Scripture Reading: Genesis 18:1–15 & 21:1–7 | Psalm 116 | Romans 5:1–8 | Matthew 9:35–10:23
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’” (Matthew 9:36-38)
What does it mean to be a ‘Christian’?
This word gets used in all sorts of ways… some of them closer to the truth than others. In a fairly vague sense, to be Christian simply means to have some sort of connection to Christianity… a worldwide religious movement that has made a massive impact on history, and helped shape billions of lives over the last two thousand years. In this sense, we can talk about Christian music, Christian art, Christian practices, and so on. And some will speak more directly about Christian countries… Christian worldviews… Christian cultures, as though it’s obvious to everyone what they may be.
But as we know, words can be tricky. Sometimes we end up using them in ways that distort their original meaning, maybe without even knowing we’re doing it.
Sometimes people might deliberately use words like ‘Christian’ as weapons… mis-using them to influence and manipulate others into getting on board with their own agendas.
One blatant example of this kind of distorted use of the word ‘Christian’ happened in German under the Nazi’s in the buildup to World War II. As the National Socialists grew in influence, there were many within the Protestant Churches in Germany who sympathized with their racist and fascist agenda. Calling themselves the “Deutsche Christen” or “German Christians”, they promoted Nazi ideology as if it were fully in line with the historic orthodox Christian faith… convincing many of their fellow citizens that the “Christian” thing to do was to give full allegiance to Adolf Hitler… leading to truly horrific atrocities that can only be called evil.
Mercifully, there were others within the Churches in Germany at the time who weren’t fooled by this. They knew the heart of the Christian faith well enough to not be led astray, and so they stood up against this so-called “German Christian” movement, even though this stand eventually led many of them to suffer greatly… having to fleeing the country, to go into hiding, or face persecution, imprisonment, or death.
Yet their faithfulness through those dark times continues to inspire Christians around the world to not give into those who would mis-use our faith for evil. And their examples show us that knowing what the word “Christian” really means is not just an idle question. It has huge implications for how we live in the world today.
And there are lots of people in our world today trying to do the same thing: to co-opt the word ‘Christian’ and use it to convince others to support their own agendas, which may have absolutely nothing at all to do with Jesus Christ.
So how do we know what it means for us to be Christian, here in Gondola Point in 2023? How do we keep on the right track, and not be led astray from the path of our Lord?
If we want to understand what it means to be Christian, we need to keep looking to the Scriptures, and seek to understand what it tells us about another word: discipleship.
Discipleship. What is a disciple? In brief, a disciple is a student. But not just someone learning information. It’s someone learning a whole new way of life… how to truly become like their teacher in thought, word, and deed. A disciple is closer to an apprentice: someone who pays close attention to the ways a master goes about their tasks… adopting their pattern of life, and practices, and leaving their old habits in the past.
When we hear the word “disciple”, we often think of the Twelve, those who in the Gospels followed our Lord Jesus Christ, and who, apart from Judas Iscariot, guided the Church after His resurrection and ascension. But as Matthew points out at the end of his Gospel, Christ sent these disciples out into the world to make more disciples. To teach His ways to all the nations, and all the world be drawn into His good Kingdom.
In short, to be a Christian is to be a disciple… an apprentice of Jesus Christ. Someone whose life is now dedicated to following and becoming more and more like Him… not as solo students, but as part of the one Christian Church… the community of disciples.
We can be a disciple without being a Christian… following all sorts of teachers, leaders, or lords. But we cannot be a Christian without being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Earlier this year at St. Luke’s, we adopted a new Vision Statement, a brief summary of the direction we believe that God is leading us: Living Faith | Growing Love | Sharing Hope, and in a way, it’s all about discipleship: following and becoming more like Jesus together.
And as we explore our Gospel reading this morning, and consider what it tells us about being a disciple of Jesus Christ, I believe we can see some interesting ways that our Vision Statement helps us stay true to the heart of what it means to be a Christian disciple today.
First of all, it all begins with the Living God: With the work... the mission God the Father sent Jesus, God’s Son, to do in the world through God the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 9:35, “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.”
As the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus was fulfilling God’s promises to His people, that He would rescue them, and bring about God’s good Kingdom at last. Not through violence, or through political power, or through the normal ways earthly kingdoms are made, but through compassion… and healing brought to the most vulnerable… and hope being proclaimed far and wide. In Jesus, God was at work stitching our broken world back together, not trying to tear it apart. He was reaching out to those who were lost, and longing to bring them all safely home.
Matthew 9:36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” This is the starting point of all discipleship: God’s heart for the hurting and helpless, and His desire… His commitment to save them. To save us. To save His world.
