Go Take God’s Love Everywhere

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

We are all angels and martyrs

“We are all angels and martyrs.” On the face of it this statement may seem absurd. After all, these words have meaning in common usage that does not seem to fit us or our circumstances. Angels are various non-human heavenly, divine or spiritual beings, created or eternal, which dwell with God in heaven. Martyrs are those who die for what they believe. How then could we say that all of us are angels or martyrs, much less both?


Particularly around Christmas time we remember that scripture is filled with stories of angles visiting people. Mary, Joseph and Zeccharia and the Shepherds are all visited by angels to bring word about the coming of Jesus and John. (Luke 1-2, Matthew 1-2) People describe scenes in which they have been visited with angels who have brought encouragement, hope or a word of wisdom. Others pray for protection from their guardian angels. Of individuals who come to a person’s aid in a significant way it may even be said, “She was my guardian angel. I could never have made it through this time without her.”

While scripture does describe scenes in which angels act as protectors, this is not their primary role. Most notable of these instances is Psalm 91:11-12, which is then quoted by the devil during Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness “for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” (Luke 4:10-11).

The Greek word here is aggelos – meaning “messenger,” or more simply, “one who is sent”. One example of this meaning is found in Malachi 3:1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. This text was quoted by the gospel writers to highlight the role of John the Baptist. For example, in Mark 1 1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. [Mark wrongly ascribes the 1:2 quote and conflates it with the one from Isaiah 40:3.]


Martyr is a word we do not typically recognize from scripture because we normally translate it into English differently. The Greek words “marturia” (noun) and “martureo” (verb) have their root in the noun “martus” meaning WITNESS and used originally in a legal sense, as in Matthew 18: 15 If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses…. The meanings of all forms of the word relates to the idea of witness and testimony of a truth observed and believed. The first named Christian martyr was Stephen (Acts 7:54-60).

stoning of stephen

Stoning of Stephen (artist unknown)


This became the root of its common meaning as it came into English. Though the use of the word has Christian origins, other faiths use the term as well. It has come to generally mean any who suffers for a cause important to them. It is even used to describe someone who is over-exaggerating the degree to which she is suffering in a situation, “He’s being such a martyr about having to work this weekend.”


Another instructive text for this discussion is Isaiah 52: 7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”  Paul takes up this passage in Romans 10 to connect the role of preachers with the ancient prophets in the ongoing evangelistic stream – 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Here we have one who comes as a messenger – a place where we would expect to see the word angelos as described above. The Greek word in the text from Isaiah is euangelidzo, meaning “to bring good news.” This is the origin of the word evangelize, and the root from which we have the English words gospel, evangelist.

Christians love the word Gospel, and we love the idea that Jesus comes to proclaim Good News: 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1)

Many of us are less comfortable with the idea of evangelism, or that we are to be evangelists. Jesus’ instruction to the 12 apostles, and later to the 70 disciples in Luke 10, was this: As you go, proclaim the good news [gospel / euangelion]: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matthew 10:7) And Jesus says of himself, quoting Isaiah 61: “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, (Luke 4:18)

Jesus comes as The Good News. Those of us who are his followers are called to be witnesses and messengers of the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are called to be martyrs and angels.

What Now?

Thanks for the vocabulary lesson. What does all of this mean for us now? Perhaps we can ask one or more of these questions:

  • How do the common uses of these two words, ANGEL and MARTYR, impact how I might live out my faith?
  • Am I being a faithful messenger and witness?
  • Does my message help people live more faithfully and protect them from harm?
  • Does my witness for Christ place me in any kind of stressful situation, in opposition to any powers?
  • To whom am I being sent? What is the message I am asked to carry to them? How do they need to hear it?

Our job as church is to explore these questions, wrestle with and embrace the answers, trusting that the Holy Spirit will inspire and animate our message.

The Gospel weighted toward the poor?

Continuing the conversation about Mary’s Magnificat here and here.
This begs the question: Is the Gospel good news for everyone?

