Saturday, July 5, 2014

Finding Samaria

There are few scriptures used more in protestant churches than Acts 1:8. It is often the vision statement for both the missions committee and the evangelism committee. At my church it is our mission statement- period! Our pastor often reminds us that we are an Acts 1:8 congregation. This means that we are in ministry from the neighborhood to the nations; from Tampa to Tanzania; from Hillsborough to Haiti; from the Gulf to Guantanamo Bay (As an aside, is it just me or are way too many pastors in love with alliteration? Do they teach it in seminaries? And if so, WHY? Thus endeth my rant!). These final words of Jesus before he ascended to be with the Father give us marching orders, a purpose that the entire family of God should be able to embrace. We are called to carry on the work of Jesus, to be witnesses to all he has said and done. But as I preached in a sermon many years and as my pastor referenced last Sunday, there are subtleties to this passage as well. And one big, honkin' question for each of us as we seek to be witnesses for the Christ. Let's explore!

Over the 2000 years or so since Jesus made this statement it is possible that we have changed the meaning of the word "witness." For many in the church, to witness now means to tell people about what the Savior did for us with the intention of influencing them to attend the church of our choice. Telling people about Jesus is a worthy and noble thing. But to believe that is all this scripture requires of us is to discount the first words of the verse. Jesus indicated that we would "receive power" when the Holy Spirit comes on us. That power should enable us to rattle hearts and minds as we change the world by loving the way Jesus loved. Want people to really hear the Good News? Then SHOW THEM what it means to experience the grace, mercy and unconditional love that can only come from knowing the Messiah. Of course we need to preach the Gospel and tell people about the wonders of our Savior. But as 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us, without love those things mean nothing. And we are commanded to take that love to our communities (Jerusalem), our nation (Judea) and to the very ends of the earth. It is our purpose as a church. Each is important. We often think that foreign mission carry some extra badge of honor. In fact, as Pastor Matthew eloquently pointed out in his message, the trip to our neighbor's house to show them Jesus is often harder than a short-term mission trip. The Great Commission reminds us that we are to GO and TELL. The location is not what's important. God can use us wherever we may be, and God will send us wherever we are needed. Even if it is simply next door.

There is another question this passage should raise for many of us: Why did Jesus include Samaria on this list? The answer is painfully obvious but often ignored. Jesus spoke to a primarily Jewish audience. And that audience HATED Samaria and Samaritans. First century Jews would travel hours out of their way so that their feet would never touch Samarian soil. Samaritans were scorned. Yet Jesus refused to see them that way. And by including Samaria in his Acts 1:8 list, he was making the same point he made with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Everyone is our neighbor. Everyone needs to hear about the love of God whose name is Jesus. Most importantly, everyone needs to experience that love in their lives. The call to be witnesses is a call to not only go to the ends of the earth, but to reach out to the people we dislike the most, to those that we think of as "the least of these." 

When I preached my sermon on this matter some 25 years ago I concluded with the question I will leave you with today. Matthew mentioned it last Sunday as well. As you consider what it means to be a witness for Jesus, to share his love with your neighbors and with the world, ask yourself this: Where is my personal Samaria? More to the point, WHO are the Samaritans in your life? All Christ-followers are called to be witnesses. Not everyone will go to Africa, or take a mission trip every summer, or preach in the town square. God has a purpose and a place for us all, and we know we have been given a power from the Holy Spirit to do these things. But there is one thing I can promise you. To truly be a church that is a witness for Jesus, we are all going to have to visit our personal Samarias and love our personal Samaritans. Even the ones across the street. Let's get crackin'!!!

Because of Jesus,

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