Why Missions Matter
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
August 23, 2015
James 1: 22-27 (CEB)
You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. 23Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. 24They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. 25But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.
26If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless. 27True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.
Matthew 25: 31-40 (CEB)
31“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
34“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
37“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
Today we are going to talk about missions and why missions matter. But before I get into the importance of missions, I feel like I need to make a bit of a distinction between the kind of missions which I will be describing today, and a very specific kind of missions that might also be called “evangelism.” In a sense, the church as the “Body of Christ” in the world today creating opportunities for people to encounter Christ is an evangelistic mission. We are serving in the name of Christ with the specific purpose of leading them to a saving relationship with Christ. But there is a broader type of mission in which we serve in Christ’s name simply because we are called to serve — to “care for the orphan and the widow,” the poor, the sick, the “least of these.” That is the kind of missions we will be talking about today — simply serving the needs of the world and the people in it in the name of Christ.
So why are missions important to me? To express my answer to that question, I want to share with you a portion of a sermon I preached at Wesley United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, in February of 2006, just one month after returning from a mission trip to Uganda. I have been on many mission trips, and all have been amazing experiences, but none more than that time in Uganda. And I think I expressed myself best when the memories of that trip were still fresh on my mind. Here’s what I had to say:
“We often talk about ‘mountain top’ experiences; those times when we feel ourselves somehow closer to God and we are inspired to devote more of our lives to God and to our Christian journey. I have certainly had my fair share of ‘mountain top’ experiences, which have spurred me on to a greater devotional life, to a passion for teaching youth, and even into ministry. I now rank my trip to Uganda among those ‘mountain top’ experiences, but this one was vastly different. It is here that I really have trouble expressing what was so profound about my trip to Uganda. In coming down from the ‘mountain’ of my other experiences, I have felt comfort and even a ‘warm fuzziness.’ With Uganda, I came away with a feeling of deep pain and even heartbreak; yet I also felt closer to God than ever before. There is a song by the Christian band, FFH, in which the chorus goes, ‘Where you are is where I want to be, in your arms you will comfort me.’ These are the words that were in my head throughout much of my time in Uganda. There is so much that is not in Uganda, but God is there. There was never a moment in Uganda that God seemed to be absent; God is as much a part of the lives of the people in Uganda as God is a part of our lives. Perhaps even moreso because there is an openness in the lives of those people that seems often to be quashed by the ‘busyness’ of our lives.”
I share that with you to say this to you about why missions matter to me. I truly and deeply believe that it is through missions that we share the love and grace of God in Christ Jesus in some of the most real and tangible ways, and in so doing, we ourselves also experience Christ in new and profound ways. This is why James says to his readers, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Here’s how it works: when we are truly doing missions and serving the needs of the people in this world as Christ has called us to do, then we are making some sacrifices, perhaps even many sacrifices — sacrifices of our time, our resources, even our comfort and security. And it is through these mission experiences where we humble ourselves and make so many sacrifices that we come to a fuller understanding of the sacrifice Christ has made for us! Christ didn’t make salvation possible by sitting on his golden throne throwing back some potato chips and surfing the ‘net. Christ brought salvation to this world by hanging on a cross and dying in shame. Similarly, it’s hard for us to understand the power of Christ’s salvation in our own lives when we live day-in and day-out in the middle-class comforts of first-world suburbia.
Jesus teaches that God’s reign is characterized in the present, not by powerful works and miracles, but by deeds of love, mercy, and compassion, especially toward those most in need. If we cannot share freely and fully as Christ did, or if we do not make ourselves available to do so, this indicates that our relationship with God and the world is not as healthy and whole as Jesus’ triumph on the cross makes possible. It means we don’t understand the magnitude of love God showed to us as Christ died on the cross! Loving those for whom Jesus gave his life, particularly those who are undervalued, is a primary expression of our love of God and of our experience of God’s love for us. We have to give something of ourselves, something of our wealth, our comfort, our sweat and tears, just the way Christ did. And then I believe, I know, we will experience more fully the power of Christ’s death and resurrection; the significance of the sacrifice that he made for each of us!
And it goes the other way too. Think about the pictures of orphans and children in distress. Or the six million people living on the brink of famine in South Sudan right now. Or perhaps it is a family living in a tent in their front yard because their house was demolished by wildfires. Or think of a person who goes to sleep under a bridge every night, or wakes up to the sound of mortar fire in the neighborhood every morning. Imagine what it would mean to such people if you were to freely and generously address their need; to give a hungry person food, or build a new home, or offer shelter, and nothing is asked in return. It is a free gift, given because it is what that person needs the most. That’s like God’s love, is it not? That is what God’s grace is all about, right?
This is what it means to be a Christian, a disciple. We love those who probably can’t give anything in return. We do what we can to give them what they need. And we do that not with a goal of earning God’s love or anyone else’s, not to curry favor, or to make sure we are considered righteous at the end of time. We give as an expression of the love of God that is inside of us, bubbling up, spilling over, and flowing out! When Christians go out in missions and serve the needs of the people in this world with no expectation of anything in return, they are giving two gifts — one gift which satisfies a practical need, and one gift which opens a window to the love and grace of God. That is why missions matter!
As Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats, he is seeking to convey the importance of serving the needs of the least, the last, and the lost. Because “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Serving Christ fully invariably means serving the world through missions. It means not only that we make sacrifices by giving to missions — such as the Holston Home for Children offering or UMCOR projects, but also that we make sacrifices by making ourselves available to do missions. We take time to go and feed the homeless with the Community Kitchen, or we make arrangements to assist with disaster relief after tornadoes or flooding in our area or elsewhere. Or perhaps we even set aside the time and resources to travel to other places in the world where there are other pressing needs.
Christ’s ministry on earth was about establishing a whole new system of justice, a kingdom completely different from any kingdom the world had ever seen; a new social structure based on the God-given dignity and value of every human being. This parable of the sheep and the goats is a description of that new kingdom, and it is also a challenge to begin making that kingdom real today through our own works of compassion and mercy in Christ’s name. And this parable teaches that the greatest criteria for inclusion in this new kingdom is whether or not you saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not you gave yourself away freely in love in his name without concern for any return.
We may emphasize mission because we see it as a sort of “necessity;” a box that must be checked in order for us to gain eternal life. But that is not why missions matter; not at all. Missions matter because they teach us something about God in Christ Jesus in the most real way possible. We learn about sacrifice and most especially the sacrifice Christ made for us because in mission we have to give something of ourselves. And most importantly, all who are served by the generosity of others through missions learn about the abundant and unconditional grace of God offered freely to all people without any expectation of return.
Missions matter because they make a difference in people’s lives. God in Christ Jesus endured the most amazing, self-giving mission in the history of the world so that all people might have abundant life, so that we might have what we need most. Will we offer ourselves in missions so that others might have what they need most?