Our texts from last week to this week are backwards. Last week, we read the very last passage from the Book of Matthew. In it, Jesus returned to Galilee, Galilee of the Gentiles, as Matthew called it back in chapter 4. And in Galilee of the Gentiles, Jesus told his remaining disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. In Greek, the word for nations and Gentiles is the same. Ethnos. So in Galilee of the ethnos, all the disciples of Jesus were sent to make disciples of all ethnos. It’s the same word that has come into our language as “ethnic” or “ethnicity.” Basically, it means “people who are not like us.” “Others.” So the final instructions of Christ to his church on earth were to go to everyone who is not like you, and teach them to be disciples. An excellent start to the season of Pentecost – this long green summer season of the church, in which we focus on our mission and go out to share the stories we have been learning since Advent.
But now, this week, we back up almost 20 chapters, and have a very different set of instructions. In this text, Jesus sends out just the twelve, these closest followers of his, and gives them powerful authority to heal and cleanse and even to raise the dead. But he specifically sends them to their own people this time. Not to the ethnos. In fact he tells them to go nowhere among the ethnos, but to stay specifically among their own kind, the children of Israel.
This is where Jesus lays the groundwork for that larger mission, because Jesus knows that before you can go out to all those others, you need to reach out to the people you know, the ones most like you. This is where you do the initial work of building the church. But unfortunately, this is also where many of us stop. After all, Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week.
Churches in our society rarely manage to move past this work, rarely get to the part where we move out and encounter the ethnos, the others, those most unlike us.
With good reason! Just this first part is hard work. Jesus knew that. Look, he says, I’m send you out like sheep into the midst of wolves. And who are these wolves? Not the others, not the ethnos. No, the wolves are the people the most like you. Because you are going to do and say things that are going to push them, that are going to rub them the wrong way. In fact, you are going to torque them off to the point where they will reject you and persecute you and even prosecute you. And frankly, that is exhausting and demoralizing, and most churches rarely get that far.
Instead, they adapt their message, and adopt the culture of the community, and make themselves comfortable. They, sometimes we, if I’m being honest, we become complicit in the cultural continuity. We reinforce the systemic oppressions around us. Throughout history, the church has adapted the gospel to justify slavery, misogyny, economic oppression, and colonialism.
We have created doctrines that have justified the destruction of cultures, of entire races, of the very land we live on. Rather than boasting in our sufferings, as Paul instructs, we as the church have found ways to avoid suffering, and turned the story of Christ to our own worldly purposes.
It is no wonder so many young people have left the Christian church. This is the reputation we have built for ourselves over the centuries. An institution that is only interested in maintaining itself, rather than following the teachings of Christ. Any church that wants to take seriously the teachings of Christ, must contend with this history as well. Because we have, in our readings this week and last, instructions from Christ himself. Instructions that pretty firmly contradict much of the way the Church has operated throughout history.
As Lutherans, as Christians, we are called to return again and again to the message of Christ himself, to these instructions, and ask ourselves how we can better live up to them.
A few weeks ago, we here at Peace Lutheran took some time to examine how we are living out our calling. Immediately following worship, we gave everyone a bunch of sticky notes and invited them to put them on the walls around the sanctuary, under 15 different headings. These headings were descriptions of different ways that we engage with one another, with our community, and with God. In, Out, and Up.
The question we asked was not, what do we wish to be, but rather, what do we see already happening in the life of Peace Lutheran Church? Which of these values are we already spending our energy on? Where are our priorities as a congregation?
After everyone had put their sticky notes up, green for highest priority, yellow for medium, and red for lowest, we took pictures. At our next council meeting, we spent time in prayer and conversation, scrolling through all of these pictures and listening for the movement of the spirit.
In our discussion, we narrowed in on three main values that we are living out in our lives together, three values that we embody time and again as we seek to follow Christ’s instructions to his church, in our particular mission.
At Peace Lutheran, we value:
and Welcoming Diversity.
This week at our council meeting, we came back together to discuss them further, and decided that we need to add a modifier, an adverb. Based on what we have heard from this congregation, and seen in this community, the council feels that we at Peace Lutheran church are
BOLDLY Growing Community;
BOLDLY Seeking Understanding; and
BOLDLY Welcoming Diversity.
This BOLDLY is important. You may know the Lutheran phrase “Sin Boldly.” People love to quote this. There’s even a beer made by a brewery in Moorhead, MN, called “Sin Boldly.” It sounds so good, and seems to give us broad permission, and there is nothing we like better than broad permission to sin. But, unfortunately, that is only part of the quote. And if we are to truly Sin Boldly as Luther said, we ought to understand what he meant.
