The Radical Love List

Romans 12:9-21 (NLT)

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge;
   I will pay them back,”
   says the Lord.


Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
   If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
   burning coals of shame on their heads.”


Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.


In many ways, Paul here is simply echoing the teachings of Jesus. Jesus had his Sermon on the Mount, and this would be Paul’s Sermon from Corinth, if most scholars are correct about where Paul was when he wrote to the Christians in Rome.

It is best, it seems to me, to go through it concept by concept, much as we might break down the Sermon on the Mount. Again, we are moving rather quickly through Romans. I see about a dozen possible full-length sermons in these verses today.

Broadly, I will say this: Like Jesus, Paul is encouraging a kind of love most of us still consider radical today.

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.

The key word here, it seems to me, is “genuine.” If we find ourselves faking love in order to look Christian, we need to pause and ask God to help us discern what is wrong. Why do we struggle to love the person before us? What prejudices or old hurts are we carrying that interfere with our God-given ability to love others?

Similarly, if we find ourselves liking what is wrong or failing to appreciate what is good, we may have discovered a spiritual flaw we need to bring to God for healing. Again, what has happened to us that would cause us to like what is wrong, that is, what is contrary to God’s will?

If we want to deepen our prayer lives, a good place to start is a close, prayerful examination of those moments when we may not be reacting to people or situations the way Christians should.

Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

This one is easier to understand, I think, as we age. Time seems to go so fast. Time is so easily wasted. Oh, to have back all the time I’ve wasted, time that could have been of benefit to the kingdom! I am embarrassed to think of all the ways I’ve wasted time.

It’s easy to fall into despair. Don’t, Paul is saying. Hope should reign in our hearts. Hey, as Christians, we’re often a mess. We get off-track, off mission. Christ’s power is in the world, though, and remarkable things can happen in a very short period of time.

Yes, time is short. Paul reminds us, however, that there also are painful moments we think will never end. No one wants to be in such moments, but there is an advantage to such times. They represent opportunities to slow down, breathe, and pray.

When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

Hospitality is a Christian virtue that also was a very important Old Testament virtue. This is not about tea-and-cookies hospitality; when rendered into a theological term, hospitality is about radically opening our lives to people in need.

In the Old Testament, we see hospitality in practice when strangers enter a town square or draw near to a herdsman’s tent and are quickly greeted, fed and sheltered. Turning away a traveler was tantamount to sin; there were no Holiday Inns, no Waffle Houses, and you potentially were leaving the person to die.

We also see hospitality in the Old Testament when a prophet finds shelter with a poor widow, and becomes a blessing to his benefactor.

Hospitality is a deep and complicated subject, in part because it requires a commitment to simple living and deep vulnerability to others. I have found it even helps us process difficult subjects like abortion.

If I’ve intrigued any of you at Luminary or elsewhere with a brief mention of hospitality, let me know. It is the kind of topic we can spend weeks exploring in a small study group.

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them.

This seems to be more about our state of mind when victimized than anything else. In the scenario we are to imagine, someone has caused us to suffer, and the first step is to get to the place mentally where we can pray for that person’s well-being and alignment with God.

Praying for our persecutors makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. Maybe you’re dealing with a bully. Hey, even adults deal with bullies. A lot of bullies move from pushing people around on the playground to making life miserable in the workplace. But if that bully is transformed by Christ, everyone’s problem vanishes.

The last thing you want is for your persecutor to grow more closely aligned with the devil. Pray the devil away. Pray the bully finds the peace and joy derived from a close walk with Jesus Christ. Your non-anxious, prayerful presence might even contribute to the conversion!

Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

Life happens. Joy happens, sorrow happens. Stay in the midst of it all, and as you do, don’t be afraid to carry Christ into every situation you encounter. Again, such behavior is very “on mission,” and when we stay on mission, people are drawn to Jesus Christ.

As for the part about the company of ordinary people and not thinking you know it all—well, I humbly refer you to last week’s sermon.

Never pay back evil with more evil … never take revenge … Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
   If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
   burning coals of shame on their heads.”

 

Oooo, boy. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Turn the other cheek.” Remember those words of Jesus? Paul really is echoing Jesus here as he quotes from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs.

