This week a number of soldiers left from Winnipeg in order to go and help provide stability in Afghanistan. What do you suppose their attitude is? Is it one of looking forward to an exotic vacation or do they recognize that they are on a mission? From the comments made at their departure - comments focusing on the importance of their task and from the tears of farewell, not knowing when they will come back, it seems to me that they take this mission very seriously.
Why do we as followers of Jesus sometimes live on this earth as if we are here on vacation?
As Jesus gathered with his disciples for the last time, he gave them a mission. In Acts 1:1-11 we have an account of this last encounter. In this passage, we are reminded of the resurrection and resurrection appearances of Jesus. In the end of this passage, we read about how Jesus ascended into heaven. This is a very significant point in history. The Lord of all who spent 33 years walking on this earth, died on the cross and rose again was ascending into heaven. As Jesus ascended, the promise of his return was given to the disciples by the angels. These eleven verses focus all of history and in that context Jesus speaks about the in between time. He speaks about what will happen between the time of his ascension and the time of his return.
Verse 8 is the verse which speaks to this time in history - to our time in history. The first thing he says is that during this time, the disciples will be empowered by the Holy Spirit. The second thing he says is that his disciples will be involved in the task of world-wide mission. So in other words, we are not on vacation. God has given us a mission.
When you filled out the survey to discern the health of our church, one of the elements you identified as the weakest was need-oriented evangelism. This was not to say that evangelism is absent or that there is no concern for mission in this church. It was to say that if we want to develop into a fully healthy, growing church, one of the first things we will have to work on is to develop the ministry of evangelism, to give attention to the mission God has left for us.
In response to that, I would like to challenge all of us by examining Acts 1:8 and the ministry of evangelism in the book of Acts and then to suggest a vision for mission for our church. My hope is that as we are challenged, we will recognize the importance of the mission God has given us and take up our part in it.
In Acts 1:8, Jesus says, “you will be my witnesses.” I have often wondered if this is a statement of promise or of command. If it is promise, then it suggests that it is inevitable that God’s people will make the name of Jesus known. They will not be able to help but do it. Empowered by God, their life will be one of proclaiming Jesus. If it is command, then there is a mandate, something that must be followed. It really does not matter which it is because whether command or promise, we know that as Christians the most important reason why we live on this earth is to make the name of Jesus known to the world.
The passage also indicates that this gospel witness will begin in Jerusalem, spread out to Judea, to Samaria and then to the uttermost parts of the earth.
As we read Acts, we find that this is exactly what happened. In fact, some have suggested that Acts 1:8 is an outline of the book of Acts.
The gospel was proclaimed first in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. When the Spirit of God came upon the disciples, they began to proclaim Jesus with boldness and wisdom. Peter’s sermon is recorded and we learn that on that first day, 3000 people were added to the church. The gospel proclamation continued in Jerusalem in the chapters that follow and many more became God’s people.
In Acts 8:1, we read that because of the martyrdom of Stephen, a great persecution began on all the believers and they began to spread out beyond Jerusalem and proclaim the word in Judea as well. It is likely that gospel proclamation had happened in Judea before this because many people travelled from Jerusalem to the surrounding villages. This was a natural and easy transition because they were all the same kind of people. The persecution, however, forced a greater movement of gospel proclamation. We read in 8:1 that “the apostles were scattered throughout Judea…” Then we also read in Acts 8:40 that Philip traveled from Azotus to Caesarea preaching the gospel to all the towns. The path between Azotus and Caesarea is along the coast of the Mediterranean in Judea.
The first cross cultural mission took place when Philip went to a city in Samaria and preached the gospel there. The indication of Jesus that the gospel would also be proclaimed there began at this point. The Samaritans were partly Jews and partly Gentiles. They were not followers of the Jewish religion. Crossing this cultural barrier was not easy and special mention is made that the apostles had to come from Jerusalem in order to recognize the ministry going out to the Samaritans. The Spirit did not come upon these believers until the apostles came, but when the Spirit came, it was recognized by all that indeed it was God’s intention to have the gospel proclaimed to the Samaritans as well.
