“How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, declared,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
Sit at my right hand,
till I put thy enemies under thy feet.’
David himself calls him Lord; so how is he his son?” (Mk. 12: 35-37)
- What is the Mission of the new and greater Son of David?
- How is it Upside-Down?
- What is the Mission of The Church?
- Is it not…..an obligation
- Nor is it… an embarrassment
- It is
- A Gift
- An Invitation
By the time I get done with today’s message, I hope we don’t think of Jesus’ mission in the world as just a burdensome obligation for the church, nor as an embarrassment in this age of judging nothing but judging. Instead, I hope we see it as a matter of gift, of invitation and of imitation. But for that we need to know what the mission of Jesus is, and how today’s gospel passage addresses that so powerfully, especially that mysterious question on Jesus’ lips, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?”
What? Don’t the Psalms and the prophets say that the coming Messiah must be a descendant of David? Isn’t that also what the Apostles said about Jesus, and what the genealogies in the Gospels say, that Jesus is the Son of King David genetically, by twenty-eight generations? So how can Jesus himself ask, “Whose Son is the Messiah?” And secondly, what does that have to do with the discussion that happened just before, when Jesus answered that question, What is the greatest commandment? What does that question have to do with, Whose Son is the Christ? What could they possibly have in common? We may also be wondering, And what does a question about Jesus’ ancestry have to do with our focus on world mission today?
Now, when Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,’ he was saying nothing new. Every observant Jew knew that. But a wind of novelty enters in when Jesus suddenly, surprisingly adds, in almost the very same breath, another commandment from the Old Testament, the book of Leviticus: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For Jesus, then, these two commandments are two sides of the same coin. To him there is not love of God without love of the neighbor.
But then Jesus goes on to say, in effect, Now that we’re talking about loving God AND our neighbor as ourselves, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?” You know, David the giant-slayer, David, the warrior king, David, the holy terror against the Gentiles, especially the Philistines. David, whose son, however many generations later, is expected to do the same things. He would liberate Israel from her Gentile oppressors and occupiers and their toadies and collaborators with the sharp edge of his sword, just like the first David. And so he would extend the kingdom of God over the nations, with terror and irresistible, overwhelming power, from the top down. Like father, like son.
But then, how does that violent scenario square with the two greatest commandments in one, to love God AND to love our neighbor, AS ourselves? Or is the neighbor whom you are love as yourself only your fellow Jew, so everyone else you can hate and put to the sword? How would that even square with the life and teachings of Jesus up to that point? And with the way he treated Gentiles? I don’t think then that Jesus is challenging the notion that, genetically and by genealogy, he is the Son of David. He is. His question, “How is the Christ David’s Son?” is probably meant to expose just what kind of Son of David they were expecting. It also means, In what ways is the Christ David’s son? In what ways is the Second David like the first? And in what was is he different?
But Jesus doesn’t only imply that he, the Messiah, must be different from his ancestor David. He quotes from Psalm 110, which they all understood to be about the coming Messiah, where David says, “The Lord says to my Lord, sit at my right hand.” David calls his son, the Messiah, “Lord,” so the new Son of David must be greater than the first David. David certainly was not “the Word of God made flesh.” But Christ’s surpassing greatness also has to do with his ministry, as well as his person. Jesus is even more a man after God’s heart than was David, even more consistently and sacrificially a king who rules justly on behalf of the weak and the poor, and, even more a leader of God’s people in worship, even though he was not technically a member of the priesthood. At this point in the gospel story, we’ve already seen how this Son of David rules ON BEHALF OF the Gentiles, not against them. He had already taken steps to include Samaritans and even Romans in the commonwealth of Israel, rather than to drive them out, to lift them heavenward, rather than subdue them under his feet.
Which brings us to the first question in the sermon outline, What is the Mission of the new and greater Son of David?, Like his father, David, the new and greater son of David is going on campaign into the Gentile nations, crossing borders and boundaries of belief and unbelief, crossing borders and boundaries of nations, ethnicities and identities, to unite the tribes of the earth under God’s love and lordship. And so he fulfills the promises of the prophets, to extend into the nations the everlasting kingdom promised to David and his lineage, what Jesus called, “the kingdom of God.” That’s the mission of Christ, the new Son of David.