This is tough stuff. It’s hard to live out personally. It’s even harder to get what so many people call a Christian nation to put it into policy. We’ve been at war 16 years, people—16 years! We’re about to escalate in Afghanistan once again. Some new strategies may be in order.

Paul offers all this up not just as a nice idea, but also as a strategy that should lead to positive results. He is saying, Let your goodness stand in such striking contrast to other people’s badness that the bad feel ashamed, and ultimately they will change their ways. In modern terms, we call this “nonviolent direct action.”

And yes, it does work. All you have to do is study the strategies and results achieved by people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi.

Yes, it’s also dangerous. Both the men I just mentioned died while living out such a strategy. But despite their deaths—we even can accurately say, in response to their deaths—larger victories were won.

Earlier this week, I put something on our church website and in our September newsletter arguing that this commitment to Christian nonviolence is precisely what we lack in our culture today. We need some brave Christians willing to stand against this tendency toward violence that is creeping into our national conversations.

Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.

After all that talk of peacemaking, Paul uses a conquest metaphor. We are reminded that we are in a war, a spiritual war that plays out all too often on a very physical level. As you enter the fray, enter it boldly, but understand that truths revealed by Jesus Christ are our weapons.

By the way, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Christ wins! And because we stand with Christ, we win, too!

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Body of Christ

Romans 12:3-8 (NLT)

Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.

In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.


 

A good dose of humility solves a whole lot of problems.

You don’t hear much about people pursuing humility. If you do hear about it, the pursuit can seem odd, along the lines of monks cloistered from worldly pursuits or Mother Teresa relocating to Calcutta to serve the poor.

As Christians, however, we are called to incorporate humility into our lives. First of all, we try to keep ourselves humble in an effort to imitate Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Despite being God in flesh, the only way Jesus allowed himself to be lifted up was on the cross, a horrible, painful humiliation preceding his death. He lowered himself for our sakes.

Paul was big on the importance of humility as a way to imitate Jesus. In a different letter, one he wrote to the church at Philippi, Paul says, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.” (Philippians 2:3-5, NLT.)

Humility is a concept for everyone. Across-the-board humility will be an important idea later in Romans, when Paul tells us about Christians relating to government. In the secular world, leaders often pursue titles and fame to lift themselves up. Christian leaders have a different mandate, however: The best of them are servant leaders, people who sacrifice to help others succeed.

In regard to troubling events of the last couple of weeks in our nation: Lord, give our leaders humble servant hearts, hearts aligned with yours. And as I pray, I have one leader in particular in mind.

Paul also seems to be saying that humility walks hand-in-hand with a second virtue, self-awareness. Where are your strengths? Where are your weaknesses? And maybe the most important question: Are you fooling yourself about yourself? He is talking about spiritual and moral strengths and weaknesses, of course.

I have a humorous book titled “Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms.” Some of it borders on silly, but I like the entry for “Pastor/Priest.” The definition: “A sinner who is so aware of the power of sin in his or her own life that he or she feels called by the Holy Spirit to announce that God loves sinners.”

A call to ministry of any sort is impossible unless the person first becomes acutely aware of his or her own sinfulness. You cannot describe the wonderful flavor of Christ’s living water until you have felt a desperate thirst for forgiveness.

As we search for deeper self-awareness, I should add, once again, how incredibly helpful the Bible is. If we judge ourselves simply by what we consider right and wrong, we are unlikely to make much progress. It’s hard to measure anything with a broken ruler. We need a holy standard.

The climactic moment of the Bible is the story of Jesus, who fulfills the promises of the Old Testament. Jesus, God in flesh, is the holy standard for living.

When performing a little self-assessment, I find it useful to turn to Matthew 5 through 7, The Sermon on the Mount, a summary of Jesus’ teachings about how we are to live our lives as lovers of God and one another.

I’m not talking about doing a simple read-through of what we already know is there. I’m talking about reading it slowly, meditatively, letting each teaching challenge every aspect of our lives. It does not take long for our minds to find humility as we are reminded of our dependence on God for help.

