"The Mission and the Means"
Mission Festival St. Luke 24:44-53
November 9, 2008
(Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Ravenna, Nebraska)
IN NOMINE JESU
The first mission of the New Testament Church had been given. The risen Lord appeared to the eleven disciples and gave them the divine charge to preach repentance and forgiveness in the Name of Jesus Christ to all nations. Following a three-year catechesis, the disciples were being equipped to carry out the Lord's mission. The Lord opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, that they would be better able to preach the Word, for their minds had been closed, rendering them unable to understand that everything written about Christ in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled, and that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead. They had the mission, but it was not yet time for them to go out into the world and preach the Gospel; the Lord told them they had to wait until the right time—until they became clothed with power from on high, until the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost. They had to wait ten days, for it was, at that time, the day on which our risen Lord ascended into heaven, where He is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come and judge the living and the dead.
Then, at Pentecost, came the Holy Ghost, their souls inspired. The Holy Spirit descended upon them and gave them the gift of preaching the Gospel in different languages, beginning with St. Peter's sermon that day. He preached to the masses gathered at Jerusalem. His message was simple: he preached Christ crucified, whom the people were responsible through their sins for killing. What was the point of such radical preaching? In Acts, St. Luke writes that the people were cut to the heart and asked what they were to do. Peter's answer was simple: they were to repent and become baptized in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, and they would receive the promise of the Holy Spirit. Through Peter's preaching 3,000 people became believers that day. The mission of the Church had begun to spread, as the first Christians were dedicated to the apostles' preaching, to the celebration of the Lord's Supper, and to the Prayers of the Church. Their lives were lived around the Word and Sacraments. They gave to anyone who was in need, and the Lord daily added to their number those who were being saved. The mission was simple: the divine charge, the apostles' preaching, and the people's response.
The mission of the Church was simple 2,000 years ago. It remains simple today. The Lord has given each of us the command to tell the Good News by way of our Baptism and through living out the vocations—the stations in life—He has given us. Sent by God's blessing, our true faith confessing, we tell others what our Lord has done. We speak the faith, and we live the faith. Those who hear our message, moved by the Holy Spirit, repent of their sins and confess their faith in Jesus Christ. The mission is so simple that you and I can carry it out in our everyday lives, serving God in our daily duties. In fact, the Lord has called each and every one of us, you and me alike, to bring the Word of God to those who do not yet know the Lord. This is part of our vocation as Christians, marked with the sign of the cross at our Baptism. Our vocation is our station in life. Where we are at a particular moment and the role we have in that moment is our vocation. Our vocation can be any number of things: father, mother, son, daughter, farmer, teacher, student, foreman, worker, pastor, layman, butcher, baker, candlestick maker, for examples. This past Tuesday, many Americans lived their vocations as citizens and voted. As Christians, we have many God-given vocations in service to Him and to one another, often wearing many of these hats at once. As Christians we cannot help but share the hope that we have with others, that they too would have this same certainty of their salvation, that they too would inherit the gift of eternal life. There is no need to implement big, fancy programs that only serve to impede the mission and get in the way of the Gospel by their sheer complexity. The Church does not need to have outside consultants come in and tell the Church how to "do" missions, consultants who are more interested of the bottom line of their ledgers than in the bottom line of the Gospel. The bottom line of the Gospel is that Jesus died on the cross to take away the sins of the world, that the forgiveness He won on the cross He gives to all who believe in Him, the gift He desires to give to everybody, to you, to me, and to all people. The mission of the Church is simple: to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in the Name of Jesus to all nations, across the sea and here at home, for God desires that all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.
There is another truth we either do not realize or do not want to hear. While there are many missionary endeavors, blessed by the Holy Spirit, that have brought many souls into the kingdom of God, the mission of the Church has come up against numerous roadblocks through the ages, both abroad and here at home. Ever since the Church began, she has undergone persecution all around the world. People have been put in jail and to death simply for confessing Christ crucified. We have heard from society for the last few years that we should be tolerant of the Islamic religion. But know this: Islam is an evil religion, for the Muslims do not worship the one true God and deny that Jesus Christ is God the Son, that He is both God and Lord. Know this as well: in Islamic nations it is illegal to convert a Muslim to Christianity, a "crime" punishable by death! Muslim nations put Christians to death simply for proclaiming the Gospel. There are numerous other places all around the world there missionaries are forced to work in secret, lest they face arrest and execution.
