(Yesterday I preached at two services at Guatemala City’s Iglesia Presbiteriana Central—Central Presbyterian Church. The topic was the missionary work of God’s people. Below is an English translation. I know it’s kind of long but, after all, it’s a sermon.)
Today we’re celebrating both Day of the Bible and Missionary Sunday. It makes sense to combine these two themes, because the Bible is in many ways an account of God’s mission to a fallen world. Please listen to these scripture verses from Acts 1:6-8:
6So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The Missions Committee asked me to deliver today’s message, likely because I’m a missionary. The word “missionary” refers
to someone who’s been sent. A common image of missionaries is that they’re for people sent from an established church in a wealthy country to a distant land to show less advantaged people the Christian faith and the best ways to do ministry. Because this image has so many problems to it, the term “missionary” is rarely used by Presbyterians anymore. In Guatemala, in this era of
partnership among churches, I’m referred to as a fraternal worker (obrero fraternal), serving on behalf of the Presbyterian Church in the United States to share in the work that God does through the Presbyterian Church of Guatemala.
This isn’t to disparage missionaries of earlier generations. Like most churches around the world, this church began as a mission project. If it weren’t for missionaries that came from elsewhere, there’d be no churches in Guatemala. The history of this particular church is especially fascinating because it’s not only the first Presbyterian church, but it’s the first Protestant church in Guatemala. It’s kind of nice to know that Presbyterians from the U.S. didn’t just barge in and force themselves upon this beautiful country 130 years ago. As we know, none other than President Justo Rufino Barrios personally invited the Presbyterians to begin work on this very street corner.
I’m glad the sanctuary is filled with maps of the 22 departments of Guatemala, reminding us to keep all of them in prayer. It’s also good that the pulpit is surrounded by many flags from different nations. I notice there’s no flag of the United States. I wish my country was also represented among the others, because the Lord knows that the U.S. needs lots of prayer. It’s a very needy mission field right now. For example, there are over one million Guatemalans living in the United States. If we thought of that
population as an unofficial 23rd Guatemalan department, it would be the second in size after Guatemala City. Most of them are recent immigrants, and many of them are struggling. Some are Presbyterians or Christians of other churches. Please keep them and their situations in prayer, for they’re an important part of God’s mission.
Throughout the Bible we find that the mission we do is God’s, not ours. God began it. God provides for it and directs it. God finishes it. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to serve as the first missionary. Jesus traveled from heaven to the mission field of planet earth, with the purpose of saving all that God created.
In case somebody’s wondering who the second Christian missionary was, I’ll offer my viewpoint. According to my interpretation of the Gospels, the second missionary wasn’t John the Baptist, or the Samaritan woman, or Peter or Paul. It was the mother of Jesus, Mary. Why do I say that? Once Mary become aware that Jesus was growing within her, the great joy she felt compelled Mary to run over the hills to the home of her cousin Elizabeth to share the good news with her. That’s the basic missionary impulse. Whenever any of us we experience the presence of Jesus inside us, the joy in our hearts compels us to share the joy with others. As we go and share the joy of the grace of Jesus Christ, we join the long line of missionaries that stretches back to Mary, and to Jesus himself.
This helps us understand a truth about God’s mission work—none of us are excluded from it. All of are called within ourselves to be missionaries, by our very hearts that have been touched by God’s grace. At the same time, we’re called from without, by Jesus himself, to enter into God’s mission as a part of the Christian community.
As witnesses, we strive to somehow bring to the attention of others who Jesus is, and what he has done and continues doing in our lives. Our testimony isn’t about our church, or about our good ideas or noble deeds. We testify about Jesus, what he’s doing around us and in our lives. We witness about how his grace has changed our relationships, our actions, our lifestyles, and our priorities.
Being a faithful witness to Jesus Christ can be difficult and wearisome. That’s why Jesus tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses…” Here we find out that the prerequisite to be Christ’s witnesses is that we have power from the Holy Spirit. Without spiritual power, our witness won’t be effective. Sure, it helps to have a budget, to have training, to have a strategic plan, but we can be witnesses without those things. However, there’s no substitute for the Holy Spirit to deal with the challenges, the trials, the temptations that we’ll encounter. Prayer is central in all of this. Prayer is the primary means by which God provides us with spiritual power.
So, now we’ve established that Christ calls all of us to be his witnesses, and that the Holy Spirit is necessary for us to do it faithfully. The big question that’s left is where is the Lord sending us to be his witnesses?
