In our gospel reading for today Matthew gives us a comprehensive description of Jesus’ ministry – he traveled around a lot, he was a rabbi who taught in the synagogues, and he cured “every disease and every sickness.” He had compassion for the people he encountered on his journey, sensing that they were vulnerable and without a leader, as sheep are when they are without a shepherd. Jesus himself notes that there is great need for this ministry, but few who are available to carry it out. His ministry is motivated by compassion, and it results in healing and liberation.
Many of us have Muslim friends or neighbors, and it might come as a surprise to learn that this description of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is also found in the Qur’an. In Islam, Jesus is regarded as one of the five greatest messengers of God who lived in the first century in Roman occupied Palestine. They believe Jesus was born to the virgin Mary, who is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an. In fact, chapter 19 is named after her and she is considered a prophet of God. In Islam, as in Christianity, the birth of Jesus is considered to be miraculous, the only such birth in human history. Although Islam does not profess that Jesus is also God, he is regarded as a prophet, a teacher, a miracle worker and a healer. He gave sight to the blind and brought the dead back to life. Jesus is also the only prophet in the Qur’an who is given the title of al-Misah, or Messiah, which means Anointed One. Muslims also believe that Jesus will return in the end time to bring justice to the world. We have more in common with our Muslim friends regarding Jesus than we often realize.
After describing Jesus, Matthew names the twelve who formed the inner circle of his followers. We’ve heard these names before, but perhaps we aren’t aware of how diverse they were. Peter and Andrew were brothers, fishermen who worked with two other brothers, James and John. The disciple who was given the designation as “first,” Peter, would deny knowing Jesus three times after he was arrested and then go on to be the leader of the group. The last, Judas Iscariot, would betray him to the authorities, which led to his arrest and crucifixion. Matthew worked for the Roman authorities as a tax collector, while Simon the Cananaean was a member of a group called the Zealots, who actively worked for the overthrow of Rome. Jesus called a diverse and imperfect group of people to follow him, none of whom had any claim to power or authority.
When Jesus commissions these people to go out and bring the mission to others, it is an exact duplication of the description of his own ministry. In spite of their different backgrounds, he has such confidence in them that he tells them they should “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Jesus not only sends them out with power to affirm the nearness of God’s kingdom, but to announce it by using the very same words as he does: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” And Jesus is not just speaking to those twelve named disciples. For Matthew, Jesus’ followers include the original audience as well as his future audience, us. We are expected to emulate Jesus in word and deed.
We might feel a little uncomfortable with that image, after all, we do not think of ourselves as God. But Jesus himself points out that a good teacher should be recognizable in their student as much as a master craftsman’s work can be seen in the work of their apprentice. In Matthew, when Jesus commissions his disciples there is, along with his great compassion for the people they are going to minister to, a sense of urgency about the need for the mission. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…” It is clear that an important part of Jesus’ mission was to identify and train followers who would then be empowered to carry on the mission for which Jesus was sent into the world.
Nothing much has changed in two thousand years. We are still imperfect and diverse people claimed as followers in our baptism, called and commissioned to carry out the mission of God in Jesus in the world. Our middle and high school students are leading us in worship today. We are hoping to build on the foundation we have provided for them, so that they will be just as empowered to continue that mission of bringing God’s compassion, mercy and justice to the world. We don’t want them to have some sort of lukewarm idea about what being a Christian is about. We want them to have practice in naming and in sharing God’s role in their lives and in the world. We need them to be equipped and prepared to go out in the world and make other disciples, by being able to explain their faith, to teach others about it, to offer acts of mercy and compassion and model the life of Jesus in their words and actions.
Unfortunately, there are too many competing factions out there, and we are tempted to give in to those temptations and just hope that whatever our children are taught by confirmation will be enough to equip them for the rest of their lives. Our faith often becomes an occasional part of their lives while other competing factors become priorities. We remarked at our last council meeting how we experienced the Sabbath as a time set aside for church, family and friends, something our children have never experienced. Yet in spite of these challenges, God still calls us, people of all ages, backgrounds and talents, to carry out God’s mission to the world.
We are blessed to have so many young people who attend worship regularly and volunteer their time. Their abilities and commitment are evident in their leadership today, and we thank God for them and for their families, who encourage them and bring them to worship. They are not the future of the church, as is so often said, they are the church and we thank them for leading us in worship today! Amen.