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Disciples & Apostles

Part One:

Part Two:


“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).