16th January 2011

“Why share the Good News?”   (Matthew 9:35 – 10:8)


All of us know that people can have many different moods: it’s part and parcel of human life. We can feel happy or sad; we can be outgoing or grumpy; we can wake up in the morning feeling full of zest for life, or you can just have an overwhelming desire to pull the blankets over your head and go back to sleep. And, when we talk to someone with whom we normally get on well, and they unexpectedly snap back at us in anger, we say, “Mmm, he seems to be in a bad mood today – I wonder what’s rattled his cage?”

But it’s not only people who have moods. For, as a student of Latin and, later on, of Portuguese, I discovered that verbs can have them, too. And so verbs can be in the plain old simple indicative mood, stating what’s happening: “I’m going out to the shops”. They can be in the subjunctive and conditional mood, implying doubt or caveats: “If it wasn’t raining so hard, then I would go out to the shops”. And, finally, verbs can be in the imperative mood as words of command: “Darling, we’re out of milk: run up to the shop and buy some, would you?” As Rumpole of the Bailey knows only too well, you dare not argue with “She who must be obeyed”!

Christians are, of course, subject to many divine imperatives. Some of them are negative commands, which we all know well: “Do not steal”, “Do not murder” and “Do not lie”, to name but a few. Some of them, especially those we find in the New Testament, are much more positive: “Give to the needy”, “Love your enemies” or “Bless those who slander you”. And finally we have the command which is the stuff of missionary meetings, and which several of us heard reiterated last Sunday evening at Colchester Road Baptist Church: Jesus’ final words to “Go into all the word, preach the Gospel, and make disciples”. And, of course, countless thousands of Christians have taken this command extremely seriously, crossing oceans and continents – or even their own street – in obedience to Jesus’ diktat.

Well, I am sure we all want to take Jesus’ words seriously. But I wonder if “doing as we are told” is the best reason for engaging in Christian evangelism and witness. True, there are times when we don’t want to follow Jesus and spiritual discipline does become important; but one must ask if a sense of obligation or “oughtness” is really the best motivation for the task of spreading the message of Jesus? At the very least, it will make us go out and do the dreaded chore – whether that be door-knocking, or handing out leaflets on the High Street, or even speaking in the open air - with gritted teeth and a simmering sense of resentment that Jesus should dare ask us to do something so difficult and embarrassing. Equally, when we finish our allotted job we will get back home, feeling very virtuous and saying, “Thank God that’s over, I’ve done my bit, at least I won’t have to do it again for a while”.

And – dare I say it – it’s not only Jesus who imposes a burden of obligation on Christians. There are many ministers and churches who do exactly the same, saying, “We need to get out into the world and do some evangelism”. Well, I’m not sure if deciding to “do” evangelism is quite the right way of looking at things; but we’ll let that pass. But you know what happens: activities and special services are arranged, the minister preaches some guilt-inducing sermons, and the church members are more-or-less reluctantly prodded into action, with those who are less willing or able to get involved made to feel very ashamed that they aren’t “doing their bit”. And, apart from a few real enthusiasts who seem to really enjoy evangelism, everyone is just waiting for the campaign to finish and the normal round of church life to resume.

I know I’m exaggerating – but I know that I am not exaggerating very much. And the question I would like us to think of is this: are there better motivations than a sense of duty for Christians and churches to engage in evangelism? I would like to suggest that there are. Now, it’s a big subject, so we’ll look at some of them this morning and take another glance at the beginning of February. What I say today will definitely not be my “final word” on the topic!

But first I’d like to make things worse rather than better, by suggesting a reason for spreading the message of Christ which might well provoke an even greater sense of guilt. This is the idea that people who have not had the opportunity to hear the Christian Gospel will be sent to the eternal flames of hell and – to twist the knife just a little bit further – to suggest that God will regard us as responsible for these peoples’ fate if we had the opportunity to speak of Christ to them but remained silent.

Now we cannot dismiss this scenario lightly, although I am sure we would like to. For we know that Jesus himself does talk of judgement on more than one occasion; we also know that countless sermons have been preached and countless hymns sung about this subject. Indeed, there was a genus of sermon, initiated by the 18th century American preacher Jonathan Edwards, which became known as “pit-danglers”. We all know of the very strong strand of Christian belief which says that Jesus, quite literally, saves us from an eternal fate worse than death – and that, to use a different metaphor, we have a duty to “Throw out the lifeline across the dark wave” because “someone is sinking today”.Once again, the heavy burden of duty is placed on Christians to care, to pray, and to evangelise – because, if they don’t, “Unnumbered souls” will die “and pass into the night”. The implication is clear: how can we sleep peacefully in our beds if we fail to rise to the challenge placed upon us?

