The following sermon was preached by Dr Harold Ristau in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service on the occasion of St Mark, Evangelist, 25 April 2022.
The holy apostles, most of whom shed their blood for their Lord, weren’t always courageous. They had their moments. But God used them anyway to carry out His mission and change the world.
You have all been to a magic show. The magician looks for a volunteer. Everybody puts up their hands, but you get chosen and escorted onto the stage. At first, you felt lucky to be selected as his partner, but now have a few regrets when you see what you just signed up for. It’s the ol’ “man in the box gets sawed in two” trick. Seemed like a good idea at the time, now not so sure.
Maybe that was how those disciples felt when they received those final words from the risen Lord before He ascended to the right hand of the Father, when they received their “marching orders” so to speak. “What did I get myself into? Am I going to walk out of here alive?”
The disciples may have felt more than a little anxiety as they graduated from being disciples—after their three-year seminary program—and soon to be promoted to apostles. They had suffered an emotional few days, to say the least. They are still wrestling with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, when He rebukes them for their doubts, and maybe even self-pity. And then they get this seemingly impossible list of commands: “Go into the WHOLE WORLD and preach the Gospel to every single person!” And some unexpected, bizarre promises: “You’ll be picking up snakes, but don’t worry, you’ll have natural immunity”. Surely some of them wondered, “What in heaven’s sake had we signed up for?”
Yet they were too deeply committed at this point in the program. They were locked in the box and Jesus stood there holding the saw.
The Easter and ascension account by St. Mark isn’t as popular as the other Gospels. St. Mark expresses a tone of abruptness and matter-of-factness which makes it feel like the Coles’ Notes version of St. John’s Gospel, for example. This morning’s pericope is no exception. In comparison with the other Gospel accounts of the resurrection, it has a rather flat or even cold tone. It’s also a little bit of a kill-joy in the way it underscores the disciples’ fear and lack of faith. The disciples are even scolded for their unbelief and their cowardly hardened hearts.
Jesus is portrayed more as a general than a shepherd. He doesn’t succumb to the temptation to soften the talk, so that it is more palatable to his troops. Then after giving their seemingly impossible mission, without even the promise recorded by St. Matthew, He just disappears, even unimpressed with the disciples’ performance. All He leaves them with is a “to do” list of unprecedented proportions: preach to and baptize everybody, exorcise demons, heal diseases. What responsibility! Yikes.
Whether these early followers believed that they were volunteers having eagerly raised their hands, or hand selected from the audience by their omniscient Lord, probably made little difference to their comfort levels. They didn’t completely know what they were in for, what to make of it all. It was one surprise after another with their Lord; and even after the amazing, mystifying and remarkable miracle of the resurrection, they still get some unexpected fast balls thrown at them. Even if Jesus’ words were accepted with excitement, amazement and joy, surely they were mixed with fear, uncertainty and anxiety. Yet it was too late to get off the stage, they were locked in the box with a saw at their neck. The show was going to go on, whether they liked it or not. And even though you know, deep down, that it will be alright, you can’t help but tremble, at least a little bit.
Now, we weren’t there. And maybe that was not really how it was. But one thing is for sure. Jesus isn’t soft on His disciples, even after their faith is confirmed by His holy word and fleshly divine presence.
Yet, during those seasons of our lives when we have underestimated, or undervalued, our utility—even importance—in the Kingdom of God, in changing the world with the holy Gospel and its power, Mark’s account is rather refreshing. For instance, when we have let our hearts rule our minds in ways that shift our eyes off of the cross, by overthinking His Word and neglecting to follow His voice; or when we approach a difficult theological or ethical topic in a cowardly and conveniently “safe” way; or approach a parishioner or friend who needs to hear heavy law with too much sympathy; or when we are too soft on ourselves when wallowing in self pity. In moments like that we need a rebuke. After which it is consoling to hear the straightforward, no frills message that the Gospel changes the world and that God uses His people—you and me— to do it. He doesn’t let our emotions and weaknesses get in the way.
The Lord’s authoritative speech forces those disciples to get over themselves and stop being so wimpy, cowering in fear and sinking in guilt, and rather pull up their socks and get marching. You can’t join the military and never expect to deploy, sacrifice and suffer. When our Lord Jesus Christ gave up everything for us, He didn’t just offer us an optional example to follow, He established inescapable patterns of operational procedure which we are not permitted to reject. Yes, God calls us His friends, for whom Christ offered His life, coheirs in the kingdom and children of God through Holy Baptism. But let’s not forget that we still remain slaves and servants. We are not equals with the sovereign king. We do what He commands us to do, and without hesitation. Punkt.