Perhaps the prepositions need some work here. Good News FOR everyone? Yes, most definitely. Will it sound like good news TO everyone? Not likely. I’m assuming here that we could resolve all of the church’s failures, shortcomings and inconsistencies. This line of questioning has nothing to do with our inability to live up to the Gospel’s call and claim on our lives. For the sake of argument, let’s just say that is all resolved, and all we are left with is the Gospel itself, in its pure and true form.

Hannah and Mary point to what they believe is an essential truth in God’s message of love – that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Those who have been beaten down and left out will be brought in, healed and restored. Meanwhile, those doing the beating and the leaving – they will lose their positions of power over others. This is nearly impossible for us to hear in western culture so defined by power and prestige, where might makes right, growth and strength are signs of privilege to be preferred by us.

from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops http://www.USCCB.org

If Mary and Hannah are to be believed, then the God made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth shows “a preference toward the poor,” to borrow language from Liberation Theology. Here is how the US Conference of Catholic Bishops introduces the idea:

Option for the Poor and Vulnerable – A  basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society  marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the  story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46)  and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. 

And here is an excerpt from Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns intro:

From the Scriptures we learn that the justice of a society is tested and judged by its treatment of the poor. God’s covenant with Israel was dependant on the way the community treated the poor and unprotected—the widow, the orphan and the stranger (Deut. 16.11-12, Ex. 22.21-27, Isa. 1.16-17). Throughout Israel’s history and in the New Testament, the poor are agents of God’s transforming power. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor (4.1-22). Similarly, in the Last Judgment, we are told that we will be judged according to how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner and the stranger (Matthew 25.31-46).

I would argue that we must lay these ideas alongside Jesus’ teaching that we must become like little children if we wish to enter the kingdom of God. Children are penniless and powerless. They are humble, weak and poor. And they are our mentors and guides for inheriting the Kingdom to come, which in glimpses and fits and starts is already here.

Is the Gospel really good news?

The word “gospel” is derived from the old English and Germanic roots meaning “good spiel” – a pleasing message. I wonder though, is it really, and if so for whom? Will the Gospel be a pleasing message for everyone?

Magnificat II – mixed textile, 20×33 in © by the artist, Linda Witte Henke

The passage from Luke 1:46-55 is called The Magnificat – a name taken from the first word in the Latin translation of the passage. Also known as “Mary’s Song”, this text relates Mary’s response when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, who though advanced in age has been blessed to conceive a son who will be John the Baptist. Upon greeting Mary at the door, Elizabeth feels the unborn child John leap in her belly, and exclaims “”Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:42-44) Sheer Joy! Here is Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55):

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Mary’s song echoes that of Hannah, wife of Elkanah, who though she had been barren was blessed by The Lord who answered her prayer and enabled her to conceive and bear a son. Hannah had pledged to God that she would dedicate her child to him if only God would make a way for her to conceive and bear a son. Here is her prayer at his dedication in 1 Samuel 2:1-11:

1 Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. 2 “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. 4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. 5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. 6 The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. 9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. 10 The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” 11 Then Elkanah went home to Ramah, while the boy remained to minister to the Lord, in the presence of the priest Eli.

Both women sing songs of joy, exalting and worshipping God for the mercy and grace shown them. But their interest is not selfish. They understand their own experiences as representative of a larger truth – that God chooses in favor of the poor. The Lord raises up and brings down. These things do not simply happen on their own in the natural course of events. They are part of how God works in the world.

This begs the question: Is the Gospel good news for everyone?

The LORD Searches for His Children

Sermon Notes for 112314 ~ Ezekiel 34 & Mattew 25:31-46
(See also “Some may be more lost than others…”)

As we reflect on these texts and our own lives, we do well to move to each position in the story and see things from that vantage.