Do you know something? I’m not sure if I can agree with this way of thinking (although I once did); and I definitely do not think that it is the best motivation for evangelism, although it has inspired true religious heroism in many who have believed it. Now, I am not saying that Christians can be absolved from the responsibility to share Christ’s message – for we can’t expect anyone else to do it on our behalf. Nor am I saying that people should be denied the opportunity to hear about our Saviour – I hope that they will. But, to me (and, I guess, most of us here this morning) it seems quite monstrous to think that God will condemn people to the flames of perdition simply because they have not had any chance of professing their faith in Christ. Can we really believe – indeed, would we want to believe - in a God so cruel? This kind of teaching seems to fly against every notion of divine justice, acceptance and love.

So why should we evangelise, if not out of a sense of duty? Well, I can think of some rather unworthy answers to that question, as well as some good ones. For instance, a church might say, “We are in decline, there’s not so many people coming as there used to be, the offerings are declining, we need more people to keep the show on the road”. I’m sure things like that are said in many churches; we know that they are true. Of course, it is not wrong to see a church growing and filled – not just for the reasons I’ve mentioned but also because these are people who have come to be disciples of Jesus. But if we’re only doing evangelism because we want to see “more bums on the seat”, if we see it primarily as a recruiting drive (or even a press gang!) for the church, then our motives are still very crude or simplistic. For it has much more to doing with expanding the Kingdom of God than keeping a congregation going.

Well, so far I’ve been negative; I’ve taken a lot of time to look at what I think are poor motives for evangelisation. But it would be wrong to leave things there, as there are so many positive reasons, too. And I want to finish by just thinking of one, which is this: as we look at our world in the way Jesus did, if we realise the sadness, confusion and even despair in which so many people live, then we shall want to bring them a message which will give them purpose and hope. I believe our Christian Gospel offers precisely that and that we will to present it to as many folk as we can, always in a humble spirit of generosity and love.

Let’s just spend a moment thinking about Jesus’ decision to send his disciples out on a mission of preaching and healing. For was not an idea which suddenly started buzzing around his head when he woke up one morning, nor was it simply a training exercise for the work that the disciples were to do after Jesus had returned to heaven. No; there is a context for this, which is the way in which Jesus was utterly overwhelmed by the huge needs he discerned during his own ministry, seeing utter misery on every side, and receiving repeated and pathetic requests for help and healing. Indeed, we are told that Jesus “looked on the people with compassion”, which might better be translated as “his heart lurched within him as he saw their desperate state”.

For Jesus recognised that the lives of his kinspeople were empty and aimless, that they were like sheep abandoned by their shepherd. He recognised that they were suffering from what the French sociologist Emile Durkheim would later term “anomie”: a debilitating lack of purpose in life coupled to a sense that society was falling apart around them. And, just as the future King Edward VIII visited South Wales and saw the awful plight of unemployed miners during the Great Depression, so Jesus said, “Something must be done”. And what he did was muster his disciples and sent them out to people who were desperately longing to hear good news. In other words, the disciples’ mission came about as a direct consequence of Jesus’ love for hurting people.

One hopes that the disciples were able to share (at least partly) in this depth of feeling; that they were able to sense something of Jesus’ despair and pain. Because, if they didn’t, then (once again) they would be doing nothing more than carrying out Jesus’ command, they would be people obeying orders. But, on the other hand, if even a tiny fraction of Jesus’ great emotion had rubbed off on the disciples, then things would have been very different. For they would have been participating in mission because they, too, genuinely believed that people had needs which they could somehow alleviate. They would be motivated by more than mere obedience: instead, they would be driven by an irresistible and Spirit-given sense of God’s care and love. Indeed, the command that they should preach and minister would almost be superfluous. May I suggest that that is a good place to arrive at in our thinking.

At the start of my message this morning I talked about imperative verbs or commands. And you will realise that I have finished by saying that, yes, Jesus actually does give his disciples a command to take his message to the world. But not just an arbitrary command, it is neither a test of obedience nor a way in which God wants to fill us with guilt. Its aim is not to fill the synagogues and churches nor to pluck people from judgement, although those may be by-products. No; as in so much of Christian ministry, we serve and witness to others because we are compelled to do by the sense of God’s concern that lies within us. With Jesus, our loving aim is to see helpless and broken people made whole.