Jesus has a grand vision for the kingdom of God. He sends his church into the world by calling us to pick up our cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24). It is often excruciating work. It is lonely. It infringes upon our sense of what is rightfully “ours.” It can be terrifying at times. We may wonder why we keep carrying that cross. After all it is downright heavy. Other believers make the journey manageable and share the load. Others help us to locate joy in the midst of uncertainty. Others help us see where we are going and remind us to carry on. They welcome us when we have no claim to be welcomed. We look at others not carrying such a burden and they seem to be doing just fine without it. Yet it is to them that Jesus sends us. We are sent, but at the same time we are always connected– in Jesus himself, and to his church that brings meaning, purpose and a focus in a way that the world cannot give.
Along the way Jesus asks us, “Who do you say I am” (Matthew 16:13)? It is a challenging question at times. Peter answered it. He said, “You are the Messiah (the Christ).” Jesus response is interesting. He told Peter that upon this foundation he would build his church – a new community that even hell itself could not topple (Matthew 16:16-18). Though we are sent we continue to gather in communities around God’s Word, the sacraments, prayer, service and generosity, and sometimes we get a bit settled. For a long time we have gotten a little too settled, too comfortable, too at home along the way. Perhaps we believe that Jesus sent us here to stay.
There is a difference between two key words in the New Testament. One key word is Episkope – meaning “overseer, or oversight.” The other key word is Apostelo – which means “sent one.” And whether or not you read Jesus’ pronouncement that Peter as a person is the rock in which the church is built, or that it is Peter’s assertion that, “Jesus is Christ” is the foundational principle of the church – these two words – Episkope and Apostelo make a difference in why we gather, and what we together discern what we are called to do.
In the church of the New Testament (and the generations that followed) the three part leadership structure of the church of Episkopos (overseers), Presbyteros (priests or pastors), and Diakonos (deacons) developed. It is likely that at first that these roles were played within one community and only later applied to a wider geography and multiple churches. Those words and the offices that go with them have (at least in my reading of history) taken on more formal meanings over the centuries as the church became more established. However one understands these offices (and there are quite a variety among the fragmented church of today) one can at least appreciate the idea that leadership, order and how the faith could be passed along from one generation to the next (or one leader to the next) were carefully considered from early on. The expansion of wider administrative oversight in key cities – especially in Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome greatly aided the establishment of a theological consensus about the contents of the Bible, discerning together who Jesus is in light of his death and resurrection and formulating the creeds we still use today. These were all benefits of being organized. Yet there was inner conflict. The church divided between East and West in 1054. In the 16th Century the Western church split between Rome and various Protestant groups. Through missionary zeal and political fervor the church went global across five more centuries and continued to divide even further. Today in the 21st Century we are still picking up the pieces left behind by power, divisiveness, stubbornness, sin, neglect and our human frailty. In my view at least, if this so-called “unity” is what defines the church, we are all in a lot of trouble.
This is why I think it is important that we confess in the creed a belief in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” We are one because Christ declares we are one (John 17:11); not because we can keep ourselves together. We are holy not because of our strength to pursue righteousness, but because Jesus died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6). We are catholic (at least in the small “c” sense of the word – meaning “universal”) not because of uniformity or compliance, but because in Christ all believers share “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism” (Ephesians 4:6). We are apostolic, not because we observe a certain set of structures and traditions, but because Jesus sends us out (John 20:21).
Remember, “apostolic” means – “sent.”
Our calling is much more than any one pastor’s personality, charisma or lack thereof in any particular community. Our calling grows bigger than any committee, small group, governing board, or connection to a larger collection of churches and how effective we think they are. Our calling runs deeper than any one theological tradition or heritage even though we place much of our identity within them. Our calling flows wider than any denominational structure – even though we can often do more together than we can do on our own. What makes us the church is not our religious pedigree. What makes us the church is not our own pathway to righteousness. What makes us the church is not the degree of success from which we can keep the machine going. What makes us the church is Jesus – the Christ – who calls us to follow him to the cross.
The apostolicity of the church is defined by Jesus’ call to the cross that sends us into the world. In baptism we share in the resurrection of Jesus (Colossians 2:12). The risen Jesus calls in to the world, to go, teach and baptize others, knowing that he goes with us wherever we go (Matthew 28:19-20). I believe that our being sent is the true mark of the church; not grand cathedrals or lofty spires; not well structured organizations or titled leaders; not brilliant theologies and shelves (or even Kindles) full of books. Sure these things are helpful, and can be a real gift to us especially as they are tended to amidst the ebbs and flows of change and diversity over time. We are strengthened when we have a plan, the depth of understanding and systems of support. Leadership matters. Discipleship matters. Accountability matters. But they do not define what the church is. Only Jesus does that. It is Christ who says to all who follow him, “go.” By the Spirit’s aid we do.
Christianity is not so much a religion as it is a movement. In Jesus we are always on the go. Jesus calls us to “go” to this broken world in all its nook and crannies with joy, hope and faith. Jesus draws us into support and partnership with one another. Jesus sends us with a radical way of including and welcoming others with extreme hospitality when these same people have no right or business joining Jesus along the way. We call it repentance. We call it grace. We call it mercy. We call it forgiveness. We call it good news. If we are honest we realize –we are not worthy of it ourselves. Yet Jesus sends us with the Spirit, by his Word, bearing his promise of reconciliation…everywhere.
After Jesus was raised from the dead he went fishing one morning. Seven of the disciples joined him around the fire as he was cooking breakfast. Then Jesus took Peter aside. Three times he asked him if he loved him. Peter each time answered, “Yes Lord, I love you.” Each time Jesus then told him to “feed my sheep.” He concluded by telling Peter, “When you were younger you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go…follow me” (John 21:4-19). It is probably true that these words were meant directly to Peter, but I also think we should consider that John recorded them because they apply to us as well. To follow Jesus, is often to go where we don’t want to go, to reach out to others we don’t think are worth it, and abandon our well thought out plans for the opportunity of the moment. To follow Jesus is to welcome those who enter our doors and love them as he embraces us. To follow Jesus is to reach out beyond those same doors and look to the everyday places we find ourselves. While we are there Jesus urges us to take notice of the needs, pain, and division at work there. To follow Jesus is to look for those left behind and seize the opportunity to bear witness in word and deed to the one who sent us. Jesus asks, “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.” It is to know that in those situations Jesus calls us: to love, to feed, and to follow. When we come together again we are renewed, refreshed, and restored as a community, because freed and forgiven in Christ’s name, he is going to send us out again. Yes, Jesus will send us again. He sends us now.
Being sent is being the church. You are his apostle. Jesus sends you. He sends us all.
We gather again on Sunday. Until then, go in peace, serve the Lord.
“Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)