Micah 7:6 and disclose that early Christians would face division and dissension in their own families due to their decision to follow Jesus' way (10:35-36). The segment concludes with Jesus' words that clarify that commitment to him and his kingdom mission takes priority over allegiances within family circle (10:37), the necessity of taking up the cross as the symbol of suffering and death (10:38), and the paradoxical meaning of Christian discipleship ("Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it," 10:39). The interplay of present and future tense ("find ... will lose" and "lose ... will find") again introduces an eschatological promise in the face of the harsh reality where the realm of God does not seem to hold sway. The text suggests that, c ontrary to conventional wisdom, all our own attempts to secure our life will result in losing it, whereas risking our life on account of Jesus and his mission for this world will result in discovering real life.

We middle-class North American Christians might give lip service to these sayings of Jesus, but we do not often risk them experientially, largely because we trust the securities of this life far more than the vision of God's future for us and the world. We would have difficulty in agreeing with Dietrich Bonhoeffer's assessment, "Time is short. Eternity is long. It is the time of decision" [for God's reign]. (14)

In London in 1945 when Pastor Rieger shared the sad news of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's death by execution with Sabine, Dietrich' s twin sister, he immediately took as small New Testament from his coat pocket and began reading from Matthew 10, the mission discourse on which Dietrich had commented in his book Discipleship. Just a few days later Mt 10:17-42 was the text for the sermon at the memorial service for Dietrich. (15) For Bonhoeffer, the mission discourse in Matthew became a powerful text describing costly discipleship and the confessing church's s mission as the National Socialist Party (Nazis) increased its influence and control over most Germans. Matthew 10 spoke of a risk-taking discipleship at a time when most Christians, including pastors, were unwilling to challenge the current situation.

Today Christians in North America may assume that participation in the church involves nothing risky, but Matthew would suggest otherwise. It is too easy for us to read benignly the "great commission" in Mt 28:18-20 as simply authorizing "foreign missions" and demanding of us only a few dollars dedicated to that cause. Matthew 28:18-20 must be interpreted by "paying attention to all Jesus commanded," including his words in the mission discourse (9:36ff.). For all Christians, wherever they congregate in a community for worship, evangelical mission is far more exciting and far more demanding than they might suppose. In a time when many Christians are sensing the emptiness and illusionary promises of the false gods of our culture, congregations are poised to be about the bigger work of God's reign and by so doing discover authentic living punctuated by real struggles together. We need to hold a deep conviction that Jesus' kingdom message is true and that the church shares in the awesome task of bearing witness t o God's new world in what we say and do. We hold a hope for the future that allows us to persist in present ambiguous and sometimes overwhelming circumstances. Only then will we take risks for Jesus and God's reign.

(1.) This mission discourse also includes 10:40-42 (plus Matthew's summary statement in 11:1), but for my purposes 10:39 provides an appropriate ending.

(2.) A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (hereafter, BDAG), Third Ed., revised and edited by Frederick William Danker based on Walter Bauer's Worterbuch (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1002, includes Mt 28:20 as an example of terein meaning "to persist in obedience, keep, observe, fulfill, pay attention to, esp. of law and teaching."

(3.) Matthew is the only Gospel to introduce the Greek word ekklesia to designate both "the global community of Christians" (16:18) and the assembly of Christians gathered in a specific location (18:17). See BDAG, 303f.

(4.) "Sheep without a shepherd" is a biblical image for the desperate situation of Israel without proper leadership. See Num 27:17, 1 Kings 22:17, 2 Chron 18:16, Jer 50:6, Ezek 34: 1-16.

(5.) For example, Milwaukee Lutheran congregations take seriously the surrounding parish as the neighborhood in which they are responsible for ministry.

(6.) See, for example, Isa 27:12 and Joel 3:13.

(7.) The phrase panta ta ethne connotes all ethnic groups or peoples known in the Roman world, probably including the Jewish people, rather than "nations" in the modern sense of nation-states.

(8.) Didache 11:5-6, 9, 12 suggest that at least some itinerant apostles and prophets in the early church sought to take unfair advantage of people's hospitality.

(9.) Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary English (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1993), 28.

(10.) The Greek verb means "try to find out by use of careful methods, which may include personal inquiry, scrutinize, examine, inquire" (BDAG, 349).

(11.) Michael Crosby, House of Disciples (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 65f.

(12.) Mick Roschke describes such outreach strategies in A Church of the People: Strategies of Urban Ministry (1997).

(13.) Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), 94.

(14.) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship. DBW, Vol. 4, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 197.

(15.) Sabine Leibholz-Bonhoeffer, The Bonhoeffers: Portrait of a Family (Chicago: Covenant Publications, English trans., 1994), 160-61, 164.

James L. Bailey writes about the mission discourse in Matthew 9-10 in honor of President Fjeld. In Matthew's day the ecclesial assembly's mission was to announce as good news the nearness of God's reign and to undertake its healing and restorative ministry. The church exists to identify with needy people, and in responding to this mission Christians experience their own healing. The verbal testimony to the gracious gospel of God's reign must find concrete expression in a congregation's acts of kindness and justice for those in need. Any congregation unwilling to risk its resources and itself for evangelical outreach and restorative actions beyond its own members' comfort zone will not win the trust of others. Generosity is like an enthusiastic embrace, where the distinction between giver and recipient vanishes. Preaching and practicing the reign of God in public ways invariably meets resistance and outright hostility from those who profit from the way the world is currently managed. The church that glibly tal ks about suffering often does not suffer, although according to Matthew suffering is a necessary consequence of the proclamation and of Jesus' lifestyle. Evangelical mission is far more exciting and far more demanding than we might suppose.
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Author:Bailey, James L.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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