19 September 2010 : 1 John 4 : 15-19  & Matthew 10 : 1-10

Today we find Jesus marking a whole new phase of His ministry as He commissions His 12 disciples to go out on a mission trip. At risk of stating the obvious, Matthew 10 follows on from the last two verses of Matthew 9, where Jesus spoke to the disciples : The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.

That’s what’s happening in this chapter. Up to now, the 12 have been watching – and, hopefully, learning – while Jesus has actually done the job. That was the foundation class, “Discipleship 101”. Now they graduate to the next level of the apprenticeship programme. They get to do the stuff, with Jesus supervising. We recognise this pattern from everyday life. When you reached the stage of learning to drive, you had probably watched a parent, or a friend, behind the wheel of a car. You’d seen what they do, where all the controls were. You knew, in theory, how to drive.

But theory doesn’t get you from A to B. You had to get behind the wheel, turn on the ignition, mirror, signal, manoeuvre. You had to learn by practical experience the feel of the clutch pedals, and when to change gear, and the importance of being aware of other road users, not all of whom – you very soon discovered – were of sound mind!

In the early stages, you had an instructor sitting beside you for a formal lesson, and in between times a family member or friend with nerves of steel and a bottomless pit of cash to put you on their insurance – and if not, I don’t want to know! Learning to drive was a step-by-step process that took you from passenger to driver, and the end-game was clear. It was that joyful day when the examiner’s granite expression momentarily softened to advise you that you had passed, the L-plates got shredded, and for the very first time – at least the first time legally – off you went all on your own-i-o.

Well, the word “disciple” simply means “learner”. At this point, the 12 still had their L-plates on, but the day was fast coming – though the 12 hadn’t a clue just how fast – when Jesus would no longer be sitting beside them, coaching them, cleaning up the mess they made. He would be back home with His Dad in Heaven, and the ball would be in their court, God’s rescue mission for the human race entrusted into their hands.

And there is a very real sense in which our presence here, in this very place, at this very moment, is a continuation of that very same mission. If we say we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that makes us linear descendants, in the worldwide family of faith, from Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John and so on. The same promises they enjoyed, we are to enjoy ; the same responsibility they exercised, we are to exercise.

Now I can see panic starting to appear in the eyes of some at that prospect. Over many centuries we’ve been led to believe that it’s just ministers that minister, and indeed some denominations have concocted a theory known as the apostolic succession.

Which means, basically, that there are two classes of Christian, drivers and passengers, and only those who have been ordained get to do anything beyond filling the pew and filling the plate. That is a very unhelpful and unbiblical notion, which serves only to imprison the vast majority of the church in ineffectiveness. Paul gives us a much more insightful view of ministry in Ephesians 4.11-13, New Living Translation :

These are the gifts Christ gave to the church : the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.

In the local church, the job of “the minister” is as a pastor / teacher, to feed the flock with the nourishing spiritual food of God’s Word and so to enable and equip everyone else in the church to minister, and to fulfil our individual potential. As the apostle John affirms in 1 John 4.17 : we are to be like Jesus in this world, not just the next.

What about us, the local church, here in the Scottish Borders, in the 21st century, in a society that is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the truth of God’s Word, that makes an idol of inclusion and tolerance and spirituality of the vaguest possible nature, that points to our own decency, our own worthy deeds as sufficient grounds to qualify for whatever after-life there might be, that defines right and wrong according to the flavour-of-the-month chat-show and the politically correct fad du jour?

What about us, here and now? Well, quite simply, WE stand in succession to the first disciples, under the same chain of command, with the same authority that Jesus gave to them. But have we the courage and integrity to rise to that challenge and exercise spiritual leadership in a culture that thinks itself so sophisticated … yet just scratch the surface, penetrate the veneer, and you will see the fear, the stress, the insecurity, of a generation who are spiritual orphans. We are to point them back toward their Father.

How do we do that? Do we beat them over the head with a Bible and tell them they’re worthless sinners who are bound for hell? The older I get, the more I’m convinced that turn-or-burn preaching really isn’t a true expression of the Father-heart of God, and that, actually, the vast majority of people are all too sin-conscious, all too aware of their faults and failings. Satan has already kicked lumps out of them with a sense of condemnation and unworthiness, and why would they be attracted to God by a church that simply echoes the judgement and the finger-pointing of the enemy?

As New Testament believers, we surely recognise that the nature of our God is love. That’s what 1 John 4.16 tells us. It’s not just what God does, it’s who God is, and the message we have to share with the people around us must reflect that faithfully. Let’s see what we can learn from the instructions Jesus gave the first disciples : Preach the message – the Kingdom of Heaven is near.  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.

The message Jesus gave the disciples, to speak in words and illustrate in actions, was one that conveyed very powerfully the love of God that changes lives for good. There is a consistency between words of hope and deeds of goodness. Their mission was to be all about taking the genuine, active, love of God out where it was needed – to reach out and restore people broken, down-trodden and down-hearted by years of struggle and hardship without a revelation of that love.

The specific circumstances facing the people of Palestine 2,000 years ago were different from those facing the people of the Scottish Borders now, but the principles were the same. They were desperate to know, for sure, that they were loved and valued and individually precious as they were, for who they were, not just for how they could be used or exploited by others. They longed for a vision of what the whole point of their life actually was, because this daily grind surely couldn’t be as good as it gets.

They needed to know there was a solution to the hurts and the problems in their lives that no so-called expert, and no amount of money, could solve. In short, there was a big hole right in the middle of their life, that only the love of God revealed exclusively in the ministry of Jesus who did only what He saw His Father doing, could solve.

That, I suggest, is exactly where Scotland is today. Behind the stage props of wi-fi and ipods and tom-toms and blackberries and Starbucks, behind the plastic smiles of false bravado, God’s children of this generation are scared stiff of what the future holds, and scared even to admit to being scared. Whether it’s climate change or bird flu or cancer or terrorist attacks or meteorites crashing to earth or whatever irresponsible hysterical nonsense is whipped up in the media or on facebook, it’s all based on fear.

Remember what John wrote? Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love [1 John 4.18]. Perfect love originates in God, who is Love, and is transmitted through the church of Jesus Christ as we do what the first disciples did – speak of the new Kingdom of love and illustrate our message by acts of love. Break the grip of fear as we proclaim the Good News that God loves us all so much that He sent His only Son to break the dead hand of sin and guilt and condemnation and fear and punishment and disease and death.

Live in freedom, speak of freedom, and minister freedom, as we give generously to lift the poor out of poverty ; and we boldly pronounce acceptance and welcome to all who have spent far too long guilt-ridden and burdened by the unreasonable expectations of others ; and faithfully minister healing to the sick – it may not be in our Presbyterian tradition but who gives a rat’s tail about THAT when it IS in our Bible? If you know anyone who is ill, get them along to our healing service tonight, even if you have to offer them dinner as a quid-pro-quo. We have a gospel to proclaim, in word and deed, and Jesus who is our commanding officer will honour our faithfulness with His.

Jesus – He is love – He gives life – let’s welcome Him in our hearts today.