“Calling Disciples, Sending Out Apostles”
(a sermon based upon Matthew 9:35 – 10:8 (page 843 in the pew Bible
Today’s Bible story is a watershed moment in the life of the early Church. I believe it is pointing at us, here in Alpena, in our own day. It’s where we are “at” as a church, in my opinion.
I’ll admit that Jesus uses two “rural” metaphors that seem somewhat remote from our modern-day “downtown” lives – first, sheep, and second, harvesting crops. But since we do live in a “farming” region, we can surmise what Jesus is getting at. But those two images (which we’ll look at in a moment) only serve as backdrop to what Jesus then does with his disciples: empowers them for ministry and sends them out to do what he was doing.
Here’s how Matthew tells it (just as Beth Petty read it for us a moment ago): “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom… and healing every disease and every infirmity.” Jesus was teaching, preaching the Good News about the Kingdom of God, and healing. He’s been doing that for nine chapters now, in Matthew’s version of the Gospel, on both sides of the Sea of Galilee and everywhere throughout the region.
At this point, Jesus is still self-limiting the range of his ministry. His message (he says) is for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” – that is, Jews only – and not for the Gentiles (foreigners, non-Jews), and not for the Samaritans (those native Palestinian inter-married “remnant people” from the ten tribes of Israel who had been defeated by Judah in the Civil War over 700 years earlier). Jesus tuned his ministry & message to the Jews.
When Jesus says that he has come for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”, it underscores the first of his two metaphors. Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)
His words make me think of the stained glass window that’s right here, front & center in our chancel: The Good Shepherd. Jesus carries a little lamb in his arms. It makes me think of a parable that Jesus will say to the Pharisees in Matthew 18:12-14
“What do you think? If a man has 100 sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the 99 on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the 99 that never went astray. So, it is not the will of my Father (who is in heaven) that one of these little ones should perish.”
When Jesus saw the crowds, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
That first metaphor also brings with it the mellow memory of the 23rd Psalm, in which we say: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. … Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” (and so forth). Jesus, in our stained glass window, carries a shepherd’s staff in his right hand. The crook in its neck was handy to scoop up a wayward lamb which went astray.
Jesus “had compassion for [the crowds], because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
It hadn’t always been like that.
Early on, the leaders of Israel -- both the civil authorities and the Temple priests -- had been diligent about keeping God’s Law, doing justice and showing mercy, publicly demonstrating compassion among the people in the Lord’s name. They held Moses in high regard & did what they could to serve the people.
But, as Lord Acton put it a Century ago: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The kings and the priests (and the other power-brokers in Judea) took themselves to be important – “overlords” and “governors” rather than public “servants” -- and they ushered in a lot of self-serving regulations.
So the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel (Chapter 34:1-16): Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy, and say to them -- even to the shepherds -- thus says the Lord God: “Ho! Shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat. You clothe yourselves with the wool. You slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak, you have not strengthened. The sick, you have not healed. The crippled, you have not bound up. The strayed, you have not brought back. The lost, you have not sought; and with force and harshness you have ruled them!”
So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd & they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered. They wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: “As I live,” says the Lord God, “I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. … Behold, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out 4 my sheep. And I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
And I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the fountains, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture… There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on fat pasture they shall feed…
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down,” says the Lord God. “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over. I will feed them in justice!”
Jesus’ compassion on the crowds, and his remark that they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, would have brought to mind the prophet Ezekiel, who said that the Lord God will gather his people like a flock and tend to their needs. … “And I will give them one heart,” the prophet went on to say, with words picked up in our choir’s anthem this morning: “I will put a new spirit within them; I will take out their stony heart and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ways; and they shall be my people, and I shall be their God.” (Ezekiel 11:17 &19-20)
The prophet’s critique of the political rulers and religious hierarchy of his day -- who fattened themselves at the expense of the common person, and who made no effort to seek or to save the lost -- falls right in line with many people’s negative attitude (in our own day) toward government officials and highhanded wealthy individuals and corporations, whose self-serving policies are more apt to “fleece the flock” than to feed it. (!)
Jesus saw the people of his day (the crowd) as “harassed & helpless” like a flock without a shepherd. And he intended to do something about it just as God had promised to do so long before. Jesus, in God’s name, was going to “shepherd” them.
The second metaphor Jesus used was that of a harvest -- crops ready in the field (like Dick Bloom’s asparagus in Spring), or ready in the orchard (like Tom Cook’s apples in the Fall). The crops were mature, fruitful, ready to be harvested… “The harvest is plentiful,” said Jesus, “but the laborers are few. Pray, therefore, the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
I don’t know whether or not the crowd started praying, like Jesus had asked them to do – praying that the Lord of the harvest would “send out laborers”… But I do know what Jesus did. In the very next sentence Matthew tells us that Jesus called to himself his 12 disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, and to heal every disease and every infirmity. And these 12 named individuals Jesus sent out, charging them to preach as you go, saying: “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons! You received without paying for it; give without pay.” In other words, Jesus sent them out to do what he had been doing.
Do you see why I say that this is a “watershed” moment for the early church?
For nine chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, we have been watching Jesus doing ministry. He taught, he preached, he healed. Jesus always knew what to say to people; he always knew what to do. We watched as Jesus calmed a storm (Matt. 8:26) and raised a dead girl. Along with his 12 disciples, we, too, watched as Jesus sent a Legion of unclean spirits out of a wild man (who lived in the tombs near Jerash) and into a herd of pigs, which then stampeded into the Sea of Galilee (Matt 8:32).
