In this text Jesus is filled with compassion and then he puts in a prayer request. For those of us who have years and years of life as serious Christians, this is the most normal of patterns. We are moved to compassion. Then we pray. At the first opportunity we call for prayers from our sisters and brothers in Christ. What makes this interesting is that Jesus is filled with compassion at the sight of many people who seemed to him like "sheep without a shepherd." And his prayer request was, "pray that the Lord of the harvest will send forth laborers." In short, Jesus was requesting prayer for evangelism.
Evangelism is hard for Episcopalians. It may be that the image of the corrupt persons who identify themselves as evangelists on television so offends our sensibilities that we want to have nothing to do with evangelism. It may be that we find it difficult to speak with anyone about serious, intimate concerns in their lives. It may be that we reject the images of hell that some evangelists raise in order to frighten people into saving relationships with Jesus. It may be that we are Universalists who believe that God takes everyone to heaven whether they claim Jesus as Savior or not. It may be that we are severe Calvinists who believe that God had predestined some to salvation and some to damnation and that we have no choice in the matter. It may be that we think talking about our faith is bad manners. It may be that we become Episcopalians in order to avoid talk of evangelism. The "it may be" sentences can go on and on. Whatever the "it may be" sentence is that we find most useful in avoiding thinking about or doing the work of evangelism, we must never lose sight of the fact that Jesus prayed for it to happen. In another text at the end of St. Matthew's Gospel, Jesus commanded us, as Christians, to do the work of evangelism.
So we must ask why Jesus both prayed for and commanded us to do evangelism. The answer lies in Jesus' feeling as he viewed the multitude of people. He felt compassion.
Compassion literally means "shared suffering." It is grounded in love. A statement that illustrates compassion is this one from a woman. "I knew that I really did love my husband more than I loved myself when I realized that I would joyfully have traded places with my husband when was dying from cancer in order to spare him the pain." Jesus ' prayer for and command to us to do evangelism is a prayer and command for us to be compassionate. The pain, brokeness, despair, and "lost-ness" of people in the world around us has to be of immense importance to us as Christians.
So if we are inclined to be obedient to Jesus, if we love him enough to go to some trouble for him, if we are grateful to him and want others to share in the gift of his saving love, how do we express our willingness to be engaged? We do it by establishing relationships that are authentic, respectful, and full of love. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News. Authenticity, relationship, respect, and love are Good News.
One pastor, who felt he had trouble understanding people born after 1965, identified and recruited a group born after 1965 to gather weekly for a meal. At the meal he asked them to share their concerns with each other, and with him, to reach an understanding of what motivated them and what frightened them. Only one of the group was a regular church attendee. After a while, two concerns emerged. Later the two concerns were acknowledged as dominant issues. In his reading about people born after 1965, the pastor discovered that the two themes that had surfaced in his discussion group were the same themes that inevitably surfaced in the responses of people born after 1965, wherever they were.
These two dominant concerns were centered on relationships and authenticity. In their lives, these young people had been profoundly troubled by the divorces of their own parents and by the divorces of their friends' parents. They wanted relationships that were based on unconditional love. They wanted relationship that would never end. They had been lied to a lot. They wanted relationships where people did not lie to each other. They were willing to go to a lot of trouble to create these relationships. And they put them together in whole new ways. Those of us who are older usually put together relations through family and affinity groupings. We are inclined to relate to and identify with our siblings, cousins, and people we have come to know well through work or church. It is a question of "like liking likeness." But the young people ignored all of that. Instead, they were concerned only with the quality of the authenticity in the relationships. Their groups were not like each other at all. But they were real.
So if you would be obedient to Jesus in the matter of evangelism, first you must be real, authentic. Next you must be prepared to enter never-ending relationships with people who are, to use Jesus' image, "like sheep without a shepherd." Their wants and needs have to become more important to you than your own wants and needs.
You are called to be grounded in compassion. The only source of this grounding is the passion of Jesus. His life, teaching, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension are all testimony and signs of his love for us. He loves us so much that he was willing and able to put us first and take our pain and brokeness to himself. And that passion, through the grace and power of God, creates for us the possibility of complete authenticity and never-ending relationships.
We can be authentic because we have nothing to hide. We have done our worst and Jesus has embraced it and us. We are loved without condition. Our relationship can be forever, if Jesus is the first person in the relationship.
Christian marriage illustrates this. Jesus is the first person in the relationship. The love that the couple experiences from Jesus they share with each other. There is nothing that can't be forgiven. There is everything to be shared and celebrated.
But the marriage will end. The couple will die. But those deaths, because Jesus is claimed as Savior and Lord, are the beginning of the permanent relationship in eternity. The man and the woman are forever, brother and sister in Christ.
Is there anyone that you love enough to want to be with for eternity? If so, ground yourself in your relationship with your Savior. Then create an authentic relationship with the person you love that much. With prayer, you will be able to share Jesus with them. Come to the harvest.