I ask why we might call the mission of the new and greater Son of David “upside down,” in subpoint A. I borrowed that from the theme of our Second Sunday program for the children this year: “Kids Can Live Upside-Down.” Although I’d prefer to think that the Reign of God is right-side up and that the world, the flesh and the devil have things upside-down. The mission of the new and greater Son of David involves the same goal as the first David, to establish God’s Kingdom and extend it into the nations. Yet, how very different is the way that the new Son of David goes about extending it. Just after his resurrection, and before his ascension to David’s promised throne, on a Galilean hilltop, the new Son of David gave his battle plan in what we call the Great Commission: “As you go into all the world make disciples of all the nations, teaching them to observe everything I commanded you, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” As for how they will do this, Jesus says, “I am with you till the end of the age.” The first David’s swords, spears and chariots will not only be unnecessary in this campaign into the nations, they will be counter-productive. The greater Son of David will turn his father David’s sword upside-down and into a cross that he carries on our behalf. This mission is upside-down because his disciples will enter the nations unarmed, mostly as subjects, even as slaves, prisoners, and the condemned. We are Christ’s army of disarmament.
As for the second question, What is the Mission of the Church? First for what it is not: Subpoint A; it is not just an obligation laid upon us. We have likely heard lots of mission Sunday sermons telling us that reaching the world with the good news of Jesus is an obligation laid by God upon the church. But I confess, I did not start knocking on my neighbors’ doors to tell them about Jesus once I got home. Engaging in mission because it is an obligation does more to convey guilt than grace.
And yet, the story is told of how an angel overheard Jesus telling his disciples to “go into the world and make disciples of all nations.” In utter, shocked, surprise, he said to God, “You’re entrusting your mission to renew and redeem the world to them? To the ones who ran from Jesus in the Garden or even denied him? And to their followers as well?”
And God said, Yes.
The angel thought a minute and then asked, “So, what’s your Plan B?”
To which God replied, “There is no Plan B.”
Christian Mission is an obligation, but in the sense that God has obligated himself to do it through a very human, fractious, fallible church, for good or bad. As Martin Luther said, “God rides lame horses and whittles rotten wood.”
And because of that, we may think of the church in mission the way someone apparently did at a conference-related meeting I recently attended. “The problem is the mission board, and the whole idea of missions” she said. “And we all know what missionaries are like.”
Having been missionaries in West Africa, Becky and I, I felt that comment go through me, physically. After the meeting, to try out my best assertive peacemaking, I came up to her and asked what missionaries are like to her, and why. She said that missionaries are imperious and insensitive, and that the whole idea of sharing the gospel outside our own culture and congregations is imperialistic, arrogant and destructive of other cultures, so that the whole missionary enterprise of the church has done far more harm than good.
When I told her that Becky and I were missionaries in West Africa, she looked shocked, and said, “Well, I’m sure you weren’t that kind of missionary!” Thanks. But I did concede to her that any study of the history of Christian mission will reveal some very embarrassing things. Like “The Missionary War,” in Nigeria, 200 years ago, when British gunboats sailed up the Niger River and blasted some Nigerian villages into accepting missionaries. I suspect that those particular missionaries sang something like “Now Thank We All Our God.”
When I was a schoolteacher at a Native American-run school in Minnesota, one of the teachers sang a song by Floyd Red Crow Westermann, a Lakota Indian from South Dakota, in a school assembly, “Missionary, Missionary, go and leave us all alone; take your white god to the white man, we’ve a way of our own.” I tried not to take it personally; as I got to know the staff at that school, I heard the personal stories of some who were taken in their youth, against their wills, to boarding schools far away from home, some of which were church-run schools. There, every effort was made to wipe the Indian out of them; they were punished for speaking their own language or doing anything that resembled Native tradition. The assumption was that they had to become white to become Christian. A few of these boarding schools were later shown to have cultures of abuse, even sexual abuse, by some teachers. How dissonant the gospel sounds whenever it is shouted down at us from afar, and on high.