And dependent we are. We cannot save ourselves; that’s why Christ came to die on the cross and save us from sin. On our own, we cannot even respond adequately to Christ’s gift. That’s why the Holy Spirit came after Christ’s ascension to guide us, sustain us and empower us.

An exciting thing happens in the midst of all this humbling self-awareness, though. Despite our inability to measure up, God’s Spirit lifts us up and makes great use of us. The Holy Spirit works among us to assemble the global church into something very much like the body of Christ.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, we now do globally what Jesus did with the limited reach of his body. We are called to lovingly declare the growing presence of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world, helping people find truth and eternal life.

No one person can come anywhere close to carrying the load, certainly not in the global church and not even in a small local church. The work of the church is something we do together, and everyone has a role.

Do you know what your role is? You have been made to do something in this effort. If you’ve joined Luminary United Methodist Church, the Holy Spirit is shaping you for the particular work we are doing in the area of Ten Mile, Tennessee.

Paul gives us just a few of many examples. Some of us have to speak God’s truth directly, inspired as God’s grace flows through Scripture, prayer and worshipful practices. Some of us need to be knowledgeable enough to teach. Some need to have those humble hearts—I think of Stephen in Acts—where acts of service flow naturally into declarations of who Christ is, regardless of the cost to the servant.

If you don’t know your role, there are all sorts of ways to discover it. Often, we explore possibilities with tests or in small groups. Start here: Understand the mission of the church clearly—we offer people a relationship with Christ—and then pray for guidance about your role in that mission.

You also can talk to your pastor. As a pastor, I know for certain part of my role is to help those I serve discern God’s calling.

The Explorer’s Sacrifice

Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.


We are entering a new section of Romans, one where Paul talks extensively about the long-term Christian life—the ongoing post-conversion changes we should all experience.

Yes, we are saved by simple faith, by believing in the proven work Jesus Christ has done on the cross. Our belief is enough to save us. But is there more to do?

Yes, of course there is. We have received a gift so great we cannot fully comprehend it, the gift of eternal life, Paul is saying. If we properly understand the gift, we turn our lives into a giant thank-you note to God.

We give our bodies, conforming our behaviors to his will as closely as possible. We surrender our minds, letting God’s Spirit work in us and change our very thought patterns through prayer and Scripture.

Most of us like the part about God’s grace being freely given, the fact that salvation is a simple matter of belief. But when it comes to thinking about ongoing discipleship—about actual change—well, we’re not always so receptive. The Christian life starts to sound like work.

There’s a term for when we accept the gift but offer no response, no thanks, no real change in our minds and hearts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian martyred by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in World War II, called such an attitude “cheap grace.”

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow upon ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

I suppose I could just stop here, hoping to shame us into responding more fully to God’s grace, the way our parents might have guilted us into writing a thank-you note for a nice present we received. I think I can make all of this a little more palatable, however. Perhaps we can even become excited about this new section of Romans.

We are called to give up some attitudes and behaviors when we become Christians. We are not left with a void, however; God replaces the lesser behaviors and thoughts we surrender with even more gifts.

We are being invited to explore the kingdom that is dawning now, even before it is present in full. Like any explorer, we have to sacrifice the stuff that weighs us down if we are going to find something new, something that will change us to the core.*

We do respond to God simply as an act of thanks. We repent of what separates us from him. We pray and search the Scripture to try to understand how to better please our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. God doesn’t just receive our thank-you notes and flip them on the kitchen table with the rest of his mail, however. He gets excited by our response.

God says, “What else can I do for you? It is such a joy to have you a part of my plan! What do you want to know next? What do you want to do next?”

“How can I help you be the best you you can be?”

And God changes you some more. And you see where you used to be and where you are now, and you give more thanks. And God changes you even more!

It is a glorious cycle, one spiraling us toward heaven. Pretty soon, all that stuff we gave up, all that stuff we thought was so important, is simply scattered on the ground far below us, as forgettable as yesterday’s garbage.

If you don’t believe me—well, just try to fulfill Paul’s plea for a time. Six months, a year, something substantial. Make God’s word part of your life. Talk to him in prayer.

And certainly, most certainly, give up those behaviors that you know are not of his will. We have a short word for those behaviors: sin. Stop sinning. Ask God for the strength you need to stop.

