Mission is Messy
1 John 3:16-24
16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
A true story. There is a local church that had scheduled a fund raiser that would be announced this week during their worship service. I believe the money was to go to the church’s building fund. But in light of all of the things going on in the world today, they decided that they better come up with a different fund raising event. The original plan was to have a number of people from the congregation participate by having jars with their names on them where people would put their money in the jar and the person with the most money in their jar would be obligated to do something that we normally don’t do as human beings. Any guesses what they were originally planning to do for a fund raiser? They were planning to have a “kiss the pig” contest.
With the recent attention that the swine flu is receiving, I think that this particular congregation would have been up against a large obstacle, nobody would sign up to be in the contest (fyi I believe that the possibility to receive N1H1 virus from swine is very low, if not impossible). But as Christians making up the large body known as the church, we know what it is like to be up against a few obstacles. We face obstacles all of the time. And today I would like to look at our scripture to see that we as the church have obstacles to fulfilling our mission, our calling from God to share God’s love with God’s people. So let’s jump into the scripture and see what we can learn from John about our mission as the church.
Our scripture for today starts out by saying, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” We as Christians are really good at remembering the first part of this verse. Jesus’ love for us is the reason that he came to the earth, lived a perfect life, and yet was punished and forced to pay the ultimate price. He had to give his life so that we might have life. This is the kind of thing we learn in Sunday School as children. So why do we often miss the second part of this verse? Why do we miss the part that tells us that since Jesus laid down his life for us that we need to do the same for others?
Usually when I read this verse I immediately think of Jesus dieing on the cross and that we are called to die, either literally or metaphorically, with Jesus. But I don’t think that our interpretation of this scripture needs to be limited to this understanding. John does not use the words “Jesus died for our sins” in this section. But he chooses to say that Jesus laid down his life for us. And I have heard, though I cannot confirm this, that the only person to use the phrase “laid down his life” in the New Testament is John. Therefore I believe that when we read verse 16 in context, it can really broaden our understanding of this scripture.
Look at verse 17. Immediately after John tells us that Jesus laid down his life for us and that as his followers we too should lay down our lives for one another, he goes on to say, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” I think that when John talks about Jesus laying down his life for us, he isn’t just talking about Jesus dieing on the cross. He is talking about Jesus sacrificing all that he had in heaven, living as a part of the triune God, in a perfect place where there is no pain or suffering, no anger or hatred. Jesus laid down the life that he had in heaven to come to this earth to be hated, tortured, spat on, and crucified! He laid down his life in heaven and picked up a cross. Not because he enjoys that sort of thing, but he did it out of love for us. And now John is saying that as his followers, we should lay down our relatively comfortable lives for the sake of others. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help? The answer should be clear to us. If we hoard all of the world’s goods to ourselves while those around us suffer, then we simply do not have the love of God within us.
As I was preparing this message I started thinking about the word “mission”. We use the term mission all of the time in the church. We talk about the Valley Mission, we talk about being a missional church. We have a Moment in Mission where we often talk about missionaries. We even have a mission statement. But what does “mission” really mean? I looked it up and the simple definition of mission is: the business with which a group is charged. The mission of a vacuum salesman is to sell vacuums. The mission of a general contractor is to build houses. So what should the mission of the church be?
I believe that the mission of Christians and the mission of the church should be just what John tells us in our scripture for today. The mission of the church is to show people the love of God. And as John tells us in verse 18, we are not just to show people the love of God in words and speech, but in truth and actions.
I don’t believe that John is saying that we are not to use our words to tell people that we love them and that God loves them, that they are some how supposed to observe our lifestyle and see that we love them. But John is saying that words alone fall short of our mission. To love in truth and actions means that we back up our words by giving of ourselves, giving of our time, giving of our money, even giving of our personal satisfaction at times. I think that is what John is encouraging people to do when he says that they are to lay down their lives for others in the same way that Christ laid down his life for us. Jesus sacrificed his comfort to help us bear our pains.
