S. Easter 6.14 “The Help” John 14:15-21
What is the mission of the church? What were the apostles supposed to do, exactly? Did they do it? What is left for us to do?
Our three readings today all answer the question(s) in a lovely progression… I suppose the usual answer given to “the mission question” today is that the apostles were supposed to go, seek out unbelievers all over the world, and try to convert them into Christians; that they only did this partially, so there is lots of seeking for the lost and converting to be done by the church still, today. That’s the usual answer, is it not?
But is it what we actually see in the New Testament, in the three readings before us today? In a book called “The Acts of the Apostles” you would think you would find plenty of examples of how Peter, Paul & Co. actually acted in fulfillment of their “great commission”, so that reading that book would make answering “the mission question” pretty simple. I think that is most certainly true, and our first lesson today is deservedly cited as a classic example of the church’s mission, fulfilled.
While Paul was waiting for his pals Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens (after they got chased out of Thessalonica and Berea by disgruntled Pharisees) his spirit was provoked when he saw the city was given over to idols. Now, here comes the first (of several) interesting bits: Paul does not go into the marketplace and city squares, nor does he stand outside the temples of the idols and harangue the pagans to convert (because the end is near!), or play “Just As I Am” and have an altar call where they can decide to commit their lives to Jesus. No. Paul does not do any of the expected missional things. He doesn’t chase after the unbelievers and try to convert them (in fact, you won’t find even one example of the apostles seeking out pagans and attempting to convert them in the entire Book of Acts. I know; I’ve looked. Try searching it yourself. Let me know what you find…)
But what does Paul do? Upset over a whole city given over to idols, he comes in to the synagogue of the Jews and reasons there (and in the marketplace) with Jewish and Gentile god-fearers. And that’s a little odd, at first glance isn’t it? I mean these would be the only people in town who aren’t worshiping idols. If you’re upset about a town given over to idols, wouldn’t you think you’d go address the idol worshipers directly about this? Why hang with the only folks in town who don’t worship idols, if you’re upset about idolatry?
Ah, well, now that’s a good question! You’d do that only if you didn’t conceive your mission as an apostle to going out after pagans, but coming in to the Church, staying close to Christ and His flock, as if you yourself were chief of sinners and couldn’t be trusted to get very far away from Him or His fold, like you knew the story of the other apostles and saw that apart from Him they could do nothing—that would explain it!
If only we knew what Paul said to those Jewish and Gentile worshipers in the synagogue, we could be sure, right? But we do know what he said! Because he tells us he says the same stuff always, everywhere, to every synagogue. Read his two letters to the Corinthians, who lived in a similar situation: he tells them to keep away from idols and idolaters, to come out and be separate from them, to receive the good gifts of Christ as a life preserver, a ray of light in a dark world. It’s pretty much the conversation the two angels had with Lot while he lived in Sodom and Gomorrah…
Better still, we have Jesus’ own detailed instructions as to what the mission of the apostles was exactly. Not in Matthew 28, but much earlier, in Matthew 10, He told them, first thing, not to go into the way of the Gentiles or Samaritans (don’t seek out unbelievers, in other words!) but, rather, go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel—to inquire in any city where these sheep may be and then go, bring peace to their house [of worship], and stay there, until they get kicked out. And that’s just what Paul does in Athens. When he sees the most idolatrous city he’s ever visited, he goes to the synagogue, to the lost sheep of Israel, to see if they realize what a dangerous situation this is for them? To bring them peace by the Gospel of Christ Jesus. The only Gentiles Paul seeks out are the God-fearing catechumens who worship in the synagogues of Israel. He never goes after pagans. Ever!
But the pagans come after him. Luke tells us Paul reasoned in the synagogue with Jewish and Gentile god-fearers, and also he reasoned with the same synagogue members in the marketplace (probably to get Starbucks after church/bible study, to carry on the conversation—that’s the obvious referent in Greek to “those” in the marketplace—those same believers he talked with in the synagogue).
And in the café, the Athenian pagans come and find Paul, horn in on his conversation, and demand he explain the story of Jesus and Anastasia. (Is it R-rated?!?) And Paul tells them, in response to their demand, that they are too superstitious and worship in ignorance—that when he says “Anastasia”, (the Greek word for resurrection), he means Jesus literally rose bodily from the dead and will return at the Last to judge the whole world in righteousness! And they scoff at that, most all of them, so Paul goes back to his synagogue friends and that’s that…
Which is just what St. Peter says in our second reading: “always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” The apostles intentionally sought out believers in the synagogue to share in the peace of Christ by Word and Sacraments. But if pagan philosophers came to their table in the café, if the jailer in prison asked what those psalms they sang were all about, they’d give an answer. If their peace rested on those who heard, fine; if not, they’d shake of the dust and move on their Way…
Because, in today’s Gospel, we see the ultimate answer as to the church’s mission: then as now, it’s not to be helpers of Jesus Christ, but rather to be helped ourselves. Jesus does not say, “I’ve helped you enough; time to help Me.” No, He says “come to Me and I will come and dwell with you, send you the Helper to keep you with Me forever… If the apostles needed only continual help, how much more do we?
We are not the help. The Holy Spirit is. We can’t save ourselves (much less our brothers!) but Jesus can—already has! We are not waiters, but the waited on. Our mission is to be helped by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—to share in the divine charity joyfully, always, as eternal charity cases ourselves. The Master is among us as One who serves—washing, feeding, saving us all—His treat. Only by being built into His spiritual house ourselves can we become shelter for the storm-tossed.
The command of Christ isn’t to go out, but to “come to Me, all ye weary, heavy laden, and I will give you rest”. The mission of the church isn’t to do something, but simply to be something—Christ’s Body, helpees He’s dying to save, Himself. The Church is like “Sinners Anonymous”: in being helped ourselves by the Highest Power, gathering continually to receive His strength anew, encouraging one another on this Way of Life, the Church exerts a tremendous gravitational attraction on an unbelieving world!
This is what the apostles did—they were helped perpetually, by the Father, through the Spirit, into the Son; just so, they rise; which is all that’s left for us, because… Christ is Risen! Indeed. Amen.