Monday, June 06, 2011

Jesus' mission to his neighbours

The theme of the mission conference in the Canaries was taken from Matthew 4:19: ‘come, follow me and I will send you out to fish for people’ (TNIV). As I reflected on that verse and my experience in the Canaries, I noticed something that I’d not really spotted or appreciated before. What follows is a rough outworking of that thought.

It centres on Jesus’ relationship with Capernaum as the centre for his mission activity. And what we see is that Jesus is a model for us: what he does is what he sends us to do Luke 10:1-11 (see previous post here).

So, what do we learn from this

Firstly, Jesus calls people to follow him, to be with him. In Mark’s account of the gathering of the Twelve, he tells us that Jesus ‘appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out’ (Mk 3:14a). In other words, discipleship is about being with Jesus and learning his lifestyle. So, what in particular stands out?

Jesus chose a base. Capernaum was a border town of 10,000 people; a trading and garrison town, a centre for tax gathering. It worth noting that Jesus lived there for long enough to get to know his neighbours and be known by them. So he mingles with fishermen (4:18); a soldier (8:5); tax collectors (17:24ff). It seems that he was based in Capernaum, while making forays out into other places.

Then he picked a team. Jesus is an outsider (he moved north east from Nazareth to Capernaum) and he picks a mixed bag of people to work with: Peter & Andrew are economic migrants from Bethsaida who’ve come over the border into Galilee because the fishing’s good and there are mouths to feed; Matthew, a local tax collector (9:9), local and probably unloved; James and John appear to have been locals working in their family business.

The church always works best when it makes use of those who are insiders, born and bred locally, bringing an insider’s sensitivity to the community’s needs; and outsiders who bring a different eye to the situation, a different set of experiences. It is when we blend these two perspectives that we stand most chance of hearing God and seeing how he wants us to fulfil the mission he’s given us.

And then he shared his story. I wonder whether Jesus made things in Capernaum as well as preached; is there anything that precludes us thinking that he was a carpenter in that town as well as a preacher of the Kingdom? I have never seen that question discussed in the commentaries and I’d quite like someone to weigh the evidence. After all, Paul remained a tent maker for his whole ministry and while Jesus clearly devoted his whole life to preaching towards the end of his time, what about the early stages of his ministry in Capernaum. Certainly he lived and ate with his neighbours and shared his story with them. And what he shared was two-fold:

revolution: the Kingdom of God is a revolution in our lives, a new allegiance and a new set of values live by; it’s results in a lifestyle of light for our neighbours (v10; cf 5:14);

repent: this is not a feeling but an action: we look at Jesus and say ‘that’s how I want to live’ and Jesus says to us ‘if you agree with what I’m saying, join my band.’ We repent, not when we feel bad about our behaviour, but when we change our minds about how we are living and what we are living for.

Secondly, Jesus tells his new friends that they will be fishing for people. Now this is an ironic play on the previous jobs of Andrew and Peter, James and John. He probably didn’t invite tax collectors to fish for people! His call is also an ironic reversal of the prophetic tradition – where fishing was an image of judgement: Jer 16:16; Hab 1:14f. As ever Jesus turns a well-known image on its head. How does Jesus want us to go about this task? Three thoughts come to mind.
The first is that we can only do this as we follow in his footsteps. Discipleship is key to doing mission. We cannot share what we do not know and live; mission grows out of knowing Jesus, knowing his word and living his life. It is not a technique that we learn or campaigns that we run for short periods.

The second is that we do this in his power. As we follow, he fishes through us. How can we do what Jesus asks us to do in Luke 10? By living our lives and allowing Jesus to draw people to us for those life-changing conversations & encounters and trusting him to speak through our words and our lives in such a way that they begin to change their minds about how they should be living their lives.

And finally, all this happens in his time. This means that we can be both confident and relaxed about all this, knowing that if we’re living as his disciples, he’ll be fishing through us. We also need to recognise that the response will be mixed: Peter, Andrew, James and John responded pretty quickly, though 4:18-20 was probably not the first time they had met. The centurion that we read about in chapter 8 had been Jesus’ neighbour for a while, he’d seen who he was and what he stood for and, when he had a particular need that he couldn’t get addressed any other way, he came to Jesus. The collectors of the temple tax who engaged Jesus in discussion in17:24ff – possibly friends of Matthew – knew enough about Jesus to know that he had interesting views on the payment of taxes! Some rejected it, apparently (11:23f).

I saw this way of working as I visited churches and communities in the Canary Islands. I was struck by the mixture of insider and outsider, those born and bred on the islands and those who have come as missionaries. All the churches are a rich mixture of nationalities, each of which are bringing their own perspectives on life and discipleship.

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