It seems there is nothing that Jesus cannot do, relying (as he does) on God, his Father, to advance the Lord’s agenda among the people. (Hallelujah!) Jesus has been on a roll. (!) People are bringing their friends and neighbors to see him, to be healed by him, to listen to his teachings. (!) The fields are ripe for harvest; there is spiritual fruit among the crowds popping out like clusters of grapes on a vine. Everything is ready and ripe! “Now,” says Jesus, “pray to the Lord of the Harvest that he send out workers” to gather the produce, and bring them in.
This would be the time for an “altar call”, wouldn’t you say?
You know, when the preacher says: “Come down front, brothers and sisters: you whom the Lord has called!” Come down this aisle, and present yourselves as workers for the Lord! At least, can we have a show of hands? Who among you is ready, willing and able, to go out and to gather what the Lord has prepared for us?
The “watershed” in this story (in my opinion) is because this is the moment in which Jesus’ ministry was invested in his followers. The 12 disciples (all men, if Matthew’s list is correct) were called “front and center”. Jesus commissioned them, authorized them, and charged them to do the same kind of ministry (preach the same radical message, and heal them) that they had been watching him do… up ’til now.
Back in the day when I used to train YouthWorkers for NIYM (Jim Burns’s “National Institute of Youth Ministry”) out in California, I proposed a four-step model for teaching people to do ministry. First, you do it, and they watch. Second, you do it together, like a team. Third, they do it and you watch. Fourth, they do it, and you move on to do something else (with someone else). I see something like that happening here.
Jesus has been doing powerful, memorable ministry in God’s name. Now it’s time to bring his team on board, and to give them the experience of hands-on ministry. He’ll be there to watch, and they’ll report back. Jesus even says (later in this sending out sermon, Matthew 10:24-25): “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his master.”
Up until now, Jesus has been doing it, and they have been watching. That’s what it meant to be a “disciple.” The word connotes “discipline” – learning the rules, following a pattern. To be a disciple is to enroll like a student in the “Jesus Way” School of Thought. It is a public confession that the Spirit of Jesus – his teachings, his attitudes, his ethics of conduct, his interpretation of Scripture, his image of God – was going to be our standard as well. That Jesus, like a Master instructor, will be our inspiration & our role model as we learn from him to be like him: disciples.
But a new word enters our vocabulary in verse 2 of Chapter 10: Matthew writes: “The names of the twelve apostles are these…” Simon, who is called Peter, Andrew, his brother; James, the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, and so on…
The new word for these disciples is now “apostles.” They have received a commission from Jesus to go “out” and to perform their tasks in his name and with his authority. They have received a “post”, a commission like an officer may have.
The Greek word “apostolos” was originally the designation of the chief Naval Commander when Sparta would engage in a sea battle. It was a selection from among the various ships’ captains as to which one would lead others in the battle. The ones who had demonstrated competence (to the satisfaction of their instructors and their colleagues) would be commissioned “apostle” – leader in battle.
These twelve students (disciples) were selected by Jesus and commissioned for leadership in his movement. They were designated for oversight and accountability for the continuing direction of Jesus’ ministry in the present (while Jesus was with them) and also in preparation for the time when Jesus would no longer be with them at the helm of the ship (called “Church”).
Jesus had been doing it himself, while they – as his disciples -- watched him do it. Then, Jesus and they had begun doing ministry together. Now -- step three -- it’s their turn to do it, while Jesus watched. He would be there to give them pointers … to help them critique what worked and what didn’t work. But they are being called upon -- they are being sent out (“apostled”) -- with the commission to “shepherd” the lost sheep of Israel.
They, who had been observing Jesus Christ for some time, now had to take on the role – the pastoral role – of caring for the flock. They were called upon to bring the scattered people together, rescuing them from all the places of darkness, distress, and despair into which they had wandered. These 12 disciples have been “apostled” – commissioned & empowered – to provide good pasture and grazing land where the flock may grow fat. They have been designated by Jesus to seek the lost, and to bring back the strays; to strengthen the weak, and to watch over the strong ones. It is their role, as shepherds – overseers -- to feed the flock with justice and generosity.
Jesus looked around him -- at the community of people who surrounded him -- and he saw too many people harassed and helpless, trying to make it on their own, like sheep without a shepherd. He said it was like looking at a field ripe for the harvest, but with no workers standing by to do the job.
“I, the Lord of sea and sky… I have heard my people cry. All who dwell in dark and sin, my hand will save.”
We heard our summer singers ask: “Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?” and then came the reply: “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” (Daniel L. Schutte, 1981)
That’s the move from being a disciple – a student, an apprentice, a consumer of Christianity – to being an apostle… the designated commander who engages the battle.
The harvest is plentiful, here in Alpena. People all around us are harassed and feeling helpless -- with no community of faith alongside them, no core conviction about the love of God within them -- struggling to make it on their own… like sheep without a shepherd. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Maybe it’s time to pray… like Jesus told his disciples to do.
Pray to the Lord of the harvest -- who has surrounded our church with so many people in need of God’s love and tender care… People who don’t know what they are missing by not having a loving community of Christian sisters and brothers alongside them. People who have not heard the Good News that the Kingdom of God is “at hand” -- right here, right now -- available to them “whoever they are, and wherever they are on their life’s journey.” But we can tell them, can’t we? We disciples can become “apostled” , too, if we will… if we would.
This is a watershed moment, First Church Alpena. Will we get up, get out, & get going… start telling people what we have to offer? Showing with our lives: engaged with compassion, active in our generosity, helpful & healing, wherever possible… ? Will we who have been faithful disciples, long followers of Jesus, now become his “apostles”? Will we accept a public, leadership role in shepherding the citizens of Alpena for God’s sake in Jesus name? Everything is pointed that way. “Whom shall I send?”