Paul is not asking us to suffer. No, not at all. Instead, he’s asking us to live fully. We free ourselves to accept the further gifts to come, the gifts that gild our salvation.


*If you want to explore the backpack metaphor further, John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is a good place to start.

The Grafting Plan

Romans, Chapter 11

As we’ve moved through Romans the last few weeks, I’ve already made the point a couple of times that Paul is writing with a particular question in mind. Why are so many Jews not accepting Jesus as Messiah, while at the same time people from other cultures and belief systems are turning to him in great numbers?

In that context, we have learned much about what Paul has to say regarding the core beliefs of Christianity, and how important it is for us to spread the Good News to nonbelievers. We’re looking at an unusually large chunk of Romans today, all of chapter 11, in part because Paul does some reviewing of what he has said.

As he returns to the matter of the Jews and their relationship to Jesus, he lays out what he sees as God’s plan from the birth of the Christian church to what we sometimes call “the end of time.” If you’ve ever asked the question, “How do we know the end is near,” Paul’s words will certainly contribute to the answer.

As he explains this four-part plan, Paul uses the image of an olive tree, an Old Testament symbol of Israel. This tree is pruned over time and even has new branches grafted into it.

If we’re not familiar with olive trees or grafting, we may have a little trouble imagining what he’s talking about. For those uninitiated to gardening, the best example might be one of those little grafted cactuses you can find in stores, where the colorful top of one plant has been attached to the green base of another, two plants sharing one root and vascular system.

Part 1 of God’s Plan

These were the earliest days of Christianity, just after Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the arrival of the Holy Spirit upon what was, at the time, a very Jewish community. In fact, the vast majority of these early Christians simply thought of themselves as Jews who had seen or experienced the work of their expected Messiah.

They followed Jewish practices, going to the temple or synagogue for worship but also rejoicing in Jesus’ resurrection with other Christians.

It proved to be a relatively short stage, though. Alarmed, the leaders of Judaism quickly began to push back and distinguish between traditional Jews and followers of Christ. Paul saw the Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah as branches broken off the olive tree for their lack of fruitfulness, or belief.

Part 2: The Wild Tree Grafted In

This was the era Paul found himself in as he wrote Romans around the year 57. Gentiles were becoming the dominant force in Christianity. Paul thought of Gentiles as a “wild olive tree” grafted into the old root system, dependent on what had come before.

In Romans, he has a particular message for this group, and for all Christians who are not of Jewish descent in any era. In short, he’s telling us not to get cocky. Just like the unfruitful branches in the early days of Christianity, the grafted branches can also be cut away if they fail to exhibit belief.

This is such an overt warning, I am left wondering how some Christians manage to maintain the idea of “eternal security” or “perseverance of the saints,” the notion that once a person is truly saved, she or he cannot fall away from salvation. Clearly, Paul speaks to people he thinks of as “grafted in” believers, but he tells them, “If you stop trusting, you also will be cut off.”

In interpreting Paul’s account of God’s plan, the hard part is figuring out what part we are in today. I would like to think we are in Part 2 of the plan but hovering somewhere near Part 3.

Part 3: The Return

Paul asserts something very important: God never breaks his promises. The Jews are his people, and they will make up a significant number of those who find eternal life with God. In fact, their turning back to God through Jesus will mark nearness to the end of time, or the beginning of eternity in the undeniable presence of God, depending on how you look at it.

This assertion made me wonder whether there is any evidence of Part 3 happening now. There are days I love the internet.

I went to the website of Jews for Jesus to do a little research, and I actually got personal, online help. A chat box popped up, and a friendly volunteer named Jeanne began to answer my questions for me.

As you might imagine, it is hard to estimate how many Jewish Christians there might be. She said different studies show there are anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 Jews who call Jesus Christ Lord and Savior. The most generous estimates from census data say there are about 15 million Jews on the planet right now, although some estimates are much lower.

“What is clear is that Jews are coming to Jesus at an unprecedented rate!” Jeanne told me. The original branches are being grafted back into the ancient olive tree.