And so, moved with compassion for the crowds of hurting, harassed, and helpless people before Him, Jesus calls His disciples, His apprentices to pray… pointing them to the Father in Heaven as the One they are to look to in times like these to bring healing, and help, and hope into the world… to bring His Kingdom to life here on earth.
Matthew 9:37, “Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’” There was much work to do in the service of God’s good Kingdom. Pray to the Father for more labourers.
But prayers like these invite participation. They ask us to take part in bringing about the hoped for answer. Jesus calls His disciples to seek for the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom work… but also to be open to sharing in that work. To put their prayers into practice.
Matthew 10:1, “Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”
And He says to them in verses 7-8, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”
These might seem like impossible tasks, but they were never expected to do these things on their own. They were being empowered by Jesus, and entrusted with a share in His mission… and so the power of God’s Holy Spirit would be at work through them as well. They could never do the things Jesus commissioned them to do without God’s help, and so they would have to trust Him to work through them again and again.
The disciples were being sent out to share in the work of Jesus… and they would have to depend completely on the Living God… to place their trust in the Lord to bring it about. In other words, they would need to be Living their Faith to do what Jesus commanded.
And as it turns out, Living Faith can be a risky way of life. Jesus made no empty promises to His disciples about their work being easy. He told them the truth: Matthew 10:16 “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…”
They would face harsh opposition, and rejection as they sought to spread the Good News of God’s Kingdom. Yet, instead of being told to arm themselves for a fight, or to stock up on what they would need to be self-sufficient, Jesus does the opposite: He sends them out completely defenseless and vulnerable, and dependent on the hospitality of the strangers they would encounter.
Matthew 10:8-14, “You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.”
Why would Jesus want His disciples to take on these added risks? To voluntarily be so vulnerable? To knowingly face the possibilities of rejection, and suffering… and instead of taking precautions… to make themselves more dependent on those who might bring them harm?
It seems to make no sense from a practical point of view. That is, if the goal is safety and feeling secure… but it’s not. The goal Jesus has in mind for His disciples is to follow, and become like Him… to learn His way of life. A way of life that involves relying on God’s provision, and the care of other people. Even strangers. To be open to the risk of rejection… but also to the joys of being received and welcomed in. To be unexpectedly loved.
The faith that Jesus called His disciples to live out by being so vulnerable as they shared in His work would open them up to receive God’s sustaining love, as well as to receive love from their neighbours, inspiring those they met to offer and experience it as well.
They were not coming as those who would impose their will, or force their way into places of power, but like Jesus, they were agents of God’s self-giving love… which can still be rejected, and opposed, but that is the nature of love. And even the suffering of Christ’s disciples is not pointless when it points others to God’s life-changing love… for then we’re truly sharing in the love that Jesus revealed at the cross.
St. Paul’s words from Romans 5 remind us what the love of God looks like, and how even our suffering can play a part in how it takes root and grows within us. These words are well worth repeating.
Romans 5:1-8, Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
The life-changing, saving Love of the Living God is what Christ wants to Grow in the life of His disciples. A love that is vulnerable in order to be open to anyone. Including you and I. The self-giving love that Jesus embodied at the cross, dying to save even His enemies is at the core of the entire Christian story. This is the heart of the Good News the Hope for the world we disciples are called to believe and to Share.
A hope not based on how good we are, or how well we compare to others. Or how powerful we feel, and how secure we can try to make ourselves… but a hope that comes from experiencing God’s love in our own lives, growing through the love we share with one another… and then coming to see that this is the same life-changing, saving love that God has for everyone, and that Jesus calls us to make known to them.
As disciples of Jesus, we’re to Live out our Faith, Grow in God’s saving, long-suffering Love, and to Share the Hope that Jesus gives to us, all of which flow from the Living God working in us. There’s far more to say about what it means to be a Christian disciple, but this is a good start.
So with all this in mind, we can re-examine our understandings of the word “Christian”, and how people around us might be using it… or mis-using it today.
Is what we call “Christian” something that’s based on our own ideals and agendas? Or is it continually looking to the Lord Himself, and open to His leading… or even correction?
Does what we call “Christian” invite us to act more like distant spectators, or passive recipients? Or does it invite us to participate in God’s gracious work in the world?
Is our understanding of “Christian” characterized by God’s suffering, and self-giving love? Or by fear, defensiveness, or self-centered concerns that cut us off from our neighbours?
Does it fill us with confidence that God is not giving up on our world? And does it inspire us to share this hope with the people in our lives? Loved ones as well as strangers?
As those called to be Christ’s disciples today, let us also pray that God, the Lord of the harvest would send labourers like this into His fields, that are ready right now for an abundant harvest. And through God’s own power at work within us, may we be open and ready to Live out our Faith, to Grow in Love, and to Share the Hope Jesus our Master and Teacher laid down His life to share with us… and with our world. Amen.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School