I was open with my fellow teachers about being a Christian, but I didn’t do any overt evangelizing; the guy who sang that song also had a bumper sticker on his car that read, “Custer Died For Your Sins.” Another one said, “Born Again Pagan,” so he had already heard Christian lingo, at least. I figured that I could be at least a Christian who would listen before he spoke, who would bless them instead of cursing their traditions. Hopefully my love for their children was my sermon about the love of God. And more than once, I had to admit, some aspects of their culture were more biblical than many aspects of my mainstream middle class American culture, such as their esteem for their elders.
Still, that song, “Missionary, missionary, go and leave us all alone,” wasn’t fair to those missionaries who helped keep their languages and cultures alive by putting them into writing, recording their stories and traditions, translating many things into their languages, in addition to the Bible. Nor is it fair to the missionaries who shared the hardships of their lives, who advocated for them in the halls of government and in the hostile court of public opinion, who suffered with them on the Trail of Tears, when Eastern tribes like the Cherokee, the Shawnee and the Pottawatomi were forcibly removed from east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma in the 1830’s, who made the wrenching resettlement with them, who even sometimes married into the tribe and became family with them. In some places, they and their Native families and friends created new communities together out of the best of both their cultures, under the guidance of the Gospel. Together, they were often the America that could have been.
Subpoint B to question number two is that the mission of the church is not to be an embarrassment to the church. It is, yes, an embarrassment whenever we act more like the first David than like his greater Son. But the best description I have ever heard of the church’s mission is, “One beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” There is nothing in Christian mission to be embarrassed about when it is done in the spirit and pattern of Jesus.
If the mission of the church is not to be seen as an obligation, nor an embarrassment, then what is it? That’s point C of the second question of the outline. And the first subpoint 1 is that the mission of the church is a gift, yes, I believe, a gift to the world, but also a gift to the church.
Back to Floyd Red Crow Westermann’s song, “Missionary, missionary, go and leave us all alone.” Let’s say that all the missionaries did just go home, starting from the very first missionary, Jesus. The word “missionary” just means “sent one,” or “one who is sent.” Jesus told his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” So, if Jesus had just gone back to the Father, for fear that his ministry to the world was imperialistic and would destroy other people’s cultures, that his love and teachings might offend someone (and they did), then where would we be? What hope would we have?
Or let’s say that all of Jesus’ apostles just turned around and went home. Then Floyd Red Crow Westermann couldn’t tell us to take the white God to the white man, because he would be only the God of a few Palestinian Jews. Or let’s say that the church’s missionary enterprise ended with the first Anabaptists. They were quite the missionary force. Many of us are here because our ancestors heard their compelling testimonies five hundred years ago. If they’d all gone home instead, then we could have held last summer’s Mennonite World Conference Global Assembly in a broom closet. And with none of the wonderful music from Latin America or Indonesia, none of the energetic and strategic missionary entrepreneurship of Ethiopia, without the spiritual warmth and depth of the Congolese Mennonites, and other such gifts.
I wouldn’t be in this pulpit if I did not believe that Jesus Christ is God’s greatest gift to the world. When we share this gift with others, that is not only a gift to them, it is to ourselves, because of the new relationships that form around Jesus, and the one new nation that Christ is convening out of all the nations.
But a gift comes with the invitation to accept it. So, secondly, let’s think of the mission of the greater Son of David, carried out through his church, as an invitation. First of all, it’s an invitation to the world. It’s also an invitation to the church, into partnership with God, and into wonderful partnership and relationship with fellow Christians around the world.
In the past, we likely heard World Mission Sunday sermons telling us to shoulder the burden of reaching the world for Christ, whether by going or by prayer, or by giving. And thank God for all who have gone, given and prayed. But the assumption seemed to be that, if we, from the white, wealthy, Western world, didn’t go, Christian mission just wouldn’t happen, as though they were the only ones who could do it.