Complicating potential Jewish conversions is the atrocious record self-described Christians have had historically in their relationship with Jews. Too often, kings, popes, bishops and even leaders of reformation movements have seen Jews as a group to be converted at swordpoint or gunpoint, or as opponents of God who could be killed with impunity.*

Such atrocities demonstrated deep ignorance of Jesus’ teachings and of what Paul, a Jew himself, is saying in Romans: “They are still the people [God] loves because he chose their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For God’s gifts and his call can never be withdrawn.”

Part 4: Glory!

This is what we live for. This is what gives us hope. We reach the point where God considers the community of Jewish and Gentile believers complete, and the promised resurrection of the dead occurs.

We celebrate as children of God together for all eternity! What a glorious plan it is.


*To read more about why Jews are resistant to the Christian message, I would recommend a paper by David Brickner.

The Struggle to Share

Romans 10:14-21 (NLT)

But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!”

But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. But I ask, have the people of Israel actually heard the message? Yes, they have:

“The message has gone throughout the earth,
and the words to all the world.”

But I ask, did the people of Israel really understand? Yes, they did, for even in the time of Moses, God said,

“I will rouse your jealousy through people who are not even a nation.
I will provoke your anger through the foolish Gentiles.”

And later Isaiah spoke boldly for God, saying,

“I was found by people who were not looking for me.
I showed myself to those who were not asking for me.”

But regarding Israel, God said,

“All day long I opened my arms to them,
but they were disobedient and rebellious.”


Christians have to tell the Good News to those who have not heard it. If you’ve been hearing this sermon series from Romans at least semi-regularly, you should by now have a good idea of what Paul means by the gospel, the Good News.

Jesus Christ, God in flesh among us, died for our sins. He went to the cross and bore the punishment for what we have done and will do to work against God’s will. His work on the cross is effective; his resurrection from the dead proves this is true.

Believe, and restoration is ours. Death is defeated! But again, those who believe have to tell those who have not yet believed. Otherwise, those nonbelievers may never have the chance to be restored to God.

The need to spread the Good News is not a complicated idea to understand. It apparently is a difficult idea for many American Christians to live out, however. I can cite a lot of evidence as I say that—rapidly declining church attendance across the nation is the biggest exhibit I might put before you. Along with that would be the shocking number of churches, United Methodist and otherwise, that go all year without a single profession of faith in their community.

And then there’s the anecdotal evidence I have. Too often in my career I have taken time to teach ways to spread the Good News, only to hear people say, “Well, pastor, that’s really not for us.”

Really? Jesus’ last instruction to us before ascending into heaven, what we call The Great Commission, isn’t for us?

All I know to do is to keep emphasizing our need to go tell others and to continue teaching ways to spread the Good News, hoping the idea will catch on with enough people who call themselves followers of Christ.

Let me try a different approach today. Let’s talk about what we might call “levels of engagement,” each a measure of how committed we are to telling the story.

Level 1: See What a Good Person I Am

I often hear people say, “My witness is in how I live my life before others.” Yes, that is a good starting point. Obviously, if you’re living a non-Christian life in front of others, you’re not helping.

Your behaviors and attitudes can change the environment around you. I discovered this in an odd and embarrassing way several years ago, while I was working in the corporate world.

I had finished a meeting in Washington, D.C., and had walked out into a blindingly sunny late afternoon. I was hungry, so I started looking for somewhere to eat.

As I walked down the street looking for a cab, I saw a sign in a window advertising a steak and potato for under $10. Quite a deal in D.C., even nearly 20 years ago! I entered what proved to be a dim and very empty establishment with a large bar in the center, and told the hostess as she seated me that I wanted the steak.

It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust. I noticed there were stages in the corner; my first thought was, “Hmmm, they must have bands on the weekends.” And then I noticed something else. There were brass poles on each of the stages.

Uh-oh, I realized. I had walked into a a business serving more than steak and potatoes. When the hostess came back to the table, I also noticed her high skirt and low blouse appropriate for the venue. All I could think was, I really need to get out of here.

“Ummm, I’m sorry,” I told her, “but I didn’t realize what I was entering. I just saw the steak special. I’m going to leave,” I told her. Almost as if on cue, a pulsing, thumping music began. Obviously, the show was about to begin. I was surprised to see she looked as horrified as me.

