Meant for Mission

By Will Willimon

I was in a meeting and we were talking about the need for a new church plant in our area. It had been over a decade since we had a new church start. The proposal to plant a new congregation had encountered opposition.

“What are we doing starting a new church when all of our congregations are dwindling?” asked one person.

“We need to be building up the churches we have rather than starting out with new congregations.”

The visiting consultant gave us statistics in an attempt to convince us: established congregations all decline at about the same rates, new congregations reach people who established churches don’t reach, new congregations attract a younger and a more diverse group, etc.

The critics were unmoved. Then the consultant said, “What’s sad is that every person here is in a congregation that was once a new church start. You wouldn’t have your beloved congregation if someone had not risked, ventured out, and started a church for people who didn’t have a church. It’s sad to see that none of you want to be part of the historic, essential move of the gospel outward.

Any time in our history, when the church has acted as if the truth of Jesus Christ is just true for us, when we have been content to hunker down, safe and secure with our best friends enjoying Jesus, the church has betrayed the good news it was meant to bear into the world.

Christ loves the church, but Christ did not die just for the church. The good news that we have received is meant to be good news that is shared. Any time the church has declined publicly to share, content to care for and to protect our turf rather than joining Jesus in his move into all the world, we have risked losing touch with Christ. The word missionmeans “sent.” We can’t be with Christ if we are unwilling to move with Christ.

Mission is before us this Sunday because today’s first lesson, from Acts 17, is an account of the gospel moving outward. The good news about Jesus has spread like wildfire from its originating location in Jerusalem, to Judea, and throughout Asia Minor. Paul has been enlisted by the risen Christ to be a missionary to the Gentiles. Awhile back we read the account of the baptism of Cornelius, first Gentile convert. The Acts of the Apostles is like a mission guidebook.

Can the Jewish good news about the crucified Jew, Jesus, and the astounding claim of his resurrection from the dead, can that good news be heard as good news even by sophisticated, classically educated pagans? In answer to that question, we follow Paul to Athens, city of the Parthenon and Plato, the very summit of Greco-Roman civilization.

Paul stands up on Mars Hill (named for the Greek god of war) and explains himself by speaking to these Greeks about Christ. Let’s see what we can learn about mission from Paul’s speech in Athens.

“People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way.” Paul can’t use Scripture in order to present the good news of Jesus to these Greeks. So he begins by connecting with their experience. He has found that they are “very religious” (though it’s hard to know if Paul was flattering the Greeks or if Paul was criticizing them for their pagan idolatry).

Paul says that he has observed lots of altars in their city. He even saw that the Athenians had an altar “To an unknown God.” (These pagans will bow to about anything if given half a chance to worship something.)

Paul sees these myriad altars as an opening for his argument: “What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands.”

Paul preaches a very Jewish idea to the Athenians. There is only one God. That one God can’t be served by worshiping some idol. This one and only God has made the world and all the people of the world. God made us all, whether we are conscious of it or not, to reach toward God, to desire this one, true God in whom we “live, move, and exist.”

Then Paul quotes a line from one of their popular poets. Then he mocks their classical culture and its products as “ignorance,” and tells them that God wants them to “change your hearts and lives.” Paul’s appeal to the Athenians ends without even explicitly naming Jesus (perhaps Paul thinks soft, indirect persuasion is best for these Greeks). Paul ends by indirectly referring to the judgment of the world by Jesus, a man whom God has appointed and given proof “to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

This Sunday we continue to explore some of the implications of Easter, the wonder that God raised crucified Jesus. I remind you that the word that Easter morning was not, “Jesus is raised, now you will get to see your loved ones when you die!” but rather, “Jesus is raised, now go, tell!”

Perhaps we thought that “go, tell” referred to telling Jesus’ closest followers. Or maybe it meant telling a few of our closest friends in Jerusalem. No, the Easter command — as we see it lived out here in the Acts of the Apostles, as Paul preaches on Mars Hill — is to go, tell the whole world. Gospel means “good news.” It’s not “good ideas about God,” or “good thoughts to ponder in your heart.” It’s news, public announcement, meant to be shared.

On many Sundays, as I preach to the church, I take Paul on Mars Hill as my model. I use whatever public speaking gifts God has given me to grab your attention, to pique your interest. Sometimes I use illustrations from contemporary culture or refer to some movie or current event. I try to connect with your experiences.

But before I’m done, it’s not a sermon until my speech points away from me, away from you, to Jesus. Eventually I must speak of the one whom God has certified and vindicated as the truth about God by raising crucified Jesus from the dead, or it isn’t really a sermon.

But let’s never forget that (as Martin Luther said) a preacher preaches to the church on Sunday so that all the congregation can preach to the world Monday through Saturday. You’re all “preachers,” all of you have a commission from Christ to “Go, tell!” And that means that all of you are “missionaries.”

Whenever the church finds itself thrust by God across some boundary — economic, racial, generational, cultural, national — that is properly called mission. God elects the church for the purpose of embodying God’s gracious intent beyond the bounds of the church. We gather in church on Sunday to gain the insights, the reassurance, the equipment we’ll need to scatter into the world on Monday. The news we have received is news that’s meant to be shared. The sharing of the good news beyond the bounds of the church is called mission.

Paul, the loyal, observant Jew, finds himself far from home in a pagan city. How did he get there? Paul believed that the risen Christ had appeared to him, not simply to reassure Paul that he was loved by God, but more significantly to give Paul a job to do, to make Paul a missionary. Everybody who is called by Jesus is sent forth by Jesus. The word missioncomes from the Latin word to send.

The speaking of the gospel to those who haven’t heard is not optional for any Christian. As your pastor, I’m not the sole preacher or the only missionary. In fact, I think of myself as the equipper of the missionaries. My main work is with the church. Your main work is with Jesus in the world. Christ means to have not just the church but the whole world. And guess how Jesus gets what he wants in the world — mainly through missionaries like you!

I want you to take a moment and reflect:

Think about where you work, or the classroom where you study.

Think about all the people with whom you are likely to come in contact during the course of the coming week.

Focus particularly on those who may not have heard the good news that you’ve heard, namely, that God is for them and God has created them to be for God.

How might you find a way to say and to show that the truth of Jesus Christ is good news for them too? You may not be as eloquent or skillful in witness as Paul was on Mars Hill, but you are a witness and God intends to use you to get out the news to others.

OK, missionaries, in this service of worship we’ve heard again the news, the good news. We have strengthened our faith through the prayers and songs of this service. Now, it’s time to step up and go forth and do the work that the risen Christ has assigned us.

Let’s go!

The Rev. Dr. Will Willimon is the retired Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.


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