Friday, October 08, 2010

A Mission of Division

This past Sunday we got a little worried at church that our guest scheduled to give the sermon was not going to make it (fortunately, he did). In trying to figure out what to do about a sermon, I offered to try to speak on a couple of the readings for the week. I had made some notes about them in preparation for our Sunday School class which I was going to lead since Pastor Mark was out of town. Since our guest showed up, I did not have to resort to presenting an impromptu sermon. But I did figure I might organize my thoughts that I had and write them up for the blog. Helps me flesh out some of my thoughts and what I was studying. Maybe it will be a little bit of a kickstart to go back and get some other posts put together and published.

I assume those reading this know that I am in management and have been for many years. If you didn't know that, you do now. Being in management, I've had plenty of opportunities to get involved in strategic planning for various organizations where we worked on things like goals, visions, and missions. The idea of a mission – what an organization is trying to accomplish - struck me in the passages I had studied this past week.

Looking at John 3:16 we read (I'm going to use the ASV translation for everything in this post – another post one day about why that is maybe):
3:16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.

While we can't use just one verse to try to discern what God is up to with us, perhaps we can see in this passage what God's mission was in sending Jesus to the world. An example of a mission statement from a non-profit (Catholic Charities in Minnesota) may be something like, “We help individuals and families to reach their full potential as we call for justice in the community”. So we could rewrite John 3:16 in corporate-speak to something like, “God's mission is to give those who believe eternal life by sending his only Son”. Hopefully you get the idea.

Another example of a “mission statement” in the Bible may be found in Matthew 28:19-20:
28:19Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: 28:20teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.

Yes, it is the mission statement that Jesus gave to us as Christians. We usually refer to it as the Great Commission. The concept of missions and mission statements really shouldn't be foreign to Christians since we have missionaries and mission committees and we send folks on missions all the time.

Our Gospel reading this past week was Luke 12:49 - 56. In studying this passage, I came across an article by David Lose, History is written backward, sermons are written forward which I've relied on heavily below for some of the concepts in the passage. After reading the passage and Lose's commentary, my own thought was how much the passage struck me as what Jesus believed his mission was (this is the flipside of what management does in putting together a mission statement – what do the recipients/hearers of it believe it to be). Let's look at the passage:
12:49I came to cast fire upon the earth; and what do I desire, if it is already kindled? 12:50But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! 12:51Think ye that I am come to give peace in the earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: 12:52for there shall be from henceforth five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. 12:53They shall be divided, father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against her mother; mother in law against her daughter in law, and daughter in law against her mother in law. 12:54And he said to the multitudes also, When ye see a cloud rising in the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it cometh to pass. 12:55And when ye see a south wind blowing, ye say, There will be a scorching heat; and it cometh to pass. 12:56Ye hypocrites, ye know how to interpret the face of the earth and the heaven; but how is it that ye know not how to interpret this time?

We can see three distinct purposes (or missions) that Jesus says he was hear on earth for. The first is to “cast fire upon the earth”. Fire? That seems kind of extreme, doesn't it? Let's look a little closer.

Throughout the Bible fire is used in different ways and for different purposes. For instance, in the Old Testament fire was frequently used to signify the presence of God, such as in Exodus 13:17-22 when God led his people as a pillar of fire during the night. Fire coming down from the heavens is not just an Old Testament thing though. In Acts 2:1-4 we find (other versions describe the tongues as actual fire, not “like as of”):
2:1And when the day of Pentecost was now come, they were all together in one place. 2:2And suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 2:3And there appeared unto them tongues parting asunder, like as of fire; and it sat upon each one of them. 2:4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Fire is also used to show God's judgment as in Revelation 20:7-10 when Satan and his army are burned by fire:
20:7And when the thousand years are finished, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, 20:8and shall come forth to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to the war: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. 20:9And they went up over the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down out of heaven, and devoured them. 20:10And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where are also the beast and the false prophet; and they shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Finally, we see fire used to signify purification as described in Zechariah 13:9:
13:9And I will bring the third part into the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried. They shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people; and they shall say, Jehovah is my God.

and again in Malachi 3:2-3:
3:2But who can abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire, and like fuller's soap: 3:3and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them as gold and silver; and they shall offer unto Jehovah offerings in righteousness.

Fire can be seen as the presence of God, God's judgment and God's purification. When Jesus says he is here to cast fire upon the earth, that doing so is part of his mission, we can see this as a reference to himself. Being on earth, Jesus is the presence of God – like fire. And Jesus through his actions judges us and purifies us. His very existence accomplishes the mission of “fire” being cast upon the earth.

The second “mission” that Jesus indicates he is here for is baptism. Interestingly, we see that he is not talking about baptizing others. He is talking about being baptized himself. I suspect it is not the typical baptism we think of with water in some form or another. He is talking about baptism at its core – the idea of being immersed. For us Christians, baptism is being immersed in the Holy Spirit and in our faith in Jesus. For Jesus though, the immersion is in the opposite direction – he became immersed in the human condition and existence.

Finally we see Jesus indicating his mission is to bring about division. The Luke reading includes examples of division within the family. Lose explains in his writing that the division is between our interest in earthly concerns and qualities and our faith in the rule of Jesus that brings peace and hope. Perhaps Jesus used the familial examples since family was so important in that age. Being divided from one's closest family was probably about as close to the worst split from one's reality that could be experienced. Jesus indicates the division he brings will exceed even that.

Lose goes on to discuss the rest of the reading that is directed at Jesus' followers and they recognize, or fail to recognize, what is coming. Lose then touches on whether we Americans are really pushed to faith like Christians in other cultures (or for the earliest Christians). This is where I thought a connection could be made with the New Testament reading for the week, Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2:
11:29By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were swallowed up. 11:30By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been compassed about for seven days. 11:31By faith Rahab the harlot perished not with them that were disobedient, having received the spies with peace. 11:32And what shall I more say? for the time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah; of David and Samuel and the prophets: 11:33who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 11:34quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, waxed mighty in war, turned to flight armies of aliens. 11:35Women received their dead by a resurrection: and others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:11:36and others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: 11:37they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were tempted, they were slain with the sword: they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated11:38(of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves, and the holes of the earth. 11:39And these all, having had witness borne to them through their faith, received not the promise, 11:40God having provided some better thing concerning us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

12:1Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, 12:2looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

For this reading, I spent some time studying an article by Bryan J. Whitfield, Do you have a photo album? Do you ever look through the pages, remembering the people and events that shaped your life? He goes into some nice details about the passage and how it demonstrates highs and lows in the history of believers to that point in time. I particularly liked Whitfield's conclusion that the Hebrews passage includes both the good times and bad times in order to show that “our lot in life is not a measure of our faithfulness.”

For me, this connects back to Lose's writing about the challenges some Christians endure even today and the division they are willing to accept in following Jesus. As Lose explains, many of us today are not challenged to set aside our faith in “the good life” in order to also be Christians (and if I took the time to pull out my notes from my Prepared Christian class, I'd probably find some notes about a discussion in class on a similar subject which explains why some people are so open with their faith). Whitfield shows us that we are misguided in thinking that a “good life” or a “bad life” is connected to our faith. We can be very faithful yet have to suffer. Likewise, we can have a seemingly blessed life, yet not be very faithful.

And as Whitfield proposes, we are not here to just “stroll” through life. We are here to run a race as indicated in Hebrews 12:1. What race is that? The race to accomplish the mission we have been given? Part of accomplishing that mission is going to be our faith in Jesus and learning to walk after him, to become immersed in him, and to become divided from all those concerns that might keep us from our faith.

Have a blessed day!

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