Sunday, January 27, 2008

Social Action and/or Evangelism

Matthew 4:12-23 Westminster Presbyterian Church January 27, 2008


To drop the net or not to drop the net, that is the question.

Don’t you feel like this passage makes it look too easy? Jesus walked by and said follow me and I will make you fishers of people; and they immediately dropped their nets and followed.

Don’t you think a little drama, a moment of hesitancy and doubt would have made for a more interesting story? How we love drama. Well, at the heart of this message from Matthew, this invitation to discipleship, and how it applies to our lives we can find drama.

It has to deal with how this call to follow is lived out; what does it mean to make fishers of people? Jesus invited people to the movement that he was beginning called: the Kingdom of heaven club. Those who were part of this movement were those willing to listen to the message, and those willing to follow him. God continues to call us; as many of your experiences of hearing and accepting this invitation would tell us.

What amazes me is that, different from Peter and Andrew, we didn’t meet Jesus at la orilla. We didn’t hear his voice. He wasn’t standing there before any of us like I am standing in front of you now. And yet, the call was still heard; and there has been a response. This call to follow is essential to the movement, it is very much part of our church as we talk about people being called to various ministries, as officers, preachers, care givers.

And, this morning I want to focus on this second aspect of the heart of this message taught at that lake in Galilee. I will make you fishers of people, Jesus says. What is Jesus calling us to do? once I drop the net, what do I do next? This portion of the encounter may make us a little be nervous.

Often this aspect of the Jesus invitation to follow and make fishers of people, is considered in two ways.

  1. Following Jesus means Evangelism,

  2. Following Jesus means social action.

Both of these are valid responses to this invitation…but for some reason they have been separated as different missions of the church, and in no way related to one another.

For those who lean toward evangelism, you can cloth the naked and feed the hungry all day long, but if the recipient doesn’t know the good news of the gospel it is all for nothing.

For those who lean toward social action: It is offensive to proselytize and “win” converts,

it is imperialistic, and presumptuous.

There are churches, often labeled evangelical churches, where it is believed that the most important thing in responding to the call is to evangelize and make disciples. Seek conversions so that people will be saved. Look at what Jesus does immediately after these men follow him: He goes throughout Galilee proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. So some take on the very message Jesus and John preached: “Repent!” And they demand that people come to know Jesus for eternal salvation.

I must admit, there was a time in my life when I lived out a life of discipleship in what some may describe as evangelical. I had a passion to share the gospel, to tell people about Jesus, praying that opportunities would be given to me, doors would be open to share the good news. I genuinely was concerned about people’s eternal salvation, and was burdened and grieved by the possibility that those who had not been evangelized would suffer terrible consequences…fire, weeping and knashing of teeth. My grandfather, Chester, was worried I’d gone off the deep end.

And I’m sure for many of us, that kind of proclamation, that kind of discipleship makes us nervous, and even offends us. We are sensitive; and we don’t want to offend people by suggesting we may know more than they do about God. Also, our reformed theology teaches us a broad understanding of God’s love and grace, and that ultimately God is in control;if people are to come to know and follow Jesus, God will make it happen. We love it that St. Thomas said: Proclaim the gospel at all times, use words if necessary. And most of the find, we don’t find words very to be necessary, at least not when it comes to proclaiming the gospel!

The second way that many interpret this message to follow and make fishers of men is through social action. Look at what Jesus does immediately after he calls those fishermen to follow: He went throughout Galilee curing every disease and every sickness among the people. It is through our good works; ministries of compassion and mercy that we make fishers of men. Give time and money to charity. Open doors to the stranger. Clothe the naked, feed the hungry. These are very worthwhile projects. But what makes these distinctly Christian?

This past month, Pope Benedict, has announced to Roman Catholic mission workers that they need to be proclaiming that Gospel message far and wide, not in deed only but in words as well.

True missionaries preach the Gospel, aiming to bring converts into the faith, he said. All the world needs to hear, believe, and obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ.1

While this message from the pope may come as a surprise, it is not an unknown fact that the Roman catholic church is losing adherents in droves to more “evangelical” movements, led by people who seek to win converts and are growing immensely. Well, it is not an unknown fact that the Presbyterian Church and other mainline churches, including this one right here, that have shied away from proclaiming the good news in “word,” have also been losing adherents in droves. We find ourselves in a similar situation to the Roman and other historical churches.

We have done a pretty good job with ministries of compassion and mercy, in recent years, but, as I’ve said, been a little reluctant to use words when necessary.