“Oh. Oh!” she replied. “No, it’s okay. Please don’t leave! We’ve already started your meal. It’s okay, really!”

As she turned around, she did something almost reflexively that I’ll never forget. She somehow adjusted the dress on the spot, stretching the top up and the skirt down for more coverage, in what I presume was an act of embarrassment. She quickly ran to the back. The music stopped.

I should add that the steak was quite good.

Certainly, we have some impact on the world by trying to live publicly as a moral person. People may change their behavior to some degree by what they see in us. I’m going to once again be frank here, though —

It’s not enough. The people watching you have no context. The hostess had no way to know from our encounter why I wanted to leave, other than I had made a mistake that embarrassed both of us. She was reminded that there was a world different from her workplace, but no real witness regarding Christ occurred.

Level 2: Let Me Tell You About My Church

This next step is an improvement—well, sort of. At least we’re moving in the right direction. Maybe.

A lot of times when we talk about “evangelism” in a church committee, what we really mean is a church growth strategy. How do we get people in the doors? How do we get them to stay? Let’s go ahead and say it: How do we get them to give money? Staff and air conditioning are expensive!

Before too long, someone might even use the word “marketing” as part of this strategic conversation. We’ve got to let people know what we offer! This can get quite creative.

There are the church coffee bars and bookstores, of course, designed to create that commercial “Starbucks” feel we’ve all learned to love. I once heard of a church that went to the trouble of installing a giant slide from its upstairs children’s program down to the main level. When it was time to go home, the kids would dive down the slide to meet their parents. I’ll bet the children were packing that place, at least for awhile!

The danger in all of this is a church can spend a lot of money and energy to create what is essentially a social club for adults or a giant playpen for children. Certainly, nice facilities can be a huge help as we try to do the work of the kingdom, particularly in a community lacking such spaces. They have to exist for the right reason, however. As we discussed last week, everything needs to be “on mission.”

Level 3: Let Me Offer You a Relationship

Now we’re getting somewhere. We’re also getting personal, making Level 3 a little scary. Additionally, Level 3 almost certainly will happen outside church.

I once spent some time doing what I now call “sushi evangelism.” The young man who made my rolls at a local sushi bar one day noticed the Methodist cross embroidered on my shirt. He asked me if I was a minister.

I did not have to steer the conversation much after that. (Sharing the Good News often is simply a matter of answering questions in an established friendship.) He had fallen away from church as a child and was full of questions, some so complicated they strained my theological thinking.

For a couple of months, I spent a lot of my lunch money on sushi to keep that relationship going. It continued until he moved to another state for a job, where I pray new relationships help him continue to grow in his understanding of Jesus Christ as Lord.

Measure Your Efforts

Christians, I’m going to give you a way to measure how you’re doing in all of this. Here’s a two-question test you can give yourself any time.

Question 1: Who was the last person I helped draw into a relationship with Christ? I’m not saying you had to be the one who was there when the person dropped down and accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. But you know when you’ve helped a nonbeliever make progress—who was it, and how long ago was it?

Question 2: Who am I sharing the Good News with right now? There must be someone around you who needs the love of Jesus Christ. There must be someone needing hope and restoration.

If you cannot think of someone, you really need to broaden your circles. Stop hanging around other Christians so much!

Living out Level 3 is not easy. It takes a loving, Holy Spirit-filled heart to commit to a nonbeliever in a way that is genuine. You have to commit to friendship with the person you want to reach regardless of whether the person ever becomes a Christian.

Know this, however. You do not have to figure out how to spread the Good News on your own. In a healthy church, we support one another and train together as we witness to a hurting world.

Let’s do it. For the sake of the lost around us, let’s share the Good News about Jesus Christ!


The featured image is “St. Francis Preaches the Faith,” Jan Michiel Coxie, 17th Century.

The Struggle to Believe

Romans 10:1-13 (NLT)

Dear brothers and sisters, the longing of my heart and my prayer to God is for the people of Israel to be saved. I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal. For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God.

