Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Do you think evangelism is hard?

How would you answer the question asked by the title of this post?  I am sure that there are some people who would answer, “no.”  I have known people who have just had a gift for talking to others about Jesus Christ.  They have had a way about them in which the activity came naturally and with seemingly little effort.

But I am willing to bet that most people would say, “yes.”  At least, whenever the topic comes up with congregation members this is what I hear.   I won’t deny that more often than not, it strikes me this way too.

Now perhaps it is surprising to hear a pastor say this.  After all, for years we have been told that evangelism is this wonderful activity.  I can remember attending pastors’ events in my previous district where some synodical official would come and speak and tell us about what a joyful experience it was because we have the Good News about Jesus Christ and people out there are hungering for it.  I would return from a district event like that and call up one of my friends who is a pastor to tell him about what was said. And then we would both ask: “What planet does he live on?”

I don’t think we do the Church any favors when we pretend that evangelism is something that it is not.   For starters, we need to acknowledge that everyone is not equally gifted for this activity.  Strangely enough, all of the synodical and district mission executives that I have ever met have had very outgoing personalities.  They found it natural to engage complete strangers in conversation.  This is not the personality of every Christian. There are Christians on the other end of the spectrum who have very introverted personalities … and everything in between.  All Christians are not going to find this equally easy.

Next, we need to be realistic in acknowledging that the Gospel is going to meet with rejection in the twenty-first century Western world – a lot of it.  We live in the midst of the cruel fruits of rationalism and the Enlightenment.  Modernism and now post-modernism have created a worldview that rejects the idea of authoritative revelation from God, absolute truth, and right and wrong.  In such an environment the message of the Gospel is going to meet with a great deal of rejection. 

This rejection can be difficult to take.  There are those whom this rejection does not seem to trouble all that much. But for others the rejection leads to a series of personal and challenging existential questions: “Why do I believe and this person doesn’t?”; “Why was I raised in the Church and this person wasn’t?”;  “Why some and not others?”

There is another aspect to this rejection as well.  When we share the Christian faith with another person, we are sharing the most intimate and personal truth in our life. We are sharing the core of our existence- the very thing that gives our life meaning and purpose.  It is brutal to share that with another person and then have them reject it – to have them say that they see no value or worth in it.  That is an extremely difficult experience to have again, and again, and again.

I won’t make the claim that evangelism is easy for me.  While I find it easy in the role of pastor to be outgoing, that is not my natural disposition.  Instead, I probably fall a little bit on the introverted side of the spectrum.  My natural inclination is to listen, not talk (something which in itself is very useful in the pastoral ministry).  There is a very large intellectual orientation in me that finds unavoidable the hard personal and existential questions raised by rejection of the Gospel.

Those things may be true.  But I have also always known that they do not free me from the need to speak the Gospel to others as a Christian.  The knowledge about forgiveness and salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is good news.  If we believe it, then by its very nature the Gospel does not permit us to keep it to ourselves. 

I wrestled with these questions for a long time, until one day a text of Scripture cast the issue in a new light. In Luke chapter ten Jesus sends out seventy two (or seventy there is a difficult textual question here) of his disciples as a kind of “advance team.”[1]  We hear, “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. And he said to them, The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’” (Luke 10:1-2 ESV).

Our Lord sent the seventy two out with the following instructions: “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has arrived.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God stands near’” (Luke 10:8-11 ESV modified).[2]

The disciples were to go from town to town.  Just as Jesus had been healing during his ministry (Luke 4:38-41; 5:12-26; 6:6-11, 17-19; 7:1-10; 8:42-48), he sends out the seventy two to heal.  He sends them as his authorized representatives who extend his work for he says to them, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).

In the towns where they are received they are to heal the sick and declare “the kingdom of God has arrived.”  Jesus said that he had come to proclaim the kingdom of God. At the beginning of his ministry he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43 ESV).  In the course his ministry it becomes clear that this is more than just the message about something.  When faced with the accusation that he was able to cast out demons because he was in league with the devil, Jesus replied, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).

The Old Testament repeats again and again that “Yahweh reigns” (Ps. 93:1; 96:10; 91:1; 99:1).  Coming out of the Old Testament background, the phrase “the kingdom of God” referred to the rule or reign of God.  The phrase referred to God’s activity, and not a place, as He cared for His people and opposed the forces of sin and evil in the world.[3] Jesus proclaimed that in His person, the reign of God had arrived and was beginning to turn back the forces of Satan and sin.

This is what the disciples were to proclaim in the towns where they were received.  But at the same time, Jesus was also clear that they would not encounter this everywhere. There would be towns that did not accept the disciples.  They were going to meet with rejection.  Yet in these towns they were to say the exact same thing: “Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has arrived.” No matter whether the Gospel met with acceptance or rejection, the disciples were to announce the same thing.

There is important insight here for us.   In the person of Jesus Christ, the reign of God – the kingdom of God – entered into the world in order to free humanity and creation itself from the rule of Satan, sin and death.  That saving action reached its culmination in the death and resurrection of Jesus that we have just celebrated.  For those who received Christ in faith, the reign of God brought forgiveness and salvation.  Yet for those who rejected him, the reign of God brought judgment and condemnation for sin.

That same reign of God continues in our day through the Means of Grace: the Word, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar. The Gospel present in the Means of Grace gives forgiveness and salvation.  At the same time where the Gospel meets with rejection, the reign of God brings judgment.

This means that when we share the Gospel something is always happening.  God is always at work doing something. When we share the Gospel we can say, “The kingdom of God has arrived.”  We do not know how God is going to use that word.  He may use it to create and sustain faith through the work of the Holy Spirit.  He may use it to harden unbelief where rejection has taken place. The apostle Paul said of his ministry, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16 ESV).

The good news about the Good News is that it is not up to us to determine this. It is God’s word and he uses it to create faith “where and when it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel” (Augsburg Confession, V.3).  And this is liberating, for after all, we have only one very simple job – to speak.  We can speak in the assurance that the word of the Gospel brings the reign of God no matter what happens. Naturally we want it to bring faith, forgiveness and salvation.  But that’s not our call and we have no control.  Instead, like the disciples we are to go from opportunity to opportunity in our daily life, speaking the Good News about Jesus Christ.  And then we leave it to God in the knowledge that no matter what the apparent outcome, in that speaking our Lord’s words are true there and then: “The kingdom of God stands near.” 


[1] See the discussion in Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2d ed; New York: American Bible Society, 2006), 126-127).
[2] For a defense of translating ἤγγικεν as “stands near” see Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 1:1-11:1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 152-153.
[3] John Meier summarizes the consensus of scholarship when he writes: “‘kingdom of God’ is meant to conjure up the dynamic notion of God powerfully ruling over his creation, over his people, and over the history of both.  The point has been put succinctly by a number of writers: the kingdom of God means God ruling as king.  Hence his action upon and his dynamic relation to those ruled, rather than any delimited territory, is what is primary” (John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 2 Mentor, Message and Miracles [New York: Doubleday, 1994], 240).

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