At last year’s officer retreat the major goal of the elders was easy to identify: Grow the church. To have more members. Why? Surely we don’t seek growth just for growths sake, or simply to survive. Why grow: Now that was a little more difficult to name.

As I have wrestled with my own faith, my own call to follow; my own dilemma to make fishers of people…I have seen that so often evangelizing and social ministries are separated. During the time I was doing mission work in Latin America; seeking to build a ministry for college aged men and women. My faith was challenged as I experienced life, and a world different from the one I had known. People’s experience and understanding of God was different from what I had experienced; and as people shared with me their stories, I was challenged to reconsider what I had been taught and what I believed. I had to really examine what Jesus meant when he called me to follow and evangelize. If it is not to save people’s souls, then why proclaim good news? As one teacher put it, Chester, you don’t follow Jesus and proclaim good news for the salvation of others, rather, you do it for your own salvation. My own salvation, why, I was already saved right? Well, evidently not, for I was carrying a heavy burden. I was holding a net in my hands so that I could still have some control. The news I was preaching about Jesus wasn’t necessarily good.

What then, what was I supposed to be doing as a missionary in Santiago, Chile? As I was rediscovered my own call to discipleship, I was seeking discover anew what Good News meant.

Good news preached is preaching salvation, release from captivity, freedom from bondage.

As I sat with Diane in her struggling with the loss of her beloved husband, we sought words of comfort and words of hope found in our faith. As we remembered Dick’s life here on Thursday, we celebrated the resurrection, and proclaimed that death does not have the final word. Hope was proclaimed, even in our pain and loss.

And as I struggle what to do as one who wants to drop my net, follow and make fishers of people, I’ve come to discover that feeding the hungry and clothing the naked are matters of salvation. Yes, someone gets fed and clothed but, the one who helps to make that happen experiences salvation as much if not more than the recipient of these kind acts.

Donna has come up to the church every morning at 5:30 to be with the homeless women who have been staying here to help get breakfast ready. She said to me, you know, I don’t know what it means for the women that are staying here, but coming up here has really made me think a lot about my own life; I have learned from these women and gained new perspective.

This is salvation…discovering God in the midst of discovering something new about yourself.

As I look at what Jesus did after he called these disciples to follow, promising to make them fish for people, he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness. There is no separation of preaching and acts of mercy and compassion. The news that is proclaimed is GOOD NEWS! God is a God of love and mercy. This is a message to proclaim and this is a ministry to live out in our lives.

While there is no formula to how we are to live out Christ’s invitation to follow, I wonder if we as a church can seek to discover how we might participate in God’s mission in the world.

Can we live into our calling to follow through a merger of social action and proclaiming GOOD NEWS!

One evening last week I invited a neighbor on the verge of a serious confrontation with his grown son to come up to the church and check out what was going on, as we hosted homeless women. We’ve become friends and he knew I am a Presbyterian minister. He’s never been much of a church goer himself. But he and I get along with each other pretty well, and he trusts me, so he came with me. He met those up here from our congregation who were hosting, cooking food and sitting with the women that were here. He met the women. We stayed just for about 20 minutes and he left a changed man. He said, Chester, I needed that, it totally mellowed me out. You saw how angry I was, and I think I can just go home now and deal with my son later.

We can merge ministries of social action with evangelism; preach to good news and seek justice and mercy in the world. I love to see Grace’s enthusiasm for healing ministries. As I have sat in her classes and witnessed her apply this ministry of healing to her life, there is a beautiful relation in what is taught and practiced between proclaiming gospel, witnessing stories of Jesus healing, and then praying and seeking healing in the lives of those who seek wellbeing and wholeness.

This is participation in Missio Dei, God’s mission. Jesus invites each of us to follow and he will make us fishers of people. He encourages us to go throughout the city proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and sickness. The light has shined and those who had lived in darkness are drawn to that light; as a moth is drawn to a flame. This good news preached is one of joy and hope. For the yoke of our burdens, the bar across our shoulders, the rod of that which oppresses us is broken.

Do we drop our nets to follow…yes when the timing is right and we encounter anyone who needs to hear good news, and needs prayer and encouragement to help cure them. While for some this may imply a change in occupation and a new direction in their life…from industrial engineering to ministry. But, if you look at Peter, it wasn’t long before he was fishing again, at the end of the gospel of John. Casting his nets, he had to eat. Yet, he now knew that there was more to life than just his own lively hood. His life was to be shared with the world as he shared words of good news and sought to heal those who needed healing, working for the kingdom of God.


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