Receiving the Apostolic Witness

Luke 9:1-6, Luke 10:1-20

What if, in reading the stories of the twelve and then seventy disciples Jesus sent to preach and heal on his behalf, we saw ourselves first as the villagers whose fate depended on how they received the apostolic witness, and not as the disciples chosen by Jesus for a special mission?

We all want to imagine ourselves as the hero of the story. In our vanity, we want to see ourselves at the heart of the narrative. How can I be like those courageous individuals Jesus personally chose to share his power and authority? How can I make my life more complete by applying lessons from their lives? In other words, how can I make this story about me?

But the story is not about me. I could imitate parts of it. I can proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God and encourage people to respond to this unique moment of grace in their lives. I could surrender all my possessions and walk from village to village, asking for a place to stay and some food to eat, although that would be a very strange way to engage people in my cultural context. But what I can’t do is what Jesus did: heal the sick, cast out demons and raise the dead. I can do good things for people, but I can’t do that. I can pray for people, but I can’t unfailingly heal them with the words of my mouth or the touch of my hand. That’s exactly what Jesus did, and that’s what he appointed a group of disciples to do in the context of his Galilean ministry.

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Seeing the Life of Jesus in Philippi

Acts 16:16-34

As you probably know, the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are two consecutive volumes written by the same author. The gospel tells us about the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The Book of Acts begins with Jesus’ ascension and tells us about the life of the early church, how the Holy Spirit spread faith in Christ from Jerusalem to Rome, and how God used the apostles as his witnesses.

If you pay attention, you might notice that what the Holy Spirit is doing in Acts sounds very much like what Jesus was doing in the Gospel of Luke.

In the gospel, Jesus begins his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth by reading from the prophet Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

What kind of freedom did Jesus bring? In what way did he set the oppressed free? In the very next scene, Luke tells us.

In the synagogue there was a man possessed by the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Let us alone! What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in the midst of the people, he came out of him without doing him any harm. And amazement came upon them all, and they began talking with one another saying, “What is this message? For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits and they come out.”  (Luke 4:33-36)

Jesus was an exorcist. If I had to summarize the ministry of Jesus, it would go something like this. Jesus and his disciples walked from town to town, depending on the solely hospitality of the townspeople they met. They announced the coming kingdom of God, healed the sick and cast out demons. And, according to Jesus, his small victories over Satan’s minions were a sign that the kingdom of God was already poking its nose into this present evil age.

But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)

A Woman with a Spirit

Paul’s encounter with the young girl in Philippi sounds remarkably like those of Jesus with the demon-possessed people of Galilee.

Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by an enslaved young girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her. (Acts 16:16-18)

Of Human and Spiritual Bondage

So, the story begins with Paul’s encounter with a young girl who is both enslaved by human masters and inhabited by some sort of spiritual presence. By this spirit, the girl could predict the future and provide individuals with messages from the divine world.

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Jesus, Peter, Boat, Fish

Luke 5:1-11

Simon lived on the lake of Galilee in a town called Capernaum. He was a fisherman. It wasn’t a sport for him. It was his job, and it was hard work.

He and some friends had a couple of fishing boats and of course the boats had no motors. They probably had a simple sail and an oar with which to steer. Much of the time, the boat moved by people power. The boat wasn’t the Queen Mary, but it wasn’t dinghy either. I am exhausted after a few minutes on the rowing machine in the gym. Ancient fishermen must have been studs, but I’m sure they still came back to shore exhausted.

Now there were a couple of ways to fish from a boat.

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Leaders, Tasks and the Mission of Making Disciples

The Bible is nowhere near as interested in the abstractions of leadership theory as contemporary organizational theorists, but there may be some value in looking at the church through that lens.

I spent more more than a quarter century in an organization where mission accomplishment was central to all that we did. To plan operations, we learned to receive the mission, analyze the mission, restate the mission, develop and evaluate courses of action to accomplish the mission. Units of the organization trained repeatedly on their “mission-essential task list” (METL). Leaders led the organization using the principles of “mission command”.

Leaders lead organizations to accomplish their missions. Insofar as the church in the world shares the characteristics of all organizations, church leaders lead the church to accomplish its mission. The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The UMC mission statement is a Wesleyan riff on Jesus’ “Great Commission” that closes the Gospel of Matthew.

Then Jesus came to [the eleven disciples] and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into 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 28:18-20

The church needs its leaders to direct their energies and talents to accomplish that mission.

Having said that, I also need to frame the mission of the church within the mission of God. Before disciple-making is human work, it is God’s work. “I will build my church,” Jesus declared. All authority in heaven and earth belong to him, and he will be present with his church until he comes in glory at the end of the age. The Book of Acts portrays the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church as the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Gospel of John reminds us that the wind of God blows where it wills.

As a Wesleyan Christian, I also see this  work of God through the lens of the Wesleyan order of grace:

  • Prevenient Grace: God’s work to prepare his way in the human heart and open the way to repentance and faith.
  • Convincing Grace: God’s work to convince people of sin and lead them to repentance.
  • Justifying Grace: God’s work to deliver those who put their faith in Jesus from guilt and restore a right relationship with God.
  • Sanctifying Grace: God’s work to deliver those who put their faith in Jesus from the power of sin, restore the image of God and perfect believers in love

Within the Wesleyan framework, discipleship is always communal or social. Making, baptizing and teaching disciples is the work of the whole church, takes place within the church and unites people to the church. Discipleship is not a solitary endeavor or experience.

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I Will Build My Church

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.  (Matthew 16:13-20)

Jesus Takes Responsibility for Building the Church

“I will build my church.” These are the most important five words in Matthew 16:13-20. This passage announces the good news that Jesus is going to build a church that even the power of death (“the gates of hades”) cannot defeat. That’s the gospel in this passage.

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