  • Let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt for the moment and imagine that we are in fact the seep of MT 25, the sheep whom God seeks and blesses in Ezekiel 34. What do we notice?
    1. We cannot save ourselves or provide for ourselves. We are in need of the Good Shepherd’s intervention.
    2. We are lost. The folks in the best position in the story are lost. Being lost is scary and dangerous and confusing. Life is hard.
  • Now imagine that we are the goats of MT25 and the bad sheep of Ezekiel 34 – the ones making things harder for others. What do we notice?
    1. Often, the negative consequences are a result of our meeting our own needs. We may not mean to be hurtful or harmful. We’re just trying to get water to drink and grass to eat. BUT, we do it unmindfully and in ways that disregard the needs of others downstream or who will follow after us. Meeting our needs is fine, let’s just be more attentive.
  • Now, imagine for a moment that you are God, the Good Shepherd of Ezekiel 34, that you are Jesus, the righteous King and Judge of Matthew 25. What do you notice now?
    1. All the sheep and goats are yours. They are all your flocks.
    2. Some of your flocks get more than enough while others go lacking.
    3. Some whose job it is to care for others are too busy caring for themselves.
    4. Some are looking out for the needs of others, some are ignoring the needs of others.

Ezekiel prophesied that “David” would sit on the throne over Gods’ redeemed sheep. Matthew places Jesus squarely on that throne as the “Son of David” and the fulfillment of those promises.

This combination of texts is so tricky, particularly for professing Christians. We want to believe that we are those who “were lost but now are found, blind but now we see.” We want to interpret the text in a way that sheds favorable light on us and our relationship to God. Others may be in trouble, but we are good. We get to enter into God’s kingdom, while others may be destined for eternal judgment and fire.

The problem with this is that the texts won’t sit still. They keep moving around on us “like chasing after wind, or trying to hold oil in the hand.” As soon as you think you’ve got something pinned down, and you know where you stand, it comes whipping around and heads straight for you.

When the question is “Am I a sheep or a goat?” the answer is never either or, never one or the other. The answer is always both/and. We are sheep, God’s beloved who are lost and lovingly sought after. We are also in some settings the unfaithful leaders, the goats who lead others astray, who refuse to help when we can, who fail to live up to God’s righteous demands. We can’t put ourselves or anyone else squarely into one category or another. This may be why Jesus slyly spins the “love your neighbor hate your enemy” proverb around to “Love your neighbor, but don’t stop there. Love your enemy – anyone can love a neighbor.” (MT 5:43)

Taken together, these texts paint a picture in which God reaches into human history, and again at the end of history, to put things right. Relationships and circumstances may work against us, colluding with our own twisted ideas of what is good and right for us. We end up on the wrong side of self, other and God. We end up lost, by our own wandering and by the misdirection of others. God steps in to redeem and restore us. God seeks out the lost sheep. When we become “found sheep” then God enlists us to share the work of reaching and restoring, seeking and saving. Unfortunately, we are still oft times persuaded by our minds to behave selfishly and justify ourselves with religious platitudes.

This was perhaps the greatest sin of the Pharisees. They were devout, and also terribly wrong. They thought that loving God meant rejecting anyone who had anything about them that God would not approve. Which of course put them on the very list they were creating – those who are not perfect in God’s eyes and thus worthy of our scorn.

Instead we turn in a humble posture before God and one another, realizing that only in this posture can we stay right with God. As soon as we presume the judgment seat, we come under judgment.* As human beings, we have made a right mess of things. So it is, and so it ever more shall be. Even so, we are responsible to make an effort toward putting things right. God has reached out to us and calls us to our better selves. At our best ,we receive what God offers, which is the wisdom and strength in community to grow toward maturity, laying aside our exclusive self-interest and choosing instead a mutual interest that creates a place for all at God’s bounteous table of blessing.

*NOTE: This does not mean that we avoid discernment and accountability. Both are essential. When Jesus says, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” I think he is not actually telling us to avoid wise and discerning scrutiny of words and actions and circumstances. He is, however, warning us that with this scrutiny we bring ourselves under the same. It is a proverb stating the way things work, not an edict telling us how to behave. Perhaps the best illustration of this is found in Proverbs 26: “4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. 5 Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” In other words – Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t. But what choice do you have, really. Do what must be done, and recognize that you bring the same back on you.