Jesus told the disciples to go into the whole world when he said in today’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19a, NRSV)
In Jesus’ words just before his Ascension, he said the following (Acts 1:8):
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” NRSV
I believe “you will be my witnesses” meant for us to not only tell others about Jesus, but also to serve others as a witness to the power of Jesus in our lives. Let’s look into what it means for us today when Jesus said “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
1a. Jerusalem – Our Church
I believe we could interpret “in Jerusalem” to mean in our own church. As a body of believers, we are called to take care of one another in the church family. Ministries such as religious education, Bible studies, visitation, providing meals when needed, and praying for one another are ways we care for each other.
1b. Jerusalem – Our Families
In addition to our own church, our “Jerusalem” can also be our families. We should tell our non-believing family members about Jesus, but we also have to love them unconditionally, serve them gladly, and pray for them often. Telling them about Jesus – even nagging them about Jesus – will do no good if there isn’t love, serving, and prayer (with prayer being the most important).
Just as with missionaries, if they don’t see our faith lived out, then whatever we tell our families about Jesus will not impress them. People are experiential – they want to experience something in their lives or see something different in the lives of others, before they will believe. Telling family members can be more difficult than telling strangers, but we have to persevere without being pushy or obnoxious. A difficult balance, so we have to pray fervently for guidance.
I believe we can interpret “in Judea” to mean our community and surrounding area. A church should reach out to the community in various ways, such as VBS, food pantries, soup kitchens, and various other ministries as needed. Some churches do “midnight runs” of food and supplies to the homeless. Others have ministries to help divorced people, single mothers, families of incarcerated people, and help in other ways as needs are identified.
A church should reach out to the community as God leads it, and should be welcoming when people from the community come to that church. While the government has taken over much of what the church used to do, there are plenty of gaps in the social safety net that churches can fill.
We can interpret “in Samaria” to mean for us today those people who are not in our immediate community, or who may be different from us. Samaria was next door to the province of Judea, but the Samaritans were ethnically and religiously different from the Jews. It was a stretch for Jesus’ Jewish disciples to reach out to the Samaritans, and they must have cringed when Jesus said that. “Oh no! Not the Samaritans!”
Yet we are called to help others who are different from us, whether it is ethic, racial, religious, or socio-economic difference. Just as the Samaritans were a stretch for the early disciples, we are called to stretch ourselves today for the cause of Christ. We can see from Acts 8:4-8 that the disciples were eventually obedient to Jesus’ command to go to Samaria. I believe it took the scattering caused by persecution to get them out of Jerusalem, but they finally got with the program. In addition, there is a very strong tradition that the Apostle Thomas went all the way to India to establish a church that exists to this day.
4. Ends of the Earth
Lastly, we have the “ends of the earth” which is pretty obvious. It means today what it meant when Jesus said it. We know that Thomas, Peter, Paul, Mathias, Barnabas and others did, in fact, go far and wide to preach the Gospel. As I said before, not everybody is called to foreign missions, but I believe we are all called to at least financially support national and foreign missions.
Of course the key is to keep all of these competing priorities in proper balance. I believe a church that is sending much money to foreign missions but not helping its own congregation in various ways is out of balance. It can be easy to send money, but it is more difficult to give hands-on care. On the other hand, I believe a church that does much within its own congregation but does little elsewhere is also out of balance. It easy to become inward-looking and forget the rest of the world, which desperately needs help.