Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Welcome home to Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church on this Rally Sunday! Welcome home from cabins up North, vacations around the country, and your children’s weekend sports tournaments. I am not sure what you did this summer, but while you were away, I performed 3 weddings, 2 funerals and 1 baptism. We drove to Duluth three times and twice to Luther Park Bible Camp in Danbury, Wisconsin. For fun, I preached 15 sermons on the lives on the the Apostles, and if you missed any of them, they are still on the church website. Today’s sermon is intended to draw that summer series to a close, and to rally and inspire you like that first generation of Christians to share the gospel. That is a daunting challenge indeed. Almost as daunting as finding appropriate jokes for the lives of the apostles, but here goes.
I just read in a recent edition of Christianity Today that archaeologists have found the remains of the 12 apostles. They’re now referred to as “The 12 a-FOSSILS.” Do you know where St. Paul bought his mask for the Corona Virus? In a shop on the road to Damaskus. Scholars have spent the last year debating the type of car the disciples drove? The majority stated, a Christler. Historians, however, disagreed. They were adamant that the apostles carpooled around in a Honda? After all, the Bible says they were of one Accord.
I began my summer sermon series on the Lessons and Legends of the Apostles with the words of Benjamin Franklin, and I would like to close the series with the same quote. “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing about.” Regretfully, much of the work was not recorded in scripture. In their lifetime, Jesus’ 12 disciples did do amazing things travelling to the ends of the Roman Empire, where they preached, gathered believers and established churches. And they were not alone. Although the term “apostle,” is generally the title only given to Jesus’ 12 disciples, there are actually 12 other men who are referred to as apostles in the New Testament, including: Paul, Barnabas, James the Lord’s Brother, Apollos, Timothy, as well the Evangelists Mark and Luke. Perhaps, even more surprising to Protestants, there are yet another 58 disciples mentioned in scripture and legend that the Orthodox Church considers to be apostles. Their mission is celebrated on January 4th as the Feast of the Sending of the 70. What an amazing cloud of witnesses of saints, apostles and martyrs surround as we persevere in the race Christ has set before us.
For some of God’s chosen, living by faith brought great triumph. Their stories are written in scripture. For others, living by faith brought amazing victories to situations that looked dismal. Their legacy lives on in legends, art and architecture. And for others still, living by faith brought a tremendous personal strength which allowed them to endure hardship and isolation. Tragically, however, the majority of the apostles, including 11 of Jesus’ 12 disciples also experienced brutal deaths, by crucifixion, beheading, stoning, and being dragged on cobblestones streets behind horses. We might ask why the saints, apostles and martyrs would go to such dangerous lengths to share the gospel? Simply said, these men were so confident of God’s purpose for their lives and the world, and that their names would be written in heaven, that they could not turn back. They believed in Christ’s promise of everlasting life, and so they dared to run the race that was set before them.
That choice was not an easy decision for Christians living in the 1st Century, and it is still true in parts of the world today. There are Christians who for their faith, continue to suffer. I met a Pakistani Lutheran pastor on a visit to Norway. He had been attacked five times, and his home in Pakistan had been burned to the ground. In my work as a missionary in Europe’s former Eastern Block, I met scores of men and women who were persecuted for teaching Sunday School. I worked together with colleagues who were denied access to university education studies because they attended worship services on Christmas Eve; a swimmer who could not compete for the Soviet Union because he had been baptized, a luge champion who was not allowed on the national team. I knew pastors who had to keep a suitcase always packed under their bed in case they were arrested. These are not stories of some distant past two millennia; these are stories from our own life time. These men and women were not idlers who showed their faith one day a week. They were those who by faith were given an abundance of strength and hope and willingly accepted the consequences, all for the joy of their names being written in heaven.
My friends, Jesus never promised his disciples an easy journey. Nor does the Christian faith promise that to you and me. But there is no doubt which path that Jesus understands will bring you ultimate comfort and happiness. Jesus counseled his followers long ago, as he counsels us still today- a faithful life will not be completely fearless, absurdly happy or without troubles, but he assures us that the joy and peace and comfort of heaven will amply compensate for the trouble of this world. Your name will be written in heaven. And so he is inviting you to run the race. And where does that journey begin? It begins with you telling the old, old story.
God hasn’t stopped sending out disciples to work in this world for the mission of the church is not yet done. The Scottish preacher and biblical scholar Dr. Herbert Lockyear, coined a phrase which churches today should embrace. “Evangelize or fossilize.” There is nothing so comfortable or tragic, as a fossilized church or Christian. Things always remain the same, until they die a predictable death. Instead, the church must be living and active and inviting and feel a bit uncomfortable at times. Granted, we may not be facing the same threats of persecution, stoning and crucifixion as the saints, apostles and martyrs knew. Our neighbors may be more agreeable and accommodating than those of old. Still the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is just as important, and earth shaking today, and is needed now for this lost and aimless generation. As Jesus said, “The Harvest is Plentiful, but the Laborers are few.”
I know that for many of you, evangelism is an uncomfortable word, second only to stewardship. You have been raised to believe that telling the old, old story is the work of the pastor only and that the perfect pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes; condemns sin roundly but never hurts anyone’s feelings; works from 8am until midnight and is also the church janitor. The perfect pastor makes $40 a week, wears good clothes, drives a good car, buys good books, and donates $30 a week to the church. He is 29 years old and has 40 years experience. Above all, he is handsome- or was, but the task of evangelism is not the pastor’s alone.
In scriptures it says that “Jesus appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.” Of course, there is good reason for sending them out two by two. Friendship, prayer, mutual support and accountability to be sure. As Christians, we need each other, and that’s why we need the church. But what I find the most interesting in this passage is that Jesus sends these 70 out to go ahead of him to places that he will later go. The meaning is clear. Jesus is ultimately the one responsible for what happens after the gospel has been proclaimed. Not you. But you have to prepare the way. You have to tell the old, old story- and the great cloud of witnesses are there to cheer you on.
When you turn to that cloud of witnesses, to the saints, apostles and martyr, you hear the stories of men and women who faced great loneliness, dangers and trials as well, and who chose to place their lives into the hands of the pioneer and perfector of the faith, Jesus, the one who would not let them go. That is the story family and neighbors and strangers need to hear. Yes, this Jesus offers a love that will not let you go- a forgiveness that knows no bounds- a grace that knows no ending- a peace that no war can destroy- a light that cannot be extinguished.
Church historians often portray the growth of the early church as a series of explosive, mass conversion experiences, but in reality, the work of sharing the gospel was carried out simply one person at a time. Sociologist Rodney Stark wrote in “The Rise of Christianity’ that the church began its mission with just a few dozen followers and by the end of the first century numbered only 7500 members. The vast majority of those new believers were baptized one at a time at the hands of the faithful apostles.
The world still needs faithful and tireless disciples who will welcome the stranger into the presence of Jesus one at a time. That is your work as modern-day apostles. Benjamin Franklin once said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing about.” My friends, sharing the old, old story of Jesus and his love is something worth writing about indeed. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.