In August of 1521, Luther wrote a letter to his dear friend and collaborator Philip Melanchthon, on the subject of marriage for priests and monastics. He believed that they should be permitted to marry, but he was willing to admit that he might be wrong, that he might be leading them all into sin. But as for that, he said, we’re all constantly being led into sin, because this is a sinful and broken world. However, we have a Savior, who has won for us salvation and forgiveness. So the entire quote is, actually, “Sin boldly, but cling to Christ more boldly still, and rejoice.”
He goes on to remind Melanchthon that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, and he concludes his letter by saying, “Pray hard, for you are quite a sinner.”
We live in a broken and difficult world, in broken and difficult times. There are no clear-cut right answers. The difficulties we face did not begin with an election or a shooting or a trial. They run deep and wide.
This week alone saw a shooting in my home neighborhood, a place where I walked and played as a child, where I walked with my children just last week. There were mass shootings in several other neighborhoods this week, too, as well as the anniversaries of both the Pulse nightclub shooting last year and of the murders of 9 churchgoers at Mother Emanuel Church two years ago. In addition, yet another community feels that they have not had justice in the death of their brother and friend Philando Castile, and they see this as further evidence of our broken justice system.
Deeper and deeper, the chasms in our society grow and divide us, and thicker and thicker grows the scar tissue on our hearts, hardened to the pain, as we build the walls higher and higher, to hide our fear. Not just fear of the other, the ethnos, but fear of our own community, of those like us, because we are being sent out like sheep among the wolves, and the wolves in our community can be more vicious than anyone.
They will accuse us and tell us that we are sinning, that we are breaking all the rules, that we are not allowed to talk about these things:
- we are not allowed to name racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia;
- we are not allowed to name the violence in our streets, the violence in our language, the violence in our hearts;
- we are being overly sensitive,
- we are not being sensitive enough,
- we are being too liberal,
- we are being too conservative,
- we are stirring the pot
- and people just want to be left alone.
Meanwhile, the ethnos, the others we have been called to serve, are dying, are crying out, are waiting for us to show up with words of comfort, with good news for the oppressed, with sight for the blind, with freedom for the captives.
So I’m afraid we must be BOLD. We must be willing to sin against the sensibilities of polite society, and to make some people mad. After all, Jesus told those twelve that day, you’re going to torque some people off. If you are actually following Jesus, that much is guaranteed. In fact, it might be one way to know whether you’re actually following Jesus, whether you’re actually living out the gospel and working for the Kingdom of God, rather than the Kingdom of Humanity.
Are you making people uncomfortable?
Are you causing trouble in your neighborhood?
Are people bothered by the bridges you’re building, the healing you’re offering, the lepers you’re cleansing, the dead you’re raising?
We must be BOLD. We must sin boldly. Not so that we can cling to Christ more boldly still. But because we cling to Christ so Boldly.
Because we hope in the Kingdom of God, because we owe our loyalty to the Gospel of Christ, because we trust that God is at work reshaping this world, each and every day, we are BOLD.
We BOLDLY grow community, even with people we disagree with, both with people like us and with the ethnos, with people who make us uncomfortable and who think and believe and live and love differently. And if that ruffles feathers, if we are making a mistake, if we are breaking some taboos, we do so knowing that we are free in Christ to make mistakes, and break taboos, and ruffle feathers.
We BOLDLY seek understanding, learning about what makes our neighbors tick, investigating the world through science and through faith, deepening our understanding of our own faith, and learning about the faiths of others. And if that shakes us up a bit, if that causes us to ask some questions that are usually not asked, we do so knowing that in Christ, we are free to learn about God’s world, and ask tough questions, and to trust that God will still carry us in faith and carry this world forward, whether we understand how or not.
And we BOLDLY welcome diversity, reaching out to all the ethnos, as Christ instructed us, even though we do not yet fully agree among ourselves, even though we are uncomfortable, and we are probably going to make mistakes and say the wrong thing and embarrass ourselves and the people we meet. We do so knowing that diversity in this world is the work of God, and that God delights in all that God has created, and that we are called by Christ to go to all nations, all ethnicities, all others, for the sake of Christ. Boldly clinging to the cross of Christ, boldly living the mission that God has called us to in this time and this place –
Bound by Christ, to Break Boundaries.