Fifth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| June 22, 2008
“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” 1 Peter 3, 15
If there is one thing on which all Christians can agree it is that the Lord of the Church has commanded his Church to preach the Gospel to all people. St. Matthew records these words of Jesus at the end of his Gospel:
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen
(St. Matthew 28, 18-20
St. Mark records these words of Jesus near the end of his Gospel:
And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. (St. Mark 16, 15-16)
St. Luke records these words of Jesus near the end of his Gospel:
Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (St. Luke 24, 46-47)
Consider what Jesus says. In St. Matthew he says “make disciples of all the nations.” In St. Mark he says, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” In St. Luke he says “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations.” This is called his Great Commission. Jesus could not have made it any clearer. The gospel is intended for everyone. Everyone in the world is a sinner. Jesus is the Savior of the world. It is only through faith in Jesus the Savior that sinners receive forgiveness of their sins, are rescued from death and hell, and become heirs of eternal life in heaven. This is why Jesus wants the gospel proclaimed to everyone in the world.
The words I just read to you were Christ’s commission to the first preachers to go out and preach. Not everyone is a preacher. But it is not just the preachers who are commissioned by Jesus to bring the gospel into the whole world. In fact, the Great Commission is given to Christ’s whole church on earth and to every individual member of it.
What does this mean? Are we obliged to go door to door making cold calls on strangers and trying to persuade them to accept the Christian faith? I suspect that most Christians would be uncomfortable at the thought of approaching perfect strangers to talk about Christ. As a college student I was involved in a program called “Ongoing Ambassadors for Christ.” We would go door to door canvassing and looking for opportunities to share our faith. We were taught a canned presentation we were supposed to present. I recall how I felt at the time. I believed it was important to reach out to people with the gospel, but I also felt that we were like so many salesmen, going door to door looking for a sale.
This is way it is with the various “how to” programs on presenting the gospel to the unchurched. Most Christians can’t do what the program requires of them. And because of this, many so called “experts” in church growth conclude that only about ten percent of any congregation has the gift of evangelism. They define this gift as the ability to share the gospel in such a way that people will believe it. But no man has any such gift. It is God alone who enables us to believe the gospel. Not the greatest preacher in the world has the power to bring someone else to faith. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.
There’s no such thing as the gift of evangelism. And Christians aren’t required by God to go door to door talking to strangers. If you want to know what God’s Word does require of us, it is stated clearly in our text:
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.
Be ready. Be ready to defend. Be ready to confess. How? By first sanctifying the Lord God in your heart. To sanctify means to make holy. But God is already holy. In fact, God alone is holy. He is untouched by sin. He remains separate from all evil. He is goodness and righteousness and purity. It is impossible to make God what he already is. To sanctify God in your heart means that you set him apart from everyone and everything else. You acknowledge God as your Creator, your Redeemer, and your Comforter. You treasure his word as the word of truth and the source of eternal life.
Before you can defend the hope that is in you, you must have hope in you. And you cannot give yourself this hope. It comes from the Holy Spirit. It comes from God’s word. That’s what brings us to church. That’s what brings us to read and study the Bible. That’s what drives us to the Lord’s Supper. When God speaks things happen and the greatest miracle of God is faith.
Faith trusts in what God says right now as he speaks to us in his word. Hope trusts in what God promises us for our future. Faith is not more confident than hope is. Hope is simply the present faith directed to the future. In everyday language when we use the word hope it indicates uncertainty. Will next Sunday be a nice day for our parish church service and picnic at Polk County Park? I hope so. That is, I want it to be that way but I don’t know that it will. Maybe it will rain and hail or even snow!
That’s not what the word “hope” means when used in the Bible. When Paul talks about the hope that is within us he’s talking about something sure, something certain, something positive. It isn’t an iffy sort of thing of which we can have no confidence. We can know that we are going to heaven. We can know that we will enjoy eternal life. We can know that the place where there is no sorrow, no suffering, no pain, and no death is real. It isn’t just the imaginary hope of religious people. It is the place where Christians enjoy pure and holy love with God and with one another forever.
How can anyone have such a hope? Each of us can have this hope for two reasons. First of all, we can have this hope because eternal life is God’s gift. Were it something we had to deserve by our good conduct then we could not know we are going to heaven. Indeed we could only doubt because none of us has lived a life deserving of eternal life. We can have this confident hope of eternal life because it is God’s gift in the gospel. God tells us that for Christ’s sake our sins are forgiven and this forgiveness is ours through faith and through faith alone. This is how we can know we have eternal life.
Second, we can have this hope because our faith is the gracious work of God himself. As Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (St. John 6, 49) The Apostle writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2, 8) When a sheep of the Good Shepherd continues to hear his Shepherd’s voice he will not fall away. He can be confident that he will remain in the true faith until he dies. As St. Paul wrote, “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.”(2 Timothy 1, 12)
Tell me this. Have you committed a sin for which Jesus did not die? Did he not wash away all your sins by his blood? Is there anything other than your sins that could keep you out of heaven? Didn’t God bring you to faith without any help from you? Doesn’t Jesus promise concerning his sheep, “And they shall never perish, neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand”? (John 10, 28) So then, you have this hope in you. God put it there. Nobody can take it away from you.
And you can confess it and defend it. Should anyone ask you why you have confidence in your future, you can answer. You can confess your confidence in Christ. Should you be asked how you know that God will order all things on earth for your benefit and that he will bring you to heaven on the last day you can give a defense of your hope. It isn’t grounded in you. It is grounded in God’s infallible Word.
Be ready, St. Peter says. Personal evangelism isn’t something strange to us that we must train to do and then go out and do. It’s something we are always ready to do. We do it when called upon to do it. Don’t be afraid of what people may think. Don’t be ashamed to confess what you believe. There is nothing more precious than the gospel of Christ. St. Paul said,
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1, 16-17)
We don’t preach ourselves. We don’t glory in ourselves. We defend the hope God has placed in us with humility and respect. We aren’t boasting in ourselves. We are boasting in the grace of God and in the blood and righteousness of Jesus. We are claiming the promise of eternal joys guaranteed to us by the Holy Spirit who testifies to us that we are God’s children. When given the opportunity to defend this hope, we’ll take it. Amen