Christ's Mission Strategy - Matthew 15:21-28 Rev Denis Conomos
CHRIST’S MISSION STRATEGY
The gospel reading for today (Matt15: 21-28) has Jesus healing the daughter of a Canaanite woman in the city of Tyre in the region of Phoenicia in present day Lebanon. The girl was demon-possessed. Why was Jesus in Tyre? This was a gentile city. The people worshipped pagan gods.
Jesus had been ministering in the Jewish region of Galilee, teaching the local people and healing them. He had performed great signs and wonders, but few were responding with faith. Jesus was realizing that a prophet is without honour in his own district.
Opposition had been increasing from the Pharisees. They were accusing him of breaching the Mosaic law by healing on the Sabbath. His prophetic insight told him that in time, they would kill him. That same insight told him that that time had not yet arrived. He had more work to do.
He wanted to spend time alone with his disciples to prepare them for their own evangelistic mission in the villages of Galilee. For both reasons, to avoid the distraction of the Pharisaic opposition and to have some private time with his disciples, the district of Tyre in what Lebanon is now offered a suitable refuge.
On entering the city of Tyre, he was approached by a Canaanite woman. Mark, who tells the same story, called her a Greek, but that often stood for the word gentile. Canaan was the name given to that region. She pleaded with him to heal her demon-possessed daughter.
Jesus did not reply. Perhaps he was sizing up the situation. The disciples urged Jesus to send her away. She was being a nuisance.
Finally, Jesus speaks to the Canaanite woman. ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,’ he said to her. No. It was not racism. More about that later.
The Canaanite woman persisted. She knelt before him and repeated her plea for help. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’
This is the confrontational Jesus, a manner he used to stimulate discussion. He used it with Nicodemus. He used it with the woman at the well at Sychar.
Surprisingly, the Canaanite woman turned Jesus’ analogy to her own advantage. ‘Yes. It is right, Lord, to give some of the children’s bead to my daughter. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.’
In other words, if dogs can be left food to eat from what falls on the floor, surely a Canaanite girl can be given healing. Jesus is at last convinced. This woman has faith in him. ‘Woman, you have great faith,’ he said to her. ‘Your request is granted.’
This story has a great deal to teach us about the conduct of Christian mission. Firstly, to engage in mission we have to have a strategy. Jesus’ mission, the reason he was sent to earth, was to bring God in human form to earth, to teach, to heal, and to die for the sin of the world.
What is our mission? As Christians we have our mission too. We were told what it is by our Master. ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ (Matt. 28:18-20)
Jesus’ mission was a dangerous one. He was to challenge a deeply entrenched priestly order. He was to tell the powerful scribes and pharisees that they were misusing the Mosaic law. He was to tell them that healing on the Sabbath took precedence over the letter of the law. In so doing, he would alienate the most powerful people in Israel. In the end, it would cost him his life.
Our mission is a dangerous one too. Jesus did not want to leave his disciples under any illusions. ‘If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also, he told them’ (John 15:20)
ACC ministers are being brought before Synod Discipline Committees. They are facing having their ordination suspended. We cannot say we weren’t warned. We cannot complain to God that he is not protecting us enough, when his own Son was crucified.
So, the first thing we learn from today’s gospel reading is that as Jesus’ mission involved sacrifice, so will ours.
The second thing we learn from this gospel story is that Jesus had a strategy for his mission. He wasn’t going to do it alone. He would enlist disciples to help him. He would teach and train them. That was why he had left Galilee and was in Phoenicia. He wanted to get away from the crowds and the conflict of Galilee to be alone with his disciples, to teach and train them for their mission. When he thought they knew enough, he would send them out to evangelise the villages of Galilee.
Have we put together a strategy for our mission? Have we enlisted our disciples? Have we trained them sufficiently?
Those who drive our mission are the Ministers of the Word. Are they being sufficiently trained? At the time of Union, Theological Colleges were teaching orthodox theology. Now, that is not always the case.
At the time of Union, there were lay training courses. Now, one rarely hears of them. The ACC is trying to remedy the situation with the School of Faith. We need to treat this task as a vital part of our strategy.
So, the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman has told us that we are to have a strategy for our mission, and that strategy has to center in the enlisting and training of disciples.
What else can we learn about mission from this story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman? We learn that Jesus had priorities in his mission. He had been sent to bring the Word of God to the whole world. But he couldn’t perform that task on his own. He couldn’t conduct it in Europe, in Asia, in North and South America. What could he do?
We see the answer to that question in the first book of the bible. His Father had decided to choose for himself a special race – the Israelites, descendants of Abraham. It would be into that race of people that the Messiah was to be born.
Jesus’ Heavenly Father had planned that Jesus would be born a Jew, live and minister in Galilee, Samaria and Judea, and die in Judea. He would leave it to his disciples to take the gospel to other parts of the world.
He would work mainly in the Galilee region. Towards the end of his ministry, he would move south to Samaria, Judea and Jerusalem. This was not racism. This was sheer realism, sheer practicality. He would concentrate his mission principally on the lost sheep of Israel. His disciples would go further.
As the New Testament tells us, Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, and others would take the gospel west to Roman provinces of present-day Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece. Thomas would take it to India.
At first, the churches they founded were small house churches. But God’s Word and God’s Spirit gave them the impetus to grow amazingly. In time, they spawned a world church that now has adherents in every continent and in every race.
We in the ACC have seen the incredible capacity of the gospel to travel across the globe. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European missionaries took the gospel to pagan Melanesian islands in the Pacific. Now in the 21st century, descendants of the converts of those European missionaries are bringing a new vitality into the life of the Uniting Church and the ACC.
So, what can we learn from Jesus confining his personal mission to the Jewish race, to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’? Is God calling the ACC to have priorities in its mission strategy? We who are members think he does.
We in the ACC are a small group within the Uniting Church. We were founded in 2006 to call the Uniting Church to determine matters of doctrine according to the teaching of the scriptures and the faith as understood by the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Our Mission Priority is that in matters of doctrine, we will give priority to the ACC. To achieve this mission priority, we are seriously limited in our membership and resources. But we have with us, the two spiritual sources of growth that the early churches had: God’s Word and God’s Spirit.
They were the two sources of growth that Colossae had, that Ephesus had, that Philippi had, that Corinth had. If we are faithful to God’s Word and Spirit, we too can come to see unexpected growth. With that unexpected growth, we can bring the scriptures back into a central place in the life of the Uniting Church.
So, we have learnt from Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman that we have to have to have a strategy for mission, that it has to center in teaching and training disciples to carry it out, and that we have to have priorities as Jesus did. Is there anything else?
Yes. Jesus had a readiness to change his strategy when circumstances demanded it.
He left his teaching and healing ministry in Galilee to go to Tyre to get away from the distraction of his enemies’ attacks. The time for his final confrontation with them had not yet arrived.
Having made that change in strategy, he made another. He left the teaching of his disciples to heal a gentile woman’s daughter. Another lesson learnt. Whatever or mission strategy is, whatever our mission priorities are, we must always be prepared to step aside from them to answer a call for help.
At this critical time in the life of the Uniting Church, may God give us the faith in the power of his Word and Spirit to believe, that by our work in the ACC, we can help bring the Uniting Church back to what our founders envisioned when they adopted the Basis of Union.
Rev. Denis Conomos