Although the mission to the uttermost parts of the earth was already implied in Acts 2:8-11, when people of all languages understood the gospel proclamation, it was not until Philip was sent to preach to the Ethiopian Eunuch that the gospel truly crossed over to the Gentiles. In Acts 8:26ff the ministry to “the uttermost parts of the earth” truly began. The next mission to “the uttermost parts of the earth” took place a few chapters later when God called Peter to proclaim the gospel to Cornelius who was a Roman centurion. Here again a special manifestation of the Spirit’s coming indicated to all that God’s message of good news in Jesus was for all the people. Just an interesting note. We read in Acts 8:40 that Philip had preached in Caesarea earlier. Had Cornelius heard this preaching? Was it hearing that word that prompted in him a desire to hear the message of Jesus. Whatever it was, he desired to know God’s way and God moved Peter to go and preach to him and the gospel made a further way into the “uttermost parts of the earth.”
The biggest move to proclaim the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth occurred when the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey. At that point, the gospel really began to spread over all the earth and it has continued to do so to this day.
The book of Acts is the story of the beginning of God’s work in building his church, proclaiming the name of Jesus and fulfilling God’s mission for his people in the world. But the fulfillment of this mission is not completed in Acts, it goes on to our present day and so we need to ask, “What is our part in that mission?”
Before we think about that, however, we need to take note of another important aspect and that is the work of the Spirit in empowering and guiding that work.
In Acts 1:8 we are told that this gospel witness would come when the Holy Spirit came. Jesus said, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you…” This is very important. Before I asked the question, “was the statement ‘will be my witnesses’ a promise or a command?” What we need to realize is that if we are filled with the Spirit, it is a promise for we will not help but make the name of Jesus known. I do not think we should push ourselves to witness out of duty, rather, we should seek to be filled with the Spirit of God and then we will witness. This is so because witnessing must be in the power of the Holy Spirit. William Temple has said, “Nobody can be indwelt by the Spirit of God and keep that Spirit to himself. Where the Spirit is, he flows forth. And where there is no flowing forth, he is not there.”
The disciples at that time were to wait because it was only in the power of the Spirit that they could do the work of witnessing. This is certainly what we see in Acts and as we examine the work of the Spirit in gospel proclamation, we learn four principles of the work of the Spirit in this work.
The first thing we need to note is that it is the Spirit who empowers the words of gospel proclamation. In Acts 2 it was not in the wisdom and power of Peter that the gospel was proclaimed on the day of Pentecost. Peter was a fisherman, not an orator. He was uneducated, not a scholar of the Scriptures. The only way in which he could so powerfully preach the gospel that day was because the Spirit of God empowered him to do so.
Nothing has changed. The only effective gospel proclamation is that empowered by the Spirit of God. Are we relying on the Spirit of God as we share the word about Jesus?
The second lesson regarding the ministry of the Holy Spirit is that it is the Spirit who makes the appointments for us.
Look what happened in Acts. In Acts 8:26 we read that the angel of the Lord moved Philip to the road which was being taken by the Ethiopian. Then in verse 29 we read that the Spirit told Philip to go to that chariot. In this instance, it was the Spirit of God who made the appointment and created the encounter and Philip simply responded in obedience to the opportunity and made Jesus known.
The same thing happened in the encounter of Peter and Cornelius. God’s Spirit was at work in Peter helping him to see that he had to minister to Cornelius. Peter was reluctant to do so, but God graciously prepared his heart for this special ministry. At the same time, God was also at work in the heart of Cornelius. He was already open to the gospel and God worked in him so that he could hear the gospel.
We do not know what is in people’s hearts. We do not know when they are ready for the gospel. The Spirit of God knows these things and so it makes sense to rely on the Spirit of God to direct our path.
