6th Sunday Easter
S. Easter 6.23 “Missions, Inc.” Acts 17:16-31
Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his famous farewell address as president warned (unsuccessfully, it seems) against the “military-industrial” complex’s malign influence on our country. I like Ike! I’m a proud graduate of Eisenhower high school, more proud of that name than those of my other alma maters. And I, even more unsuccessfully than Ike, I think, have tried to warn against the malign influence on the church of the “missions-industrial” complex.
What do I mean by the “missions-industrial complex”? Well I have in mind the ideology that began with the so-called “Great Awakening” led by the infamous Pelagian heretic tent revivalist George Whitfield in the American colonies in the early 18th century. Billy Graham basically just copied Whitfield’s unscriptural doctrine and practice that holds the mission of the church is proselytizing outsiders, identifying unbelievers, and trying to convert them by high pressure sales tactics. It holds that faith is a ‘free-will’ decision that we make to invite Jesus into our hearts—something we must badger outsiders to do, also.
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod headed down this same Pelagian, decision theology proselytizing path in the 1940s with the Lutheran Hour radio show. This ramped up in the 70’s and 80’s with popular programs aping Kennedy Evangelism’s door to door proselytizing. From 2001-2010 the president of the Missouri Synod pushed an “Ablaze” program that insisted the main (essentially sole) mission of the church was soul-winning by aggressive proselytizing of the unchurched. The church’s traditional liturgy—the Mass and accompanying offices—was widely gutted and replaced with praise style rock concerts to appeal to the unchurched. That bringing the masses of unchurched people into the church might actually un-church the church, and might not be what Jesus wants, occurred to almost no one. ;-(
But the real problem with “Missions, Inc.” is what Augustine saw Pelagius’ problem was: nondum considerasti pondus pecati: “You have not considered how great is the weight of sin.” To think, as Luther ripped Erasmus for, that we have some power in us—‘free-will’—to incline ourselves not only to believe in God, but to do the works befitting salvation, is contrary to all holy scriptures and makes Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection completely unnecessary!
As we quoted Luther last week: “Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and that categorically, so that what is not Christ is not the way but error, not truth but lies, not life but death.” So, our choices, good works, moral renewal, etc. are not Christ, not life-giving, but death-dealing unless they flow from Gospel faith. (!)
The Church is a Sinners Anonymous Group, not a bunch of holy rollers.
The “Missions, Inc” ideology begins and ends reading Matt. 28 as some “Great Commission”: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always to the end of the age”, This is interpreted as a divine mandate to go seek out unbelievers (and strange, new worlds?) and make them Christian by your fervent witness.
But, you see: that’s not actually what the Greek says. It’s not how Luther and all the fathers read the passage, either. The real “Great Commissioning” of the apostles is in Matt. 10, where Jesus sends out the 12, saying: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach…”
The apostles aren’t cajoling unbelievers to decide for Jesus—because no one has that power! No! Besides; they are warned not to seek out Gentiles, Samaritans (or strange new worlds 😉 but to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, that is the synagogue, the church (!)
That throws a wrench into the missions-industrial complex’s gears! Undeterred, Missions, Inc replies: “Matt. 28 is Jesus changing his mind, saying “Before, I told you to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but now I’ve changed my mind [you thought God didn’t change?!]. Go and seek the unchurched and everyone and convert them.”
But the “go” in Matt. 28 is not an imperative verb in Greek as it is mistranslated in English. It’s an aorist passive participle—“having gone”, that is, “where I’ve already sent you”. Luther read this not as a command to proselytize but as a promise that God Himself, by word and sacrament, will make believers of lost sheep, draw them Himself to his holy church in ways we cannot plan, program, or fathom. There’s only one passage on proselytizing in the Bible, Matt 23:15. Check it out!
You know, there’s this book in the bible (NT?) called “The Acts of the Apostles” that tells the actions Christ’s apostles took. Now, you’d think: if they understood Matt. 28 as canceling the earlier command to leave the Gentiles, Samaritans alone and go only to the church, then we’d see many examples of them seeking out strange new worlds, er, unbelievers and proselytizing them.
But not only are there not many examples of the apostles going, proselytizing outsiders to the church, there are actually no such examples. NOT ONE! They always go, as Acts 17:2 says, to the synagogue to preach and teach (where, incidentally, they found many god-fearing Gentiles).
This passage, where Paul is preaching on the Areopagus is cited as the exception to this rule. But the first verse says that—vexed at the idolatry of the Athenians—Paul went not to the Greek in the street, knocking on doors, proselytizing, not setting up tents to compel the masses to “make good decisions” but he goes to the synagogue, reasons there with the Jews and the Gentile-worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there.
An important question is: who’s the “those” of vs. 17? The answer, from the Greek, with a near certain confidence level is that it’s the same group of Jews and Gentile-worshipers that Paul met in the synagogue. Like us, after church, they went for brunch to the fashionable foods halls and continued talking Jesus and the scriptures and getting that straight. The Greek doesn’t suggest that Paul’s talking with one group in the synagogue and a different group in the marketplace; but with the same group, in 2 different places. You really have to twist standard Greek grammar to make it what “Missions, Inc” wants.
And we see it in the French phil… er, Athenian, Epicurean, and Stoic philosophers butting in on Paul’s private conversation. They overhear, in Greek, Paul speaking of Jesus and Anastasia, a Greek word which literally means “resurrection” but is also a popular woman’s name. They think this is a sexy story of a male god and female goddess getting it on. They took Paul, insisted he tell them more…
Luke says they’re busy-bodies who spend all their time in philosophical gossip and idle speculation, wearing berets and smoking Gauloises. 😉
It’s comical, really. Paul addresses them not as “very religious”, but literally as too superstitious; not as benignly “unknowing” but, literally in Greek, ignorant. (!!!)
When these ignoramuses hear of the literal resurrection of the dead, they’re out. Far from being an example of the power of proselytizing, this shows its uselessness. If they’re not in church, the Gospel’s not their thing…
In our Gospel, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit, the Helper, Who alone will guide us into all truth—exposing the perennial Pelagian problem of “Missions, Inc” that fancies faith as something we decide, do, and can produce in ourselves and others. But, see: faith, love, forgiveness are God’s GIFTS!
We are and remain, this side of the grave, miserable, sorry sinners ourselves, good examples of nothing. But here—in this Sinners Anonymous Group called the Xn church—we are gifted God’s Holy Spirt, through word and sacrament, Who forgives, saves us, by grace, through faith in Jesus alone. Amen.