Local Man Becomes Missionary: Survives!

Jer 29:1-14 the letter to the exiles
Matt 28:16-20 the great comission

Trivial Gospel?

Probably one of the top 3 best known lines in the bible, next to “cleanliness is next to Godliness” is
For God so loved the world that he sent his only son…
–  from John 3:16.

The two phrases have a lot in common. Although “cleanliness is next to godliness” is not actually in the bible, many people think it is – and it seems to fit in with what people expect to find in the bible  –  a pithy moral aphorism that is utterly, thoroughly trivial.

That is why it is so similar to the other phrase, “For God so loved the world...”.  The love of God for the world gets turned into soft, happy-feeling, exclusively personal – often self-centered trivial mush that has nothing to do with the world as it is:

  • The world of  Wall Street and Main Street,
  • the world of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan,
  • the world of Africa-town Mobile,
  • of North Baldwin County,
  • and of Darfur, Sudan.

God’s non-trivial love

What does it mean that God loves the world to the point of sending his son for the world’s redemption?

If it means anything, it cannot be trivial, and if it is about he world it cannot be merely personal.

I believe that God does love me, personally, and that Jesus Christ is the source of my redemption; and the same for you, personally.  But I believe a lot more.  I believe that God really does love the world that he made.

I believe that God especially loves the people he made, male and female, in his image.  Not just the well washed ones that come to Presbyterian churches on Sunday, and not just the well-meaning ones or the ones that believe in freedom and democracy.  I believe that he loves “the world” as John said.

That means that I believe he grieves when his humans, when we

  • harm one another,
  • oppress one another,
  • turn on each other in violence,
  • and when we kill each other.

How could any father watch two sons whom he loves in battle with each other, and not grieve?

Our Missionary experience in former Yugoslavia

We served as Presbyterian missionaries in Croatia, (formerly, one of the republics of Yugoslavia) for 10 years.
Croatia is almost entirely Roman Catholic.

Breaking away from Yugoslavia to become independent meant going to war with the Yugoslav republic of Serbia – the power-broker in Yugoslavia.

Serbia is almost entirely Orthodox Christian (like Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox – part of the Eastern Orthodox family of Christianity).

So here we have two ostensibly Christian nations at war with each other.  It was brutal.  We lived within sight of bombed-damaged churches, within a 25 minute drive of totally destroyed villages, and also, of more than one mass grave.

Whatever the reasons or justifications for the separation or the war, I agree with the Catholic Bishop of Zagreb, capital of Croatia who said if just 10% of his people were real Christians, the war could not have happened.  But it did.  And God grieved.  And Christianity failed to stop it.

We lived across the street from a school which had graffiti painted on the walls: when we learned enough of the language to understand it, we knew that ethnic hatred was alive and well.

Though we lived in Croatia, we lived next to a Serbian Orthodox church that served the minority Serb population that did not flee during the war.  Twice, we had to call the fire department because someone had started a fire there – even though the war had been over for several years.

I walked into a store with my first son when he was still quite young.  When the cashier figured out that he was an American little boy she said “you don’t like those bad Serbs, do you?”

Afterwards, outside, Benjamin asked me who the Serbs were and why they were bad?  The lesson she had intended to teach him about whom to hate had not been completed.  But
his friends knew – so the circle could continue again.

The Charge: make Disciples

God does love the world.   And we all have been charged with the message of the gospel, to go into the world and to make disciples.  Not to make nominal-christians, but to make disciples of Jesus Christ; people who:

  • follow him,
  • study him,
  • learn from him,
  • imitate him,
  • and start to resemble him in their lives,
  • morally,
  • socially – shall I say it?
  • yes, even politically.

Disciples at the Seminary

I taught bible at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Croatia.  The school was an international one: we drew students from all across the region from formerly Communist countries from Ukraine to Albania.

This meant that yes, we had students from Orthodox countries and from Catholic countries.  Yes, we had Serbs and Croats – and they were not enemies.

In fact, that school was in some ways a model of the kingdom of God.  Those students:

  • studied together,
  • worshiped together,
  • ate
  • and worked together,
  • and lived on campus together

– because they had taken seriously the call to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

Good news – and spin

We need to look at one aspect of this common text we call the Great Commission in Matthew: what exactly is the “gospel” that we are supposed to be going into all the world with?

