Editorial Note: Pastor Jones serves Saint Paul Lutheran Church in Raritan, New Jersey, having returned to the parish in 2002 after thirty years in academic, campus ministry and social ministry settings. His doctorate is in higher education (Texas Tech), and he holds master’s degrees in classics (Washington University) and New Testament (Concordia, Saint Louis). He also served for twenty-five years as a chaplain in the Army Reserves, retiring in 2005. He and his wife Katherine have two adult sons: Matthew and Stephen.
The Lord is risen!
What glorious Good News that is, not only for us, but for all the people of the world! And therein lies both a message and a challenge. The message is clear: God has raised Jesus from the dead, confirming his victory over sin, death and the power of evil. His victory confirms our faith, so that we are no longer of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19). The challenge, however, is equally clear. The Gospel message of the risen Lord is not something to be hoarded, something to be placed in a box and cherished. It is news to be shared.
Ablaze! is an effort to help us share. It is a bold program with challenging goals. It is a program into which the Missouri Synod has devoted considerable time and money. The materials continue to arrive: glossy brochures, professionally done DVDs, even stickers to post on the wall like gold stars for Sunday school attendance. Here is a program whose intent is to share the Good News with an unbelieving world, yet even its name lends itself to easy and biting criticism. There are negatives about this program, and they are important primarily because Ablaze! should be absolutely unnecessary.
First, however, Ablaze! suffers from subjectivity. No matter how hard one tries to quantify a human relationship, it remains impossible. So how do we count a “significant” contact and gain our gold star? Here is the official answer to that question from the LCMS web site:
When one person gives a clear presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to another person, so that there is an opportunity for that person to respond, this activity “counts” toward the 100 million goal. A person may “respond” by receiving the message, rejecting it or asking for more information.
Is the key on my clear presentation of the Good News, or is it on some sort of response from the listener? And what of the person who neither receives nor rejects the message but who responds with seeming indifference and in whom the seed of the Word may take root at a later time?
Second, Ablaze! suffers from objectivity. The goals are incredibly specific, but that in itself is a problem. Why 100 million people? Why not 150 million? Or 75 million? Or some different number? If our goal is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world, why isn’t our goal the world? Does the LCMS have a plan for what happens after 2017, or is our focus only on that completely objective yet arbitrary year, chosen because of its link to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation?
Third, and most important, Ablaze! is absolutely unnecessary. Or at least it should be. This is clear from the Biblical witness. Both the Old and New Testaments present examples of those whose hearts were ablaze and who, in response, shared the Word of God. There is a clear motif in the resurrection accounts that people should share the Good News. There are the missionary directives from Jesus himself, the so-called “commissions” to the disciples … and to us. And there is the example of the early church to witness boldly to the Good News of the resurrection.
Jesus, may our hearts be burning
With more fervent love for you …. (Lutheran Worship, # 90)
Consider the fact that our hearts should already be ablaze, so much so that we readily share our faith. In the fifth of his six personal laments, the prophet Jeremiah (20:7–13) expresses his frustration with God’s call. It is almost as if God had deceived him when he appointed him to be a prophet to the nations. God’s power is irresistible, even when Jeremiah finds the response to his message anything but positive. He has become a laughingstock, an object of mockery. Even his friends speak out against him and plot his downfall. In these trying times Jeremiah understands that God is still with him and that God will prevail. But look again at his words when he considers no longer speaking the word of the Lord.
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
Jeremiah could not hold in the word of the Lord; neither should we.
We have another example in the two disciples on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13–35). Along the way they met perhaps the one visitor in all Jerusalem who did not know about the crucifixion of Jesus and now, to their amazement, about the reports of the empty tomb. As they continued toward the village, the unrecognized Jesus began with Moses and the prophets and “interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” We would love to know what things Jesus identified, but we don’t. More to the point, however, was what happened when the two men invited this man to spend the evening with them. In the breaking of bread, their eyes were opened, and they recognized who he was. Note their first words after he vanished from their sight: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” In response to their encounter with the risen Lord, they immediately returned to Jerusalem to share the news. They spoke of their encounter on the Emmaus road and of how they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread. They could not contain the Good News of the resurrected Lord; neither should we.
There is in the resurrection accounts a clear motif that the news should be shared. In the Gospel of Saint Matthew (28:6–7), for example, the angel in the empty tomb has just told the women that Jesus is risen. His next words, however, are “go … and tell!” So also in the Gospel of Saint Mark (16:6–7). “He has risen,” the angel tells the women. “Go … tell!” Saint Luke (24:9) approaches the scene from a slightly different perspective. When the angel had reminded the women of Jesus’ words about his suffering, death and resurrection, they remembered and then went and told the remaining eleven disciples and the others gathered with them. Saint John’s Gospel (20:17–18) is often different from the three synoptic Gospels—those that “see together” the story of Jesus’ life. Yet here, too, we find the same reminder. Mary Magdalene had seen the empty tomb and had then seen the risen Lord outside the tomb. In response to his command to do so, she went and told. The clear direction for those who learn of the resurrection is that they are to go and tell others the news.
Jesus also directs us to the sharing of the Good News, in spite of the efforts of some to limit his instructions to the first disciples. In the so-called Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel (28:18–20), there is his command to “Go … and make disciples” sandwiched in the midst of the assurance of Jesus’ power and presence. In the longer ending of Saint Mark’s Gospel (16:15), Jesus directs the eleven disciples to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.” Even in Saint John’s Gospel (20:21), Jesus sends the disciples on a mission: “As the Father has sent me,” he told them, “even so I send you.”
Saint Luke’s Gospel (24:45–49) demands further attention. As noted earlier, the two disciples who met Jesus on the Emmaus road left the village that night and returned to Jerusalem to share the Good News. The risen Lord suddenly stood in the midst of this group of joy-filled disciples. He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, just as he had with the two disciples in Emmaus. Then he spoke of the necessity of proclaiming repentance and forgiveness in his name to all the nations. Their role was to be witnesses, both in respect to what they had heard and seen but also in respect to what they would share. For this special opportunity, to share the Good News of a risen Savior, Jesus offered both promise and power. Luke picks up these themes once again as he begins his second volume, the book of Acts. The events of Pentecost empowered the disciples to share their faith with the world.
The early church certainly understood what was asked of them. During the Easter season, the first lesson is from the book of Acts. There is a repeated pattern in the preaching of the apostles. We want to remind you of Jesus, they told various groups of listeners, that Jesus who went about among you preaching, teaching and healing. His ministry was in accordance with Scriptures, with the verses presented appropriate to the occasion. This Jesus you killed! But God raised him! And of this we are witnesses! The early church went and told. The early apostles proclaimed the risen Lord. They were witnesses to all that Jesus had done in their midst.
Thou sacred Love, grace on us bestow
Set our hearts with heav’nly fire aglow …. (The Lutheran Hymnal, # 231)
Unless one believes that the commissions were only to the disciples, in which case the church was meant to last no longer than one generation, the challenge remains. Our hearts should be burning. We should go and tell. We, too, are sent to share the Good News. We are to be witnesses of what God has done in our lives through his Son. With or without a program, we are to speak of that on which our faith is based and on which it stands or falls, God’s having raised his Son from death to life.
The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!