But today, if you look through a list of open positions with Mennonite Mission Network or Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions or Virginia Board of Missions, or almost any other North American or European board of missions, most of the mission assignments today are for Bible teachers, either in seminaries, Bible colleges, or in Theological Education by Extension; that means the mission worker takes the class out to native pastors where they live, rather than bringing the pastor in from home to the school. That was my assignment in Burkina Faso. Or for medical workers, like Becky was, or school and hospital administrators, teachers or teacher trainers, linguists and translators, or in the case of Mennonite worker Anne Garber Kampaore, linguistic consultants to native linguists and Bible translators.
One role which Mennonites have pioneered is in Bible teaching to leaders of African Initiated Churches. Those are churches started by Africans themselves, churches which worship and minister in African cultural styles, with almost no historic connection to foreign missions and foreign missionaries. That work got started in the 1950’s, when new Christians in a cluster of home-grown churches in Nigeria realized that they needed help in basic Bible instruction. So they wrote to many different denominations saying, “Will you come help us learn and teach the Bible, even if we don’t want to join your denomination?” After contacting many American and European denominations, the only missionaries to show up were a Mennonite couple, Ed and Irene Weaver, from Hesston, Kansas. They pioneered the ministry of working with African Initiated Churches, to teach the Bible in culturally appropriate styles, to Africans with varying levels of literacy, without these churches having to become Mennonite. After all, we’re all on the same team finally, right? That also helps these local, home-grown churches become missional powerhouses in their own setting. Ed and Irene Weaver pioneered this same work in other parts of Africa, so that today, Mennonite workers are warmly welcomed by other Christians in many places as Grandpa Ed and Grandma Irene’s people.
But rare anymore are the calls for Americans or Europeans to go to lands untouched by the gospel to be the first evangelists and church planters. It’s not because the need isn’t there. It is. Nor is it because our Mennonite mission agencies no longer care about church planting and evangelism. They do. It’s because most countries around the world already have native, local churches, with leaders and evangelists who already know the language and the culture, in whom the Spirit is working just as powerfully and wonderfully as He did with American or European missionaries in decades past. Or Christian missionaries from other countries are partnering with us in this work. No longer are the new churches considered junior churches, nor daughter churches. They are our partner churches, and they define the shape and terms of mission and ministry with us in their own settings. They discern what kinds of help they need, and what kind of resource people we can offer, and that they accept. American workers typically go expecting to accomplish certain tasks, to find that they also come to know wonderful people and have wonderful relationships.
That’s not a repudiation of the way Christian mission used to happen, by the way. It is rather an answer to the prayers of missionaries past. And it conforms to the model of the greater Son of David, who came not to be served, but to serve. Christian mission is then, in subpoint 2, an invitation, an invitation to the church, into relationships of love, of equal and mutual dignity, of mutual and equal enrichment and empowerment for one another, across cultures, for the sake of a king and a global kingdom that unites us, and enriches us all.
Which brings us to the third subpoint of the second question, “What is the mission of the church?” At its best, Christian mission is simply imitation of the greater Son of David. As the greater Son of David campaigned with only the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, so do we, his army of disarmament. As the new and greater son of David, the King, entered the world at the bottom of the world’s pyramid of power, among the slaves, servants and subjects, to die a slave’s death, so does the church best engage the world with the gospel of Christ, not in superiority over others, but in solidarity with others. For mission to be Christian mission, it must reflect Christ in its methods, as well as in its message.
Do that and there is still no guarantee that suddenly the world will believe and convert. Convincing and converting the world is not within our power, nor our responsibility. We are responsible for our testimony, especially for its integrity. Does our testimony to Jesus display a costly and sacrificial love for God and for others in our actions and our attitudes? Do our words and our lives reflect the servant Jesus? If so, there is nothing for us to be embarrassed about, and everything to be excited about, in the mission of the New and Greater Son of David to the world.