Now when I think of the mission of the church as to be the loving, inviting community of believers, sharing the love of God with all people, I recognize that different people will carry out this mission in different ways. Some are called to be pastors, some are called to work with the poor. Some are called to be evangelists, some to work for peace and justice. Some are called to lead Bible Studies, and some are called to do help repair a neighbor’s house after a bad storm. All of us are called to share the love of God with others, but not all of us are called to do it in the same way.
The apostle Paul loves to use the metaphor of the church being a body, the body of Christ, to be precise. And the body is made up of many parts, the head, eyes, arms, and legs. Each part is important; each part has its own function.
So if we are all gifted in different ways to share and spread the love of God, then why does so much of the world not reflect the love of God? Well I think that it is safe to say that there are obstacles to fulfilling the mission of the church. I would like to share a few of those obstacles with you today and hopefully we can avoid these obstacles as we seek to fulfill the mission we have been charged with.
The first obstacle to fulfilling our mission as the church that I would like to address is our personal time. This past Wednesday I was driving through town on my way to a meeting 20 miles away. And if you recall, it rained all day Wednesday. So I’m driving through town and I see a person walking down the road, trying to protect himself from the rain with a little umbrella, which isn’t much help when the rain is coming down horizontally. As I approached the person, I recognized him as someone I speak to frequently; he works downtown. He has told me before that he doesn’t have a car, and I assume he was walking to work in the rain.
I almost stopped to offer him a ride…almost. I slowed down. But I never stopped. Of course I could justify not helping this guy. I was afraid I would be late for my meeting. I didn’t want my car to get wet inside. I wasn’t even sure if it was the guy I was thinking of. But if it was him, and I’m pretty sure it was, I know that he still had a least one mile to walk in the rain. And the thing that bothers me so much today is that I got to my meeting plenty early to have picked him up.
Time…how dare we allow our busy schedules keep us from sharing the love of God with other people? The ironic thing about my missing an opportunity to share God’s love with this gentleman is that the meeting that I was trying to get to on time was a church meeting. I was trying to do something for God, and in doing so I might have missed an opportunity to fulfill our mission as the church to show the love of God to God’s people.
I believe that our busy schedules become an obstacle to sharing the love of God with other people. How many of us have ever said, “I would help serve a meal at the soup kitchen this week, if I only had the time.” Or “I would stop and pay a visit to my neighbor girl who is a single mother trying to pay the bills on a measly welfare check, maybe even offer to watch the kids for her, if I only had more time.” Time is a precious commodity, and it is often an obstacle to our mission as the church.
The next obstacle to fulfilling our mission as the church that I would like to address is the issue of personal property and space. I know that I am usually looked at as being idealistic when I draw your attention to the early church and lift them up as a model for how we are called to be the church. But I am pretty sure that a lot of people called Jesus and his early followers idealistic as well. So I guess I’m in good companyJ.
The book of Acts tells us that the early church did not have private ownership of their ‘stuff’. There would have been personal property. That is obvious when we read the scriptures that the early church members still had possession. But they shared them in a radical way.
Today there is an excellent program in the Harrisonburg area that goes by the acronym HARTS, which stands for Harrisonburg and Rockingham Thermal Shelters. HARTS is a faith-based organization that provides shelter and a meal for homeless people in Harrisonburg during the winter months to keep people off the street in the freezing weather. The way I understand HARTS is that churches open up their facilities to provide a warm place out of the weather, restrooms, and a meal for one week from Monday night through Sunday morning. After the week was up, the HARTS employees pack up the cots and move them to a different church.
HARTS provides a staff member that would stay up all night long to monitor things and people as they would come and go throughout the night. The staff members were trained to deal with violent people, people under the influence of various substances, and people with mental illness.