You see, when we are soft on ourselves, when we only see ourselves as frail little children in the arms of our Lord, and fail to also see ourselves as mighty soldiers that are expected to also follow orders, we can behave in ways that are damaging to the Church and our spiritual lives. Sadly some of the accusations of Gospel reductionism and antinomianism against the Lutheran Church, when it comes to its quietist role in society or sometimes unbalanced emphasis on Christian freedom in the living out of the sanctified life, for example, are not entirely without validity. Accommodating the weaker brother, irrational fears or even “reasonable” ones, cannot just become excuses to ignore the commands of God, even when they offend our neighbours or seem harsh, cold and unloving. For this is often some of the collateral damage of submission to the Lord’s mission.
During, this last year, as the Church woke up to many of the lies propagated by the worldly media, many clergy were afraid to address the reality that we have mishandled things, lest we make members feel guilty for decisions we may now regret. Yet isn’t that a chief part of our holy mandate: to tell the truth even when it hurts and humbles, so that people can be forgiven? The moment that we deprive Christians of the chance to feel guilty, we prevent the opportunity to confess, and thus to be healed from the poison of their sins, exorcized from the demons that oppress redeemed hearts and sanctified minds, so that the truth can continue to set free. We have failed our people as leaders by retreating from the front line of the battle field.
And, you know, telling people the hard truth, does something! Look at how those apostles lived and then died after the Ascension. Martyrdom. When St. Mark, whom we honour this day, boldly addressed the false gods and superstition of his day, according to tradition, his adversaries placed a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets until he was dead. Yet he didn’t cave in to the temptation of cowardice. Empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples were all truly changed. With new eyes and restored faith, they experienced how God gets the job done in spite of ourselves. The Word is mighty and powerful. And, so, Jesus commands His disciples to act, but also describes what the ministry will look like. They will succeed, whether they believe it or not … whether they like it or not!
It took a lot of courage to embrace the marching orders set before them, but certain results were also set in stone. It’s like a commander saying, “I know this may look like an impossible mission, even a suicide mission, but don’t worry …. Trust me”. And they did. And, yes, again, it did include martyrdom for most of them. But that, too, was part of the grand plan. After all, what greater honour is there than to give one’s life for the Lord and His mission? After Jesus tells the disciples what they needed to do, He empowers them to do it. Through them—rather through the indwelling Holy Spirit in them and their office—the demoniac is freed, the ill healed, the damned saved, the unclean baptized.
You trust Him, too. You students may worry of uncertainties about your summer plans, your job, finances, family situation, future, health, and ministry. Maybe you even have doubts about having made the right decision to come to the seminary (as every seminary student should, at some point in his formation). Maybe you have assessed the future of the Church: attendance declining. No money. No young people, etc. Yet your doubts don’t stop God’s grace, power and His will. Maybe it’s a bit of a cliché, but: “God’s got this”.
For Jesus is the one who is at work. The description of the apostles’ ministry is inseparable from the description of Christ’s ministry. In baptism and preaching all the illness of body and damnation of soul are sucked from us sinners and transferred to the Lord through the holy and salutary sacramental exchange at the altar, a process entrusted to His called and ordained clergy. The blood of the holy cross continues to flow through the apostolic office, at which the serpents and demons of hell tremble. The laymen get equipped as well through the teaching office of their pastors. You students get a taste of that. You are lay, but you also abide in this special overlap into the world of the clergy. And, so, you suffer in some unique ways in seminary (since pastors and laypeople suffer Anfechtung in very different ways). God is making you into disciples, and perhaps even into participants in the work of the apostles. And so, though you have not yet received the full list of marching orders, you get to experience a version of a few of them. And the hordes of hell naturally don’t like it one bit!
The “volunteer” descends the stage after partnering in the performance, without any regrets. Instead, the “sacrificial lambs” are even thankful for being chosen among all the other faces in the crowd.
The disciples, before the completion of their formation, were timid participants: babies in the faith. Yet as they grew into soldiers, they embraced their martyrdoms, even when it did involve being sawed into half, and with no regrets.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: God has no regrets. He has selected you to perform or support miracles, exorcisms, and a wide array of spiritual wonders through the administration of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel. He hasn’t chosen cowards as His partners in advancing His mission and changing the world. He’s chosen you. Amen.