Of the Bible’s four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Matthew is usually thought of as the gospel most written in connection with the first followers of Jesus who, like Jesus himself, were born and raised in the Jewish community within the nation of Israel. This first small circle of disciples had formed Jesus’ spiritual and political base. By following Jesus and publically declaring their faith in Jesus as the Messiah, these disciples had courageously challenged the status quo maintained by the alliance between their powerful Roman rulers and their own religious and community leaders. These first followers of Jesus had risked everything in the belief that with God on his side Jesus would heal the division in their nation, unite the Jewish people and lead them in battle against their Roman oppressors. Their dream was that Jesus, as the victorious warrior- king of Israel, would re-establish the throne of David and the glory of the nation.
But, now after Jesus’ death and resurrection they understood that they had been wrong. Their dream of national and personal glory, of remaking Israel into a world power, was a much too narrow vision. Jesus had come from God for a much larger purpose. Jesus was not only the Savior of the nation of Israel. He was sent from God to bring all people together to create a whole new kind of world community- a communion of Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor- a worldwide communion where the power of God’s Spirit would break down all divisions by replacing fear and self-interest with love, hatred and violence with peace, oppression of many with freedom, justice and equality for all. Simply put, by telling the story of Jesus as he did, Matthew was clearly lifting up the main lesson those first followers of Jesus had learned and wanted to pass on to future generations: God sent Jesus into the world for love first: not for self-interest or national interest, but first because God loves the whole world and calls all who follow Jesus to do the same.
Matthew’s gospel actually has several stories, including our gospel lesson today, which aim to support this growing awareness of the worldwide, love-first mission of Jesus. For example, In the story we read today, an enemy of Israel, a centurion of the Roman military, came humbly to Jesus with a faith-filled and heartfelt appeal to heal his servant who was lying paralyzed at home in great pain and distress. In response to this powerful Roman soldier’s unexpected faith, humility and compassion, Jesus declared: “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”
This was a radical statement of inclusion, embracing significant cultural, political and religious differences! How could Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, imagine a future world where a Roman military leader, along with many others coming from nations far away both east and west, would gather together at God’s table with esteemed leaders of the Jewish faith such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Such an inclusive image challenged the status quo of the religious establishment of Israel as well as the popular hope shared by those first disciples of their own nation’s exclusive future power and glory.
In a similar way, the story of the early church in the book of Acts begins with the coming together of people from the east and the west, from all across the known world into one worldwide communion of love. The pilgrims who gathered in Jerusalem for the celebration of Pentecost were strangers to one another and spoke many different languages. Yet, through the outpouring of God’s Spirit, they were somehow able to hear and understand one another. It is not clear how God’s Spirit made that possible. But, the main point of this story of Pentecost was that the vision of Jesus to create a worldwide communion of people who put love first had indeed begun to become a reality!
This power of love unleashed so dramatically through God’s Spirit on that day would continue to be unleashed for all centuries to come, even to our present time.
But the power of God’s Spirit to create a worldwide communion of love is not the only power at work in the world. Today, like those first followers of Jesus, we as individuals and as a faith community face many challenges as we seek to invest ourselves and our resources to advance Jesus’ vision of a worldwide communion of love. There are many forces at work in our culture and throughout our world which aim to narrow our vision and encourage us to seek first not God’s worldwide communion of love but, rather, our own personal and national self-interest.
This is a spiritual and moral challenge. But it is not the first time that Christians have faced this challenge. Fifteen hundred years after Pentecost the church in Europe had become complacent to the needs of the masses and its leaders had tied the church’s interest to the interest of the state. In response to the church’s corruption, its abuse of power and diminished and misguided vision, a monk in Germany named Martin Luther was led by God’s Spirit to call the church back to faithfully follow the teachings and broader vision of Jesus. Through the power of God’s Spirit a movement swept across Europe to reform the church in its vision and practice, to turn from its idolatry of the state and to renew its mission and service to the whole world.
Later, in 18th century England, the church once again appeared out of touch with the needs of the masses of people around the world who were burdened by the trauma and poverty spawned by the first industrial revolution and first wave of international immigration and urbanization. A priest in the Church of England named John Wesley felt a call by God’s Spirit to bring hope to these masses and began a spiritual, moral and social revival that brought hope and transformed the lives of millions. Wesley did this by bringing good news of God’s love to the oppressed, by exposing and opposing cruel social practices such as slavery and the mistreatment of prisoners and by expressing the need for public education for all children and improved housing, wages and healthcare for stressed out families struggling to survive.
Today in America and in many lands, things are not as much different from 18th century England as we might at first think. For example, while we think of slavery as an abolished evil of the past, we have been reminded by the two new recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize that thousands of women and girls across our world are still living as enslaved victims of sexual violence. In addition, while the media presents a picture of growing wealth and secure lives for the majority of people, we know better. Our nation and nations across our world are filled with families living on the margins, many overwhelmed by high interest credit card debt and payday loans, family members struggling with mental and physical health issues and the injustice of living in communities divided by race, religion and unequal access to quality education, affordable housing, adequate healthcare and health insurance, needed childcare and transportation and jobs which provide a living wage.
The pictures that emerge from these hard realities hit me on a personal level. Like so many of you, I can picture very familiar faces of people who are struggling, people I have come to know in our church, our community and beyond, including members of my own extended family. When we picture the faces of these people we hold in our hearts, the call of Jesus to work for change, to help make our world a communion of love, becomes that much more compelling.
I thank God that, as throughout history, we today can see evidence of God’s Spirit at work. A growing number of people of faith across America are building partnerships with others here at home and around the world to make change happen, to keep alive the vision of a worldwide communion of love.
One example is the movement of Volunteers in Mission. Each year in American churches over 5 million followers of Jesus say “yes” to going on mission trips around the world. In talking with AnnElise Bergstrom since her mission trip to the Dominican Republic this past May, one thing she told me keeps coming back to me. It is how both joyful and painful it has been to have in her mind first during the days right after returning home the faces of the Dominican children and then later people of all ages whom she came to know and love during her time there. She also told me how impressed she was with our missionaries, Gordon and Ardell Graner, and how they have so respectfully built partnerships with local pastors and faith communities so that their mission work is about serving and doing with others rather than doing for or to others.
Going on a ten-day mission trip will not solve all the problems faced by the people living in communities of poverty in the Dominican Republic. In fact, that is not our goal. Rather, our mission is first of all about building relationships. It is about joining with others on a journey that helps us understand how we can all use our strengths to learn from, encourage and serve each other, and, together to serve our God. This is what being a worldwide communion of love is all about.
O God, may your Spirit unite us and empower us all as together we seek to live out the vision of Jesus, to put love first in our church, in our homes, in our community and together to help create a worldwide communion of love. Amen.