Ministry According to Jesus (thanks to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark!)

ImageOne of the hallmarks of Jesus’ earthly ministry is the opposition it aroused among the religious authorities of the time: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. One key example of this is Matthew 23. This chapter features Jesus’ response to having been challenged and tested by the Pharisees and Sadducees both (Matthew 22:15—46). He essentially excoriates them for the hypocrisy of their religious practices that had the effect of neglecting what he calls “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). Specifically, Jesus accuses them of weighing down people with the burden of man-made traditions without actually demonstrating the love of neighbour, the “weightier matters of the law.”

The church has the responsibility of asking itself the questions: What among our ecclesiastical traditions and practices and beliefs are man-made? What about our church culture, whether as a local congregation or as a denomination or faith tradition, prevents us from reaching people or from them being able to get to Jesus? We have to be a self-examining community. Particularly in a culture increasingly unfamiliar with our liturgical and theological traditions, we have to be increasingly self-aware of what may make it more difficult both to hear and receive the good news of Jesus.

Ultimately, we want to bring people to Jesus, not be driving them away from him. For example, there are the people who bring the paralyzed man to Jesus (Mark 2:1—12). Insistent on getting their friend to Jesus, they go as far as removing the roof when crowds prevent their friend from entering the front door. The religious authorities who witness Jesus’ forgiving the paralytic and then healing him accuse Jesus of blasphemy. Their inability to recognize Jesus—on account of their preconceived ideas about the Messiah—blinds them to the work of salvation occurring right under their noses. They are blind to the paralyzed man’s need. The church needs to model itself more after the people who bring the paralytic to Jesus rather than the Scribes who are furious for Jesus for forgiving him.

One example of this is our use of church facilities. Traditionally, many congregations view their physical facilities as sacred. How a congregation uses the space is therefore predetermined by this assumption. This prevents a church from opening their space as a means of adding value to the surrounding community. Whether for a local community supper or a coffee house or to a local sports team or community group, a congregation that considers their building a public space makes it possible for members of the congregation to bless and engage their neighbours. It could have the effect of building bridges and relationships. There are a number of factors to consider in allowing such use of its physical space, but the church always has to weigh reasons against taking such a step with its obligation to do all it can to demonstrate the gospel. It has to ask itself: are our reasons theological (and, if yes, then are these reasons sound?) or are our reasons practical?

Another distinguishing feature of Jesus’ ministry is that he is almost always out among the people with his disciples. Very little of Jesus’ ministry takes place in the synagogues and in the Temple; and on the occasions it does he is often challenging the religious establishment. He teaches openly. He shares table fellowship with “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11; 12:9—14). He is publicly visible, giving those in need a chance to bring their needs to him (Mark 5:21—43; 6:53—56). While Jesus is not portrayed as actively seeking people to heal, he is always doing so, responding to people who reach out to him in faith.

‘Missional’ is a catchword in many churches today. A catchword is not that helpful, but the principle behind it is. A great number of local congregations are struggling because no one is coming to their programs and services. The churches that seem to be experiencing growth, spiritually and numerically, are those that are finding ways to serve their communities without strings attached. Churches need to transition from a “come and see” model to a “go” model. Jesus is hands-on; in other words, he is willing to meet people where they are. This has to be a mark of his disciples too. Individually, as disciples dispersed to workplaces, classrooms, homes, and neighbourhoods, Christians need to view the ground on which they stand as the mission field. Evangelism needs to be transposed into relationships, conversations, and acts of generosity and kindness. Corporately, the church needs to find creative and authentic ways to go where people are, whether it is handing out free water at a community parade or offering to plant fresh flowers on the grounds of a local school.

Underlying all of this, however, is Jesus’ modus operandi as found in Mark 10:45: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” No amount of missional strategies or programs or events or even encouragement and teaching will make it possible for the church to reach the people Jesus came to save. Jesus’ ministry is fuelled by a passion for people, a love for the searching, the hurting, and the lost. Only love explains the ultimate trajectory of Jesus’ ministry, the cross.

The attitude of the church needs to correspond to Jesus’ modus operandi. It was Jesus’ intent to create a community that exists for the purpose of proclaiming and demonstrating the good news (Matthew 5:14—16; 16:18). He gathered disciples to go out and duplicate his own ministry (Mark 3:13—19; 6:7—13). The church needs to be a community of people so transformed by the message they seek to proclaim that they share both Jesus’ heart for those who need to hear it and the willingness to sacrifice in order to do so. The church needs to ‘love thy neighbour.’ This means the church is not only to proclaim the gospel but is also to be an expression of the gospel.

The reality Christians face is that most people who are among the un-churched are not going to come to their local church on their own and are not going to initiate spiritual conversations. The onus is on believers. Such a situation necessitates some re-learning on behalf of believers, especially those that have been more accustomed to their neighbours having an interest in the church. There is perhaps much for congregations to give up in order that they might gain the trust and goodwill of their surrounding neighbours.

Much can also get in the way of bringing the good news to those who need it. Key to making sure that this is less and less so is keeping Jesus at the center. After all, he is the one at the center of the gospel; he is the gospel. Reading the gospels of Matthew and Mark it is clear that people sought Jesus. They sought the healing he could bring, they sought his compassion, they responded to his love, they were attracted to and amazed by his teaching. Crowds flocked to him. He was where they were. The church needs to be there too. In fact, this is what Jesus commissioned the church to do when he said “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19—20).