For Moses writes that the law’s way of making a person right with God requires obedience to all of its commands. But faith’s way of getting right with God says, “Don’t say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ (to bring Christ down to earth). And don’t say, ‘Who will go down to the place of the dead?’ (to bring Christ back to life again).” In fact, it says,

“The message is very close at hand;
   it is on your lips and in your heart.”


And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him. For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”


Paul’s heartfelt desire in this portion of Romans continues to be for all Jews to know what he knows—Jesus is the Christ, the promised savior, the one who will bless all the world.

While he has brought up the subject before in Romans, Paul describes in a new way the Jews’ struggle to believe, saying they have “misdirected zeal.” In the case of the Jews, this means they have become so enamored with the Mosaic law that they cannot see the bigger picture of what God has accomplished through that law. They “cling to their own way,” and miss the incredible gift God has given all the world.

As a pastor, I have seen the same struggle in other kinds of nonbelievers. They know little or nothing about the law given to the Jews, but they have their own kind of “misdirected zeal,” chasing righteousness with God or some sort of higher power  in completely wrong ways.

In many ways, this struggle to believe is a struggle to understand the incredible simplicity of what God has done in the world through Jesus Christ. People have trouble with the idea that heartfelt belief is enough for salvation. So long as that belief makes you able to say “Jesus Christ is Lord” and declare the resurrection real, you are made right with God despite your sin.

Surely, there must be more to do, the zealous strivers think. Surely, it’s not so easy that anyone can find salvation. Surely, some good works on our part must balance out the evil that we have done; surely, there is a price we must pay.

Nope. There was a price for our sins, a terrible price, but Jesus picked up the tab by going to the cross. Any good works we do are simply a joyous response to the truth that we are already saved simply because we have believed.

Simplicity can be perplexing, I suppose. God’s work is so simple that it astonishes the angels. If we read our Bible carefully, it would seem they are puzzled about what God is doing for his little humans.

I’m thinking particularly of 1 Peter 1, where Jesus’ most impulsive apostle sounds much like our Romans text today. Like Paul, Peter rejoices in how we are saved by faith in Christ raised from the dead.

In verse 12, he says, “It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen.” The original Greek creates a picture of what is heavenly peeking in amazement into God’s work on earth. With this sermon today, I included the image of Jocopo Tintoretto’s 16th-century “Last Supper,” as it includes angels hovering in the smoke, watching Jesus prepare his disciples for his trip to the cross.

In theory, those of us who call ourselves Christians have grasped salvation’s simplicity, even if the angels have not. But I think we have to acknowledge that we also demonstrate some of that misdirected zeal first attributed to the Jews. Our problem is more rooted in forgetting why we exist as a church.

All churches, and consequently, all church members, have a scripturally defined vision and mission, both aligned with what Paul calls “the very message about faith that we preach,” this simple good news about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

At Luminary, we state the vision and mission in our communications. For example, look at the cover of our bulletins or the front page of our web site. Our vision is “a world conformed to Jesus Christ,” and our consequent mission is “to draw people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.” Our daily job as a church is to figure out how to localize the mission and then live into it.

This next part is hard for me to say, but I think it’s true. Even with our vision and mission before us, we too often go off on tangents, sometimes quite zealously. As a church, we have to be careful not to lose our way.

One example: We love to gather, particularly on Sundays and Wednesdays, but to what end? Fellowship is good, but ideally our fellowship should draw us and those currently outside our church circle into a deeper relationship with Christ. Are we structuring our gatherings in the fellowship hall, the Sunday school room or the small group gathering to such an end?

Another example: We love music at our particular church. We often revel in it, and there is a real effort there to glorify God as we worship. But again, we have to be sure we are always asking ourselves, “Are we using our love for music to draw others into a relationship with Christ?” And even if we are, how can we do it better?

There are a couple of tests we can apply to any of these environments, or to the church as a whole. The first one is simple: Are we working alongside the Holy Spirit to make new Christians? We did have an adult baptism and a reaffirmation of faith last week, examples of two people publicly engaging with Christ’s kingdom in new ways.

So, the answer is yes, occasionally. We’re not really changing lives enough to qualify us as some sort of dynamic force for the kingdom, however.