I have not been as sensitive to the Spirit as I ought, but on one occasion as we were standing at the back of the church after a service, people were coming out of the church as they did every Sunday. I noticed something in the eyes of one individual and asked if I could visit him that afternoon. It was the Spirit prompting me because when I went there, it soon became obvious that he was ready to accept Christ and he did. God’s Spirit prompted me to recognize a need and to be willing to respond to it.
Are we sensitive to the Spirit of God’s prompting us to speak? How is the Spirit leading you? Who are the people God is putting in your path? Are you open to His guidance?
The third work of the Spirit of God is to convict people and to draw them towards Jesus. This is certainly what we see in the story of Cornelius. Although he had already lived a life of interest in spiritual things and was open to the gospel message, it was the Spirit of God who gave him a vision and told him to call for Simon.
The Spirit does not always speak to those who are lost in this direct a way and we do recognize that this was a unique occurrence, but there is no question that it is the work of the Spirit to draw people and to convict them and to prepare their hearts to receive the gospel message.
In John 16:7-11 we read what Jesus said, “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; 10 in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.”
The Spirit does all this work and what is left for us is to point to Jesus.
The final work of the Spirit is to guide the church in the plans it makes for gospel work. In Acts 13 we read that as the church was fasting and praying, it was the Spirit who moved the church to send Paul and Barnabas to Gentile regions.
Later we also read how the Spirit directed the path which Paul took leading him to Macedonia when he had in mind to go further north.
As we read all of this work which the Spirit of God does, it is amazing. Corrie Ten Boom tells the following story, “A woodpecker tapped with his beak against the stem of a tree just as lightning struck the tree and destroyed it. He flew away and said, "I didn't know there was so much power in my beak!" When we bring the Gospel there is a danger that we will think or say, "I have done a good job." Don't be a silly woodpecker. Know where your strength comes from. It is only the Holy Spirit who can make a message good and fruitful.”
We have learned two things from Acts 1. First, we have learned that God has given us a mission that reaches to the ends of the earth. Secondly, we have learned that His Spirit guides and directs the work of that mission.
If that is so, what is the Spirit saying to us? What is our part in the mission he has left us?
In response to the recognition that need oriented evangelism is one of the elements that we most need to work on, I have spent time in prayer on this matter. I have asked the Lord to guide. The prayer team of our church has also prayed about the direction of God for our church. I believe that God has answered that prayer and this morning, I would like to suggest to you a vision for mission for our congregation. I would also invite you to consider your part in this vision for mission. We have already looked at this vision for mission as a ministerial and so we would like to submit this vision to you as a congregation and ask you to think within your own heart to see if this might not be the direction God is calling us to in the work he wants us to do.
In the book Ever-Widening Circles. EMC Missions Silver Jubilee 1953-1978 the history of mission in the EMC was written about up to that point. I found it interesting that this congregation has had a vision for mission for a long time already. It was in November 1953 that the Ben Eidse’s were sent from this congregation to what was then the Belgian Congo. I also read with interest that “In 1954 the Rosenort Church started its own missions program with its own board and finances.” Then I also noted that the first EMC field for mission work was Mexico and that a couple from this congregation, Cornie & Tina Loewen were the first missionaries to Mexico.
Since that time, mission involvement has continued and I have to commend you for the solid involvement in mission that has continued over the years. I do not think I have ever been a member in a church that has had so many currently active missionaries. I say this to commend you on what has been.
But I also want to raise this to a challenge, particularly to the young people. Will this vision for mission continue? I would suggest to you that the first platform in our vision for mission is to continue that involvement with enthusiasm and support. I would challenge us to continue praying, to continue giving, to continue having mission night and even to find other ways to focus on mission. I would also like to raise that challenge one step further and encourage us to continue challenging and encouraging young people to go.
Step one of the vision for mission for our church is to continue and even strengthen involvement in and support of mission in the world.
A second focus is the support for regional mission projects. The church has not been content to send dollars and people to countries far away. There has been and continues to be much involvement in various mission projects in the surrounding area.