It’s clear that Christ has a global mission. Christ tells us that we’re to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s also clear that each of us can’t personally witness in all of these places at the same time. Sometimes our thinking tends to be that we must take them in order. We’ll start in Jerusalem, i.e., Guatemala City. Then once problems are solved in Guatemala City we’ll move on to Judea, i.e., the rest of Guatemala. Next, once the problems in the rest of Guatemala have been addressed we go on to the rest of Central America, and next to the other regions of the world.
The problem with this approach is that Jesus does call us to witness in all of these places simultaneously. Obviously each
of us can’t do it as individuals. But as a church, we can. As the body of Christ, there’s no place that’s beyond our reach.
The vast majority of us are called to be witnesses in the mission field of Jerusalem, i.e., in the place where we find ourselves.
The reason isn’t just because it’s most convenient for us to stay where we are, but because that’s where we have the most ability to connect with people. The Lord wants us to be where our witness can make the most difference. That means that for most of us, when we climb out of bed in our homes each morning, we’re entering into our mission field. That’s as far as we need to go.
What matters is where our witness can best advance God’s mission. What’s easiest or to our liking isn’t what’s most important. Some of us might prefer to witness to the ends of the earth, but God wants us to be in Jerusalem. Others of us might rather stay in Jerusalem, but God would have us go to the ends of the earth.
Let’s consider the original disciples, and what their preferences might have been. Most likely they would’ve liked to witness in Galilee, where they had their roots, their families, their homes, and their jobs on fishing boats. Nonetheless, Galilee wasn’t included on the list of options that Jesus offered them. Christ knew where their witness was most needed, even though it wasn’t convenient to them.
Let’s also consider what happened to these disciples in the gospel of John, chapter 21. Apparently there was a moment when
the disciples chose to ignore Jesus’ instructions and they went back to the comforts of Galilee. How did that work out? Their return to Galilee was a fiasco. They became frustrated, discouraged, and their fishing nets were empty. The risen Christ had to come looking for them, to rescue and redeem them once again.
9After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same
way you have seen him go into heaven.”
This admonition by the angels suggests that there was an inclination by early Christians to stay in a holding pattern, simply
waiting for Jesus to return and do God’s mission by himself. This stance has the advantage of seeming to be Christ-centered, while letting us avoid getting our hands dirty.
Most of us have heard of an eye disease called myopia. It’s causes near-sightedness, difficulty in focusing on things that are
far away. There’s another less-familiar eye disease called presbyopia. Presbyopia causes its victims to be far-sighted, to have problems seeing things that are nearby. The term is derived from the Greek presbuteros, meaning “elderly,” because presbyopia especially afflicts elderly people. The word “presbyterian” comes from this same Greek root.
We might wonder if the church doesn’t at times suffer from a form of presbyopia. It’s easy for us to focus on life in heaven, but it’s harder for us to see things that are closer at hand.
The focus of God’s attention is earth, not heaven. That’s why our focus needs to be earth, not heaven. After Jesus returned to heaven, the disciples kept staring upwards, wondering when Jesus would come back. It even became necessary for several angels to confront them, to bring their focus back to earth. The angels asked, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
Some Christians promote the idea that our motivation for mission is to fulfill a requirement for the second coming of Christ. Theirs is an erroneous interpretation of Matthew 24:14, that reads, “And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world …and then the end will come.”
We don’t provoke Jesus; Jesus provokes us! We’re not the ones that cause the Lord to move; it’s the Lord who causes us to move! We’re not the impulse that makes Christ come back to earth; Christ is the impulse that makes us go out into the earth ourselves!
Spain is a country that’s located on the western edge of Europe. Historians tell about how Spain used to claim for many centuries that it was on the earth’s border. The Spaniards even placed on their crest the motto “Ne Plus Ultra,” which means “there is no more beyond.” Then the navigator Christopher Columbus appeared on the scene. After Columbus crossed the ocean, visiting the Caribbean and Central America, the Spaniards no longer could claim they were at the end of the earth. Instead of complaining, however, they celebrated this momentous news. They even changed their official crest by removing the word “Ne.” Afterwards, instead of claiming “Ne Plus Ultra,” the crest stated, “Plus Ultra,” there is more beyond.
Sometimes the church seems to cling to a crest that says, “Ne Plus Ultra.” We might give the impression that our own congregation is all that matters to us. If so, Jesus challenges us just as he challenged the first disciples by telling us that there’s no limit to our witness. Our churches are important, our communities are important, and our countries are important. Nonetheless, the Lord continues to remind us that there’s more beyond.