While there are godless governments and God-hating factions who simply loathe the Gospel and will do anything to quash it, we face numerous obstacles in this country. In recent years Christians have been under attack here in the United States of America, where our religious freedoms are supposed to be protected. Prayer in public schools has been banned since the 1962 U. S. Supreme Court ruling. Children are suspended from school for wearing T-shirts that sport Christian messages and for handing out pro-life flyers, and teachers fired for merely wearing cross pendants. Political appointees at the federal level are castigated, vilified, and demonized for professing to be Christians who value human life. The "American Civil Religion" holds that all religions are on equal footing, and anyone who touts one religion over another is intolerant of, unloving toward, and disrespectful of others, guilty of promoting hate speech, especially if the one speaking is a Christian. Many of our fellow citizens have fallen into this trap set by the devil. Listen to them, for they will spread the lie that all paths lead to heaven, that one need not be a Christian. To this the Lord says, "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me" (Jn. 14:6). The one true God, the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—will not share His glory with false gods. A few years ago, I was set to preach at a nursing home for the manor's weekly chapel service. As a nurses' aide wheeled a resident into the chapel, I heard the tail end of their conversation, as the aide said she believed there will be more than one religion in heaven. I would love to give her the benefit of the doubt and think that she meant that people from different Christian denominations will be in heaven, for we easily and willingly grant that there are true Christians to be found in all corners of Christianity. But if she meant that there would be non-Christians in heaven, then there is great concern, another obstacle set in the way of the Church's mission, to proclaim that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to Scripture alone.
But we have our own reasons—excuses, actually—to not carry out the mission of the Church, to not faithfully live the vocations God has given us. The message of the Gospel is simple; yet we set out to complicate the message's getting out by not telling the Good News about Jesus when we have opportunities to do so ourselves through our words and our actions. We claim to not know what to say or do. The prophet Jeremiah said the same thing, and God made him one of the Major Prophets in the Old Testament. Besides, the Holy Spirit is with us, giving us the words to speak. We say we are not good enough for such an important task, but look at the men whom the Lord called to be apostles: Simon was a zealot, James and John had fiery tempers, Matthew was a tax collector, Peter denied the Lord three times, and Paul previously persecuted Christians. We are no better than they were. Yet they were willing to spread the Gospel at the expense of their very lives. We, on the other hand, do not want to live our faith. We do not want to tell others about what the Lord has done for us. We want to keep our faith to ourselves, to place it under a bushel. We want to keep our faith private, "just me and Jesus." But the more we keep the faith to ourselves, the more it shrivels up and dies within us, for, as James tells us, "Faith without works is dead." And a dead faith is a non-existent faith.
However, the Gospel still runs strong, despite our best efforts to stall it. You see, the power of the Gospel does not lie in our efforts or lack of them. No, the power is in the Christ who died, the Christ who rose from the dead, the Christ who ascended into heaven, and the Christ who will come again, all one and the same Christ. Jesus' death and resurrection give the Gospel its power and validity. What is the Gospel? We often hear of the "Gospel in a nutshell," found in St. John's Gospel, and we hear the very words of our Lord: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life" (Jn. 3:16). This brings up the "Lutheran" question, "What does this mean?" It means that your heavenly Father loves you very much, so much that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die in your place on the cross, giving His body and shedding His blood for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins, and through faith, worked in you by the Holy Spirit, you have the totally certain promise of eternity in heaven with your dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The message is that simple! It is a message we all can tell others. This is what Jesus has done for me; this is what He has done for you. This is the simple but great message we get to bring to all people even by living the lives God has given us to live. The Gospel is far greater than a man-made program and much better than expensive consultants, for the Gospel is free. God's grace is free, the grace He gives to us through His Word and Sacraments.
A number of years ago while I was at the seminary, I took a required course in evangelism. At the beginning of the course, the professor made one of the most erroneous, offensive, and heretical statements I have ever heard. He said that the Word and Sacraments can, and often do, get in the way of the Church's mission! What nonsense this is! To the contrary, the Means of Grace are most certainly integral to missions. Jesus says, "Go." Jesus says, "Make disciples of all nations." In our text for today Jesus says, "Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His Name to all nations" (v. 47). Making disciples is done through the proclamation of God's Word, that all people would repent of their sins, trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord, and receive His forgiveness, which comes to us through our Lord's Word of absolution. Jesus also says, "Baptize them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Our Lord counts the Sacrament of Holy Baptism as essential to the Church's mission, for through Baptism one is ushered into God's kingdom of grace as the Holy Spirit enters the heart to create within the newly baptized saving faith in Jesus Christ. The mission continues throughout the Christian life and the life of the Church.
Jesus says, "Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you." To this end the Mother Church teaches her children, and this teaching comes purely from the Word of God. Through lifelong catechesis we are fed on the Word, and we grow in the faith. Following a formal period of instruction, the catechumen presents himself before the congregation to profess the faith into which he is baptized, that he may receive the Sacrament of the Altar, the true body and blood of Christ, which are in, with, and under the bread and wine. Continual participation in the Lord's Supper is the goal of missions here on earth, that we and all the faithful would continue to receive the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith, that the true body and blood of our Lord would strengthen and preserve us in the true faith, to live everlasting. Strengthened by this holy meal, which will be our joy in receiving in a few moments, we are moved to share the joy, to tell the good news about Jesus, to live our faith in our God-given vocations.
Never let anyone say to you that the Church needs to implement programs or hire consultants so that we can better "do" missions, and that the Word and Sacraments are "outdated." To the contrary, the mission of the Church depends on the Means of Grace as these are the means God has given the Church to make disciples of all nations, the same means by which He gives us His gifts of grace: forgiveness, life, and salvation. We cannot do better than to do what God has given us to do and to use what He has freely given us. We can be confident of this, for God gives us His Word. Thanks be to God!
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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