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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
As a Lutheran pastor for over 30 years, I have discovered a few embarrassing truths about the church I serve. I have grown to accept that Lutherans believe fervently in the power of prayer- until you ask someone to pray out loud- in public. They could practically die. Lutherans trust their pastor will visit them in the hospital- even if they haven’t notified him that they are there. Lutherans expect miracles- especially during the annual stewardship campaign or when the offering plate is passing by. Lutherans insist that they know everything they need to know about the faith- until you invite them to teach the 6th grade Sunday School. Yes, Lutherans boldly claim that they serve in the army of the Lord- primarily as undercover agents. Surprisingly, this was not always true. Lutherans once stood at the forefront of world missions and evangelism and sent missionaries to the ends of the earth.
In 1664, Baron Justinian von Welz, an Austrian born, Dutch educated Lutheran, who found himself a religious refuge in Germany, offered one of the first recorded sermons on the words of the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Courageously, he spoke to the Protestant representatives of the Imperial Diet of Regensburg in Germany to take their role seriously in the proclamation of the gospel around the world beginning first in their own homes. He himself would die as a missionary in Suriname, a Dutch colony in South America. Welz, who is now regarded as the father of the Lutheran missionary movement, was not troubled by living in a foreign land or speaking of Jesus to strangers.
Of course, not every Christian feels that tug of the Holy Spirit as Baron von Welz did- especially when they are faced with the command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Yes, there are many who feel no personal responsibility for making disciples. Perhaps, you are counted in that number. Secretly, you confess that evangelism is the most uncomfortable word in common church use. Stewardship runs a strong second. Your own personal choice for improving church attendance and fostering the growth of the church would be to call every Sunday- Easter. It’s not that you doubt the claims of the Christian faith, you’re simply not sure that you know the faith well enough that you can speak confidently to others.
Let me assure you, you are not alone. The eleven disciples who gathered on that hilltop in Galilee were skeptical as well. They had just witnessed the miracle of their master’s resurrection, and when they saw Jesus for the first time in Galilee, they worshiped him. And yet some doubted. St. Matthew doesn’t deny that Jesus’ faithful disciples had questions, nor does he chastise them for their lack of faith. Instead, quite surprisingly at the close of the gospel, Jesus entrusts to all of them, the worshiping and doubtful alike, the great mission of the church- to make disciples of all nations.
My friends, the Great Commission was not simply a summons given to those eleven disciples in Galilee 2000 years ago. The Great Commission is the mission before the church in every generation. Over the last Sundays of Easter, I have spoken of the world being one generation away from faithlessness, and the role we each have been called to play. Today, I would to share with you three simple words that I hope that they will move and motivate you as well. They are Ignite, Invite and Inspire.
First of all, in order to live out the Great Commission, you need to ignite an interest in the faith in those around you. I read a story about a woman who was sick in bed with the flu. Her darling daughter wanted so much to be a good nurse. She fluffed the pillows and brought a magazine to read. And then she even showed up with a surprise cup of tea. “Why, you’re such a sweetheart,” the mother said as she drank the tea. “I didn’t know you even knew how to make tea.” “Oh, yes,” the little girl replied. “I learned by watching you. I put the tea leaves in the pan, and then I strained it into a cup. But I couldn’t find a strainer, so I used the fly swatter instead.” “You what?” the mother screamed. And the little girl quickly added, “Oh, don’t worry, Mom, I didn’t use the new fly swatter. I used the old one.” For better or worse, your children and your neighbors watch what you do. They learn from your strengths and your weaknesses, your virtues and your vices. And believe me, your actions and mine, speak louder than our words. You have the power to ignite and sustain an interest in the faith, and you can just as quickly extinguish it.
It’s unfortunate that Christ said, “Teach them to obey.” For that reason, many people have come to view the Christian faith as a collection of restrictions and rules for living. Oddly, much of Jesus own ministry was spent disobeying the law. The Sabbath laws of the Old Testament had evolved which prevented men and women from doing good works for the sake of others. Rarely did he respect the legal practices that separated Jews from Gentiles. Jesus’ command would be far easier to understand if Christ had exchanged the word obey for observe. That is why it is so important that you ignite an interest in the faith. Remember, people are watching you every day. So what do they see?
Second, the mission of the Church always begins with a word of invitation. Unfortunately, some Christians don’t know what they are inviting others to experience. They know that sharing and teaching the faith is good, and that serving their neighbor is honorable., but they’re a bit uncomfortable imposing their faith upon another. Well, if that is your understanding of the Great Commission then perhaps you shouldn’t. You may be doing more damage than good. I am reminded of the man who was trying to be more diligent about witnessing and saw an opportunity as he was standing in the “10 Items or Less” checkout line at the grocery store. “All have sinned,” he began sincerely looking at the clerk scanning his items. “Including you, Mac,” she replied without looking up. “I count twelve items here.”
Thirty years of ministry, however, has taught me the importance of a personal invitation. When friends and family are going through tough times, we often hear our voices saying, “You should really find help,” or perhaps, “You should go to church.” This counsel never seems truly genuine, until you invite them to join you, and when you promise to accompany them. The continuing, and abiding presence of Jesus is a profound promise if it is incarnate in your life. The Holy Spirit becomes active in your caring in ways you could never imagine. This is what happens when you invite someone to join you in the journey.
The famous American preacher, Paul Scherer was once stopped by a man who had been so moved by a sermon that Scherer had preached, that he made a point of thanking him. For the listener, the sermon had helped him refocus his vision and turn his life around. Pastor Scherer was so grateful for this man’s testimony, that he asked him to tell him the day that he heard the sermon, so that he could go back and read it himself. When Scherer returned to his study, he opened his file draw, located the sermon, and read the following inscription in his own handwriting, “Worthless. Never preach again.” You see, it isn’t the preacher’s word that is so important. It is the movement of the Holy Spirit. That is what Jesus is calling you to do in the words of the Great Commission. We are there inviting and accompanying God’s word along the way.
Finally, in order to live out the Great Commission, your life needs to inspire, and you do that by living your life with integrity. Does your walk match your talk? The Christian faith is most alive and lively when it is truly filled by the Holy Spirit- when your decisions are not based on what is best for you, neither calculated nor self-serving, but selfless. And the Christian life is truly inspirational to others when it is influenced and guided by faith.
The former chaplain of the United States Senate Richard C. Halverson warned our country nearly a generation ago of trusting solely in the courageous acts of heroism, war and death. These are important. But he reminded his listeners that there are equally courageous acts in life which we are all called to do today. He said, “It is written large in history that no nation, no empire, no kingdom was ever able to perpetuate itself by depending on military might(alone.) Our nation is no exception. On our coins we profess ‘In God we trust.’ When we begin to take seriously that profession, we can begin to look forward to the fruits of peace.”
After 30 years of service as a Lutheran pastor, I have discovered a few embarrassing truths about the church I serve. Lutherans love to sing, except when they are confronted with a new hymn. Lutherans believe sincerely that coffee is a third sacrament and that the Bible strictly forbids crossing the aisle during the sharing of the peace.
But my friends, I am proud of our centuries- old tradition of foreign missions. And I have learned from confident, faithful and trusting Lutheran men and women that we can make a difference. We are, after all, only one generation away from faithlessness. So we must begin to Ignite, Invite and Inspire the faith in the next generation today. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.