Caring for those in Mission

by Pablo Martinez

 

 

"The armour of God (Eph. 6) leaves one piece of the body vulnerable. And that is the back. This is to remind us that we are always meant to be in close fellowship with one another so that we, as one body in Christ, can protect the backs of one another. Retreat into isolation from one's fellow believers is a strategy of the adversary. The greater the fellowship, the more the protection and the more we can lift up one another on eagles wings." These words come from a good friend and I cannot think of a better summary, for they reflect the privilege and responsibility of the church in the care for its mission workers.

 

As we consider how churches can contribute in caring for mission workers, the complete picture in the Bible shows us that it is a mutual privilege and responsibility. The church has a duty to care for them, and these workers are also called to seek the support and shelter of their local congregations.

 

To 'carry each other's burdens' sums up my central thought on the issue: the best way to care is to carry. The church is called to share the burdens of its mission workers. What a simple and yet difficult task! Let us consider the why, the who and the how of caring and carrying. The answer to these questions will hopefully give practical insights to help us apply Paul's exhortation.

 

WHY? THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH AS A BODY

Let us notice, first of all, that this verse is a commandment, not an option; the verb 'carry' is an imperative. If we belong to one another, the natural consequence is to 'carry each other's burdens'. In other words, caring for our brothers and sisters is not only a privilege to enjoy, but a duty to fulfil.

 

The Christian life is not a matter of 'God and I alone' - a solitary Christian is incompatible with New Testament teaching. Of course, faith has an intimate and personal dimension, but it goes beyond the private realm to the community - with social implications. John Wesley often reminded his listeners of a friend's words: "The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion." Whether we like it or not, when we experience new birth we come to form part of a family in which, just like any other family, we do not have the right to choose our siblings.

 

WHO? EVERY MEMBER OF THE BODY

Paul's command to 'carry each other's burdens', is clearly addressed to all, not only to church leaders or elders. The support of mission workers is not a task limited to a few trained people within the church. It is a mistake to believe that only a handful of caring people are called to pastoral responsibility within the church. It is the privilege and the duty of every member of the body to share the burdens of their brothers and sisters in missions. We should not neglect the biblical principle of the universal priesthood of all believers.

 

History shows that being a caring community was a natural characteristic of the church in the first centuries: the first hospitals were founded by Christians. Even the concept of hospital is inseparably linked to Christianity. Concern for the sick was something so natural and accepted among Christians in the Middle Ages that a hospital was always built alongside every monastery. What a striking way to care for and carry the burdens of one another.

 

HOW? CHRIST OUR MODEL

Before we try to put into practice this exhortation, we need a model, a point of reference. In sharing our burdens, we ought to imitate Christ.

 

It is remarkable that the word 'carry' or 'bear' is the same as that in John 19:17, when Jesus carried His own cross to Golgotha. The idea conveyed is that of carrying 'something that weighs heavily'. The same word 'burden' (baros) is used in the parable told in Matthew 20:12, referring to the work and the tiredness of the day: "...to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day". So it may mean both a physical weight as well as a symbolic or moral weight - something that is burdensome and oppressive, such as a worry, a problem, a hardship or an illness.

 

The following illustration will shed light on this idea. All of us are travelling through life carrying rucksacks of different weights. The idea of 'carrying each other's burdens' refers to taking the neighbour's rucksack and carrying it for a while. Simon from Cyrene carried the cross, relieving the Lord of the burden - what a privilege for Simon!

 

We are not all called to be mission workers, but we are all called to have a pastoral heart towards them.

 

WHAT? CARING AND CARRYING IN PRACTICE

I would like to close with some practical ways to care and carry burdens. As I read the book of Acts, with eyes open to the ministry of the church to their mission workers, I discover three areas which are specific to the church and convey a powerful sense of support to those in mission:

 

1. Encouragement: words of affirmation

2. Service: works of love

3. Intercession: prayers of support

 

Words, works and prayers were the cardinal activity of the apostolic church in their care for their brothers and sisters in mission. What a balanced and mighty combination! No wonder the early Church flourished wonderfully.

 

Many texts show the importance that Paul and the other church leaders gave to these practical ways to 'care and carry'. A lot could be said about each one of them separately, but for me the most striking thing is to see them occur together in the daily life of the first churches. They were not separate activities but a cluster that greatly enhanced the missionary outreach of the Church.

 

Paul himself and Barnabas, whose name means 'son of encouragement', are outstanding examples of this powerful combination: words of encouragement, works of love and prayers of support were hallmarks in their lives. Operating always in mutual interaction, the church supported its mission workers and these gave great joy and encouragement to the church. Other examples are Tychicus, sent by Paul to the church in Colosse 'that he may encourage your hearts' (Col. 4:8). And Philemon, of whom Paul says, 'Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints' (Philem. 1:7). Similarly Paul and Silas, after they 'came out of the prison...went to Lydia's house, where they met the brothers and encouraged them' (Acts 16:40).

 

Those in mission will need refreshment and support. Sometimes they will be discouraged, due to distress, anxiety or loneliness, overwhelmed by practical problems or hurt by difficult relationships. There are many reasons in mission life to feel 'weary and heavy laden'. Be ready to share their burden. We must be on the lookout for our mission workers and be willing to carry their 'rucksack' for a while. Speak words of encouragement, do works of love, and pray earnestly for and with them. In so doing you will follow the model of Christ and you will greatly enhance the work of those in mission. What a joy and what a privilege!



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