Identity and Mission

Text: Matthew 9:35—10:8
Date: Pentecost V (Proper 6) + 6/15/08
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

In this “information age” we hear a lot these days about identity theft. You certainly have seen or heard the ads by a man named Todd Davis who boldly blabs his social security number (457-55-5462) to illustrate his confidence in the service of his company, Lifelock, which claims to guarantee the protection of your name and personal information from being stolen. Now, of course, this has to do with your legal and financial records and not the real essence of your identity which includes everything from your physical appearance, your genealogy, to your personality, interests, abilities, talents and vocation. Each person is a unique creation of God and it is the combination of all those traits and characteristics that determine not only what you do but who you are. And though a certain few traits, talents and abilities may have a major influence on what you do with and in your life, there is at the same time an amazing variety and freedom to pursue a wide range of occupations, vocations and avocations especially suited to your particular life, interests and identity.

For the Christian the question is, what is God’s will for your life? What and who has God made you to be?

As I was growing up the one most obvious interest, talent and ability I had was music. It included a wide variety of musical instruments, but all based on the foundation of years of piano lessons and an ability to hear, imitate and improvise. By high school that’s “who” I was, “the musician.” You can imagine, then, my incredulity and skepticism when the Kuder career planning test came back with “musician” in the number two slot. Number one for me, according to the test, was “funeral director” or “mortician!” Well, God wasn’t finished with me by a long shot and, as things worked out, “Lutheran pastor” is certainly related to the task of helping people to deal with death and dying.

A favorite illustration is about the young Christian man who determined that he wanted to be a missionary in France. After all his preparation and studies in theology and the French language he ended up an effective missionary in Quebec Canada! In other words he had the right idea and preparation, just a different place as it worked out.

The Word before us today is about the identity of God’s people in the world and what that identity means for their role, their purpose and mission in the world. [And let me say that these texts happen before us appropriately the Sunday of the week of our meeting with our Michigan District President, Mission executive and circuit counselor this Wednesday]. This Word hinges on the mystery of how God has chosen to bring salvation to people by means of transmitting His Word through people He has set apart to be, as He said through Moses, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” In the New Testament this same phrase is used by the Apostle Peter when he writes, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Your identity as “a royal priesthood” and “a holy nation” directly translates, then, into your mission as representatives of the kingdom or rule of God in the world and the work of a “priesthood,” that is, intercessors or communicators between God and the world.

The goal of God is to reclaim the whole earth and everything and everyone in it once separated from Him by the reality of sin, as He said, “for all the earth is mine.” He did this by coming into His world Himself in the Person of the Son of God in our own human flesh. According to the flesh He would be the offspring of Eve, the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of the house and lineage of the great king David, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He called and sent a man named Moses to speak His own mighty, delivering Word to His chosen people, the descendants of Abraham. By His Word they were set apart to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It is interesting that all the people of Israel were set apart as a priesthood of all believers before the institution of the Levitical priesthood for service in the temple. It is the same today in the Church. All the baptized have the identity of the priesthood of all believers. Only a few are chosen from among the baptized to serve as priests or pastors, shepherds (or under-shepherds) of the flock.

In today’s Gospel St. Matthew tells how Jesus chose twelve of His followers, His disciples, to serve as those uniquely sent as “apostles,” (the only time the word “apostle” occurs in Matthew!). He lists them by name and as well a certain ranking of importance. Peter is always first, a distinction not as much of honor as of service, and hardly a position to be sought.

The context of their being chosen is the summary statement at the beginning of our Gospel reading that describes Jesus’ earthly ministry in the three activities of teaching, preaching and healing. Through each and all of these activities the kingdom of God, the in-breaking of the reign and rule of God was happening in our world through Jesus.

When Jesus saw the crowds he always had the same reaction, the same heart-felt feeling, he had compassion on them. The compassion of God is (literally) His gut-wrenching love that sees a need and rushes to meet that need regardless of the loveable-ness of those to be loved. “For God so loved the world….” The text says that He had compassion on the crowds because they were harassed, a word that means to be whipped, flayed or beaten, and they were helpless, a word related to being thrown and helplessly tossed about, like sheep who have no shepherd.

Out of this compassion Jesus says to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” And having said that, He answers that prayer right away, and He calls and sends twelve of His followers to be these shepherd-laborers. It is interesting that here He sends them as shepherds “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Because later He will send them not as shepherds but as sheep themselves, sheep among wolves (Mt. 10:16). So there’s going to be much more to what developed as the pastoral ministry than in just this one text. And the point is that the office of the pastoral ministry takes nothing whatsoever away from the commonly held calling of all Christians as the priesthood.

They were sent to do what Jesus was doing: “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” all with the announcement, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” the reign of heaven, God is breaking in to history. This is what happens at every baptism, in every Sunday school lesson, in every sermon preached, in the sacrament of the altar—God is breaking in to our world and our lives with His power to heal, to save and deliver people harassed and helpless, who cannot heal and save themselves.

This is your identity as Christians, as a Christian congregation, as the Church of Jesus Christ: a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people set apart to bring the Good News of God breaking in to the world in His saving grace to seek and to save the lost, that is, everyone, “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth,” that Christ may be “head over all things to the church,” “that he might fill all things” (Eph. 1:10, 22; 4:10).

Now there is identity theft even in the church. That is those who, presumably from the best of intentions, go astray, lose their identity according to God’s clear Word and doctrine with the result that, when you lose your identity you lose your mission, or your mission becomes something other than that for which God sent you in the first place. There are no “lifelock” guarantees as the first and the last apostles will tell you. Peter was both blessed with great faith and also used as the tool of Satan and denied the Lord three times. And you know the story of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. Therefore is the struggle of daily repentance and faith necessary for the priesthood to hang on to your identity as God’s people. Hang on by means of God’s Word and sacraments and prayer. In this way we can be assured and remain as “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22).

Christ still seeks and saves, calls and sends His disciples as priests for the world. Christ still teaches, preaches, heals the sick, raises the dead and casts out demons out of pure love and compassion, the same compassion by which He has called you to Himself and sends you out to extend His compassion to the world that God so loves, now not only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel but to all nations. Christ fills you with your identity in Him and frees you to give to others what you have freely received.