We Christians usually think of the content of the message of the gospel when we hear that question – but let us step back.  What did the word “gospel” mean in Jesus’ day?

That word, “gospel” of course literally means “good news” but that is not what people thought of first when they heard the word back in Jesus’ day – any more than we think of a heart in flames when we talk about heartburn.

– Gospel was a specific term used for official announcements from the Roman government.

– Gospel was the announcement of the birth or succession of a new emperor, or of a military victory.

– Gospel was an official proclamation from the Empire-of-the- moment to the subjects under its control.  We would call it propaganda or spin – spin with official power behind it.

Jesus was intentionally subverting the Empire of the day when he told his followers to go into the world and preach the gospel.

The gospel according to Jesus is the proclamation from the real Emperor of the world – from the God who loves the world.

There is good news from the Emperor: it is precisely that God loves the world – “red and yellow, black and white,” Serb and Croat, Arab and Jew, and has sent his son to redeem us from the false empire of evil; real evil, not trivial evil.

The Serbian and Croatian students at the seminary in Croatia  understand that Jesus died for both of them.  They understand that the clear demand of the gospel is that they  become  disciples, not merely nominal believers.

And they understand that as disciples, they must  recognize one another as sisters and brothers in the one body of Christ.  That is anything but trivial.  They are not going to be putting each other into mass graves.

God is a God of missions.  He is never content to simply leave the status quo alone.  He is a god who calls us not to sit in our circle of look-alike, think-alike people but to extend his love to an ever widening circle.

Where is our mission?

Where are there people who are different from us?
– That is where we are called to go with God’s love.

Where are there people suffering or poor?
– That is where we are called to go with God’s love.

Where are there people discriminated against or shunned?
– That is where we are called to go with God’s love.

Perhaps it is in to the trailer courts of Baldwin county, or in the villages of the Yucatan peninsula.

It may be to the people with foreign accents who serve us our meals at the restaurant, or the people outside cutting the grass.
It may be to people sitting in tiny cells for decades on death row in Atmore.

God is a god of Missions, and therefore, we are a people of missions.

Not just in good times when it’s easy, when we have extra, when we don’t miss it, but in times that are difficult and challenging, times when mission costs us, even when it requires sacrifice – just as it did for the first 11 people who heard that call from our Lord.

As of April 2008, the PC(USA) has 239 long-term mission workers serving in 63 countries. Of these 209 are mission co-workers and 30 are long-term volunteers. In addition 24 Young Adult Volunteers are serving internationally.

Is that what missions means?  To cross a border?

Yes of course, going into all the world with the good news of the gospel must include the world.

But that is not all it means.  All the world includes Alabama.  All the world includes Baldwin county.  All the world includes Foley.

As the prophet Jeremiah said, seek the welfare of the city in which you live now – for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  In its shalom, you will find your shalom.

Making disciples is the goal for for all nations – not just foreign ones.  We are all God’s missionaries; all of us have been called.  Some of us need to leave home to answer that call.  Most of us will be called to missions right in our own back yard.

Short Term call
Some of us will be called to go on short term mission trips – Answer that call!  See the world, see how other people live first hand.   Be a part of the solution  with your own hands; and then come back and share the vision with the church.

Long term call
Perhaps God is going to call one of you younger people to give a significant part of your life in long term cross-cultural missions; be open to that call, and when it comes, embrace it!

Go into the world outside these doors and proclaim the gospel, the subversive message from the Emperor of the Universe:  that God loves the world in the most non-trivial way possible.  The world is desperate for real disciples who actually believe the gospel!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Steven Kurtz, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Gulf Shores, along with his wife, Michelle served as Missionaries of the PC(USA) for two years in Romania and 10 years in Croatia.  Steven taught Bible at the Evangelical Theological Seminary and worked closely with our partners, the Reformed Church in war-torn former Yugoslavia, coordinating aid from PC(USA) congregations to pastors and congregations in the early post-war years.  Steven and Michelle have two sons.


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