Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Luke 17:11-19
The word "mission" does not translate an essential New Testament word, and does not appear in any English translation of the New Testament gospels. The word is used in several translations of Galatians and 2 Corinthians to refer to the church’s outreach program (Gal. 2:8 and 2 Cor. 11:12), and historically the mission of the church was associated with its missionary activities. Today, we refer to the "mission" of the church to mean its purposes or goals, as in the church’s "mission statement." We rarely use the word "missionary," and we tend to think of the church’s mission in terms of service and social action.
Yet, the reading from the gospel of Luke reminds us that the church began with outreach to outcasts. When lepers ask for mercy, Jesus heals them. And when a Samaritan among the healed lepers comes to Jesus to thank him, Jesus says, "your faith has made you well." (Lk. 17:19) Jews and Samaritans were enemies, because the Samaritans were the descendents of the ten northern Israelite tribes and the foreign peoples moved into Samaria by the Assyrians, who conquered the area in the 8th century BCE. The Samaritans read the Hebrew scriptures and worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they also read other scriptures and worshipped in other ways. In the time of Jesus, Jews detested Samaritans.
Yet, the Jews who became the first Christians reached out to Samaritans, as we read in Acts 8:5, and that outreach is reflected in this story in the gospel of Luke about the ministry of Jesus. We cannot know if Jesus actually healed ten lepers, one of whom was a Samaritan. But we do know that in the first generation of the church, Jews proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah reached out to non-Jews — to Samaritans and then to Gentiles.
In both the mission to Jews and the mission to non-Jews, the scripture of the first generation church was not the gospels of the New Testament, for these testimonies had yet to be written. The church’s mission at the very beginning involved telling the story of Jesus the Christ, as the fulfillment of Jewish scripture. Keep this in mind, as we consider the reading from Jeremiah’s book of prophecy.
Jeremiah lived in Jerusalem, which was the capital of the southern kingdom of Israel until its conquest by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The prophet saw the leaders of Jerusalem sent into exile in Babylon, and conveys to these exiles God’s counsel: "Take wives and have sons and daughters . . . multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." (Jer. 29:6-7)
This may be practical advice, but it is surprising nonetheless to find exiled leaders from Jerusalem being told to intermarry with Babylonians and also to pray for the welfare of their oppressors. Might first generation Jews, who were followers of Jesus the Christ, have understood this passage as calling them to "seek the welfare" of all the peoples of the Roman Empire? This would explain why the Jews who led the church in its first generation supported missions to Samaritans and Gentiles.
The scriptures of the Israelites, which were the scriptures being read in the first generation of the church, proclaim that God was reaching out through the suffering of the covenant people to all the nations. For Paul and others it seemed that the crucifixion of Jesus was God’s way of reaching out to all peoples, through the life and witness of the church that arose to celebrate the love of God known in Jesus Christ.
Why mission? Being Christians, being part of the church, reaching out to others, sharing our faith, and welcoming them into our community of love. Our mission is celebrating the love of God, and we can only do that by sharing our worship and our witness with others. All Christians are called to embrace the mission of the church by reaching out to strangers, to outcasts, and to enemies. This is the work of God.
We do this in service and social action, but also through worship, teaching, and witness in our personal lives. In our secular world, we have many opportunities for personal witness.
Jeremiah saw in the conquest of his people by the Babylonians that faith required an expanded understanding of God’s purposes. So, Jeremiah told his friends in exile in Babylon that their view of God, as the defender of their nation, was self-serving and fell far short of God’s love for all peoples. Speaking for God, Jeremiah wrote to friends: "Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."
How should Christians in America respond to the dangers of our time? What is our mission now?
We should pray for our enemies, in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere. We should consider that God is calling us to reach out in new ways — to those who consider America to be evil, to those who have become more impoverished as a minority of Americans have grown more affluent, to those who pray to the one God using Arabic. We should seek the welfare of our enemies, because God calls us to seek our own welfare in the welfare of all peoples.
We should support our government in so far as it seeks to strengthen the rule of law through international collaboration. But our calling, as Christians, goes beyond our responsibilities, as citizens. Patriotism is not the measure of our faith. The church is called to offer healing and reconciliation to outcasts and enemies. The good news of God’s love revealed in the New Testament is to be shared with all people, in all nations, in all kinds of ways.
This need not mean calling on non-Christians to become Christians, but we ought not to shy away from inviting others to join the church and welcoming them when they do. Most of us are in the church, because that is where we feel accepted and sustained in our efforts to be better persons. We should offer that opportunity to others — freely, warmly, openly.
But our mission also means simply "getting on" with others, as good neighbors, whether or not they are Christians. The gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus, a Jew, healed a Samaritan. Today hundreds of millions of people who are not Christians cry out for justice. We are called to respond, whether or not these people become Christians. Through us God seeks the welfare of our enemies — not only as well as our welfare, but also as a way of securing our own welfare.