I know of a number of Mennonite Churches in Harrisonburg that participated in HARTS this past winter, and I heard mostly good things. I have heard stories of how churches have brought in food and blankets, sharing their goods with these people in need. Then the homeless people that stayed in the church would often go to the Sunday morning church services in the building that they had called home for that last week. As I have said, I think that this is a great program.
But this year (I believe the second year of HARTS), a group in Harrisonburg asked a few local churches to host one additional week to extend the HARTS program through the month of April. This other group would provide volunteers to stay with the homeless folks in the churches. But it turns out that these volunteers are not trained to deal with some of the things that transpired over the week.
I heard that one church had issues with an intoxicated man vomiting on the carpet and people were making themselves a little too at home, rummaging through the cabinets and cupboards in the fellowship hall kitchen. Two churches had people smoking in their men’s room. One church even had fecal matter smeared on the wall. I call your attention to the title of my message this morning, “Mission is Messy.” It sure can be. But I come back to verse 17, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” Again the assumed answer is that it can’t.
I spoke with one of the pastors of the church that hosted HARTS one additional week without the paid staff member present and he said that he had heard a lot of negative things about opening their facilities up again. And it is that one word that causes me to tense up a bit; when they call it their facilities. I thought that the church was God’s house? The pastor of the church and I both agreed that some things could be done better to monitor things, but we also agreed that using God’s house to show God’s love to God’s people is always a good idea. But personal property and personal space can clearly be an obstacle to mission.
Lack of Gratitude
The pastor from the same congregation that had problems with people misusing “their facilities” told me that a big problem that they faced was that people in their congregation were complaining that the homeless folks seemed to have a sense of entitlement and were less than appreciative of the things that were being provided free of charge. The guests were complaining about thing not being just right. One guy said that his cot was too lumpy and he would rather sleep on the floor than to sleep another night on that thing. One person made a big stink about the church only providing white sugar for his coffee and he wanted the pure Sugar in the Raw. So what are we to do with people like this that show no gratitude when we go out of our way? We love them anyway. We show them the love of God, even when they don’t seem to appreciate it. Our mission of showing people the love of God is never contingent upon the recipients’ gratitude.
Anyone that has tried to show the love of God to another person probably knows what it means to be rejected, shot down, or denied. Anyone that has tried to share their faith has probably found people that didn’t want to hear it.
Greenmonte Fellowship does a great job of providing financial assistance to those in need in the area of their church, and I have tried to model our local relief program after what I have seen at Greenmonte. When someone comes to Greenmonte looking for a little help, they give it to them with no strings attached. But if that person comes back to ask for help again, before they receive another dime from the congregation, that person has to sit down with a financial advisor from the church to discuss how they can budget appropriately so that this is not an ongoing problem. And you wouldn’t believe how many people walk away at that point. They aren’t willing to receive the free help from the church. All they want is the money.
So what are we to do? We love them anyway. We continue to show people the love of God because showing the love of God to God’s people is never contingent on the recipients’ gratitude. But my goodness, does it hurt to offer a simple “thank-you” from time to time? No, but we can never allow a lack of gratitude to be an obstacle to the church’s mission.
I’ve only scratched the surface, I know. There are many, many more obstacles to the mission of the church, because mission is messy, it’s hard, and it can be unrewarding. But showing others the love of God is what we are called to do. It is our mission.
But don’t leave here today discouraged and depressed. Because not only is mission messy, mission is magnificent as well. We are a part of a long line of successful missionaries. We all have been witnessed to in truth and in action, we have all felt the love of God. The mission of the church traces back 2,000 years. 2,000 year! That should say something to us all. Because believe me, mission was just as messy 2,000 years ago as it is today. The fact that the mission of the church continues today shows us that it is worth it. The church has been called to be a community of believers that shares the love of God with all people. We are all called to do it in different ways, just as the body has many parts. But we are called to fulfill this mission. Let us step up to the challenge, because not only is mission messy, it is magnificent.
I will close with a quote from Henry Ford. “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.”