I have heard about the low German church in Lowe Farm and the effectiveness of that work. For many years, the church has sought to work at outreach in Woodlands, particularly through the VBS program. Camp ministries have also had a goal of outreach. Inner City Youth Alive and more recently Café 75 have been local outreaches and many have been involved in ministry at Union Gospel and Riverview Health Center.
I have also been impressed with the program of support for people going on short term mission. In previous pastorates, I have often wished that we would have had such a program in place.
Many of you are involved in various mission efforts in our local region even beyond those I have mentioned and I would like to encourage us to continue these efforts. This is not to say that we have to keep programs going just because we always have, but we do need to find ways of ministering to people in Manitoba and training and challenging one another to become involved.
Involvement in mission opportunities and projects close to home is the second part of our vision for mission.
As we reflect on these things it is obvious that as a church we have a strong mission vision. When you look at things that way, then why do we discover by your responses to the healthy church survey that evangelism is a weak element? I would suggest that we need to strengthen several elements that come even closer to home.
A third aspect of our vision for mission needs to be reaching the lost in our own home community. I know that we are not unaware of them nor inactive in trying to reach them. However, I wonder sometimes if the thinking that we are basically a Christian community has removed from us some of the urgency and concern to reach those who live right here but do not know the Lord. We need to do what we have done and strategize to do more.
Although a large number of people attend church, not all do. If we are to reach the lost in Rosenort, the first thing we will need to do is find out who they are. I do not mean specifically the individuals, although we will need to know that as well. I mean who are the people groups in Rosenort who are lost. Are they people who grew up in the church and have walked away from faith? Are they Low-German speaking people who have moved into the community for jobs? Are they people from other cultures who live here, but commute to Winnipeg or elsewhere for work?
Once we have understood, who the people groups are, then we need to seek the guidance of the Spirit of God to know how we can best reach those people groups.
For example, we know that at least some of the people in this area who are lost are low German speaking people who have moved here for the jobs in the area. This church has already targeted these people through the church in Lowe Farm. At this time, we are having a “sing stunde” in order to try to build bridges and reach these people. We need to recognize the importance of this and continue it.
I do not think that it would surprise you to realize that there are a number of people living in Rosenort who grew up in the church but no longer are interested. How can we best reach them? We will need to think this through. I do know that one way in which we can reach them is by living consistent and loving relationships with all people. Many people who know what it means to be a Christian but have rejected that way of life do so because they point to all the hypocrites in the church. I know that that is an excuse, but one thing we can do is remove that excuse from them by living lives of integrity and love.
The ministerial is at this present time conducting a survey of the community to find out who the lost people are. Please pray that God will guide us to understand our community and to know how to reach the lost who live among us.
The last part of the vision for mission involves all of us, but particularly those who work with unbelievers on a daily basis. To some degree all of us have contact with lost people. Those of you who are working with lost people on a daily basis have even more opportunity for this than some of us. If we are to be a church of true vision for mission, then all of us need to hone our skills in living evangelistic lifestyles.
Some of you have been asking me, “How can I witness at my work place?” That is a question that I think is very important. I am excited to be asked that question and I want to answer it. I also want to learn to live an evangelistic lifestyle myself.
There are two ways in which we will be addressing this in the next while. First of all, next Sunday, I want to talk a little more about this in the message.
Secondly, Don and I met last week to plan for a seminar in which we want to invite a speaker who has experience and understanding in this area to come and help us develop our skills in this area. Please pray that God will guide us in these plans and help us develop evangelistic lifestyles.
Robert C. Shannon writes, “There are four ways in which substances react to light. Some are transparent. The light passes through them. Some are translucent. They scatter the light. Some are opaque. They bar the light. Some are like mirrors. They reflect the light. We want to be mirrors, reflecting the light.”
How are you reflecting the light of Jesus into your world? I invite you to pray as we strategize, pray for the lost and offer yourself to be a messenger of Jesus.