 

Neighbours

A few years ago I was with my wife and kids at the emergency room of the hospital and something happened while I was there that has stayed with me ever since. It was a striking reminder of how much has changed in our culture—and how even a small city like ours is also affected by the growing ethnic and religious diversity of our nation.

While we were waiting our turn a Middle-Eastern couple came into the ER to do likewise. The woman was dressed in traditional Islamic clothing while the man was not. And at one point the woman unrolled her prayer mat unto the floor of the ER directly in front of the seat where she had been sitting and kneeled down to pray. Muslims are directed to pray five times a day in the direction of the Kabba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. So even though she was not at home or worshipping at her Mosque, she made sure that she fulfilled the requirements of her faith. Once she was done, she discretely rolled up the mat and sat back down.

Looking back I wonder what other people in the ER made of this. On the one hand, it seemed to elicit no obvious reactions—as if she had done no more than walk across the ER to pick up the newspaper from a table. On the other hand, whether people had an obvious reaction has nothing to do with what they were thinking as they also watched. Given that the Islamic faith has a much stronger presence in our culture and in our media than it did before 9/11, we are all becoming more accustomed to the Muslims in our communities. Regardless of how used to them we are, what’s important is our attitude toward our new neighbours.

Where there is difference, there can easily be suspicion and fear. In an increasingly diverse society where the distance between continents and nations is gradually being eroded through immigration, globalization and technology, it is nearly impossible, except perhaps in more rural areas, to isolate ourselves from those whose beliefs, traditions, and basic assumptions about life are sometimes radically distinct from our own. Not always knowing what to make of such differences and not sure of what their implications are for our own lives, we often relate to those who are different with prejudicial attitudes that actually impede rather than further understanding.

Ironically, as those who live in the Western world we still receive our religious inheritance primarily from Christianity, a religious faith that, while still the most common in our culture, is also increasingly misunderstood and maligned (especially in the media). There are complicated reasons for this being the case, but suffice it to say that Canadians who are practicing Christians may find themselves—perhaps not too far into the future—in a similar position as that of Muslims who have become a part of our population: as a minority viewed by many with misgivings.

Assuming this is a fair assumption, we should ask ourselves regularly: how do I relate to those who are different from me? Certainly, I understand that the relationship between the West and Islam is a complicated one: politically, religiously, and socially. But the relationship between myself and my Muslim neighbour needn’t be quite as complicated. In some respects it’s simple: How do I treat those whose religious beliefs, ways of life, and views of the world are so dissimilar to mine? Do I stick with my own group and attempt to shelter myself from encountering those who are unlike me or do I instead find ways of engaging in my larger world? Do I rest easy in my suspicions rather than take the time to encounter others as persons worthy of dignity and respect?

In chapter 10 of the Gospel of Luke Jesus tells a story in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” It’s a familiar story, one most know as the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story a Jewish man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is ambushed by robbers and left for dead. Mortally wounded, barely clinging to life, this man lies pathetically at the side of the road. Two people pass by, a priest and a Levite, and neither do anything to help. Both cross to the other side, ignoring someone who is in desperate need.

And then the unthinkable in Jewish culture occurs. A Samaritan who happened to be traveling that way sees the man and stops. Even though there was extreme animosity between Jews and Samaritans at the time, this man goes above and beyond, exercising a kindness that would not have been expected from someone of his cultural background. All that mattered was that this man, bleeding and dying in the dirt, needed help and needed it immediately. Almost as a punchline, Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” It’s very nearly a rhetorical question. Of course you help; to have left the man to die would have been unthinkable, even inhuman.

No, we don’t always, or even often, have to relate to our neighbors as people in such dire need. Jesus’ parable provides us with an extreme but telling example. But Jesus’ teaching here doesn’t apply only to extraordinary circumstances. What he was doing was exposing what should and shouldn’t be true of the human heart. What is our attitude concerning those who are different from us? And of course differences abound between us and our neighbors, even if they’re less obvious than ethnic and religious ones.

In the conversation that took place before Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, the expert in the law rightly pointed out that to love one’s neighbor as oneself forms part of the whole picture of one who follows and loves God. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is referred to elsewhere as the second great commandment. “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” Jesus says in Luke 6:31. Treat others in the way you would like to be treated. Our neighbour is anyone in need. And our neighbour is not defined by any natural affinity we may share. Common humanity is the criterion. Even those we might count as enemies are included. Jesus, it appears, doesn’t leave any wiggle room for us. He’s especially adept at doing that—of putting us in the position of having to leave our comfort zones for the sake of love.

There were vast differences between that Muslim woman in the ER and myself: cultural, ethnic, and religious. But how would I have reacted if she had been mistreated in any way as she unrolled her prayer mat that afternoon? Would I have allowed such differences (which are not incidental either but of considerable importance) to prevent me from acting like that Samaritan? Might I have experienced the temptation to respond more like that priest or Levite in the story, and conspicuously and uneasily crossed the road rather than get involved, especially with someone not of my own group?

To answer these questions, I need only imagine a different scenario. It could be me on the side of the road. There may come a time when I’m just as vulnerable to opportunistic thieves and bandits. Life could leave me just as bloodied. In such a moment would I be willing to accept love from, to be helped by, that woman? Or would I rather she respond to my situation like the first two men and hope that at some point someone with whom I have more in common would address my circumstances? If someone asked her, “Who is my neighbor?” would she count me among them? Maybe whether or not she does begins with me.