The second one is a little harder to quantify. Individually, are we growing in our depth of understanding and our commitment to the kingdom? I try to make an overall assessment as a pastor, but the answer for each of you individually lies in your own hearts. Are you closer to God each year, or are you casually chugging through life with God in the background somewhere?

I’ll simplify all of this with an old cliché: We too often fail to keep our eyes on the prize. We forget that we live to see evil destroyed and creation fully aligned with God. We live to see progress made toward those ends in our community now.

We forget that we have eternity ahead of us, and we let the concerns of this brief worldly existence pull us off a very clear, very simple mission.

We have to remember that when we operate with misdirected zeal, we are chasing something of far less value than what Christ is offering the world, and we are failing to live into what we are called to be as Christians.

Maybe our zeal is for a good feeling about good works. Maybe we chase a kind of status or respect we’ve failed to find elsewhere. Maybe we desire human relationships to the exclusion of a relationship with our creator, redeemer and sustainer.

Maybe we become so used to operating like a club that we forget what it means to function as an active, living part of God’s universal church.

Next week, we’ll dive into what Paul has to say about really preaching this simple good news about Jesus Christ as our risen Lord and Savior. In the meantime, I hope you’ll do what I’ve been trying to do the past several weeks.

Spend some time assessing how deeply you’ve let Christ in and how committed you are to letting him use you for his kingdom. What we determine in that assessment will help us as we move further into Romans.

The Stumbling Stone

Romans 9:30-33 (NLT)

What does all this mean? Even though the Gentiles were not trying to follow God’s standards, they were made right with God. And it was by faith that this took place. But the people of Israel, who tried so hard to get right with God by keeping the law, never succeeded. Why not? Because they were trying to get right with God by keeping the law instead of by trusting in him. They stumbled over the great rock in their path. God warned them of this in the Scriptures when he said,

“I am placing a stone in Jerusalem that makes people stumble,
   a rock that makes them fall.
But anyone who trusts in him
   will never be disgraced.”


“What does all this mean?” We cannot forget that as Paul wrote, there was a perplexing development in early Christianity.  Most of Paul’s fellow Jews were not accepting the very Jewish Jesus as their messiah. And even more strangely, non-Jewish people had begun to follow Jesus as Christ in droves.

Paul blamed the Jews’ weak response on theological myopia. The Jews had been blessed by God with the Mosaic law, but had begun to study the minutiae of God’s revelation so closely that they failed to see the fulfillment of its promises and prophecies in the world around them—particularly, the signs and miracles provided by Jesus and the early church leaders.

Have you seen on video or in real life people walking along and staring at their cell phones so intently that they do not see the tree, fountain or bicycle in the way? The Jewish religious leaders were unable to see Jesus for the scrolls in front of their faces.

Jesus was a shock to them, like a jutting rock in an otherwise neat cobblestone path. What the Jews thought of as their orderly world was upset by his arrival, and some people simply don’t like to have the world as they see it disturbed.

Most modern Christians are certainly not Jewish in any real sense of the word, even if some of us might have some Jewish blood. By definition, we have been baptized as followers of Jesus Christ and have pledged ourselves to upholding and living out certain beliefs that go along with being one of Christ’s disciples.

Yet even for us, Jesus can at times be a stumbling stone. When our minds are fully open to what is revealed in Scripture, we are confronted with the reality of who he is, what he has done, what he continues to do, and how all that changes the world. As we explore these truths, we sometimes sense our own nearsightedness. Like the Jews of Paul’s day, we also like our world comfortable and predictable, and I’ll warn you now, Jesus can be a threat to our sense of stability.

Who is he, and what has he done? Well, we believe he is God in flesh, the one who came among us to teach us about divine love. He then demonstrated that love by dying a horrible death in our place for our sins. His resurrection from death proves his work was and is effective. We are restored to God despite our sins.

The very idea that God would come and live even for a short time among his creation, as one of his creation, is bizarre. The idea of God experiencing death for our benefit, even with his ultimate resurrection to overcome that death, is even stranger.

And yet, the story of how God took on flesh and lived and died among us is core to what we believe as Christians. If these ideas were untrue, then Jesus would be just another nice guy whose loving nature got him killed. The lesson would be that we had better learn to seek power and success in this world so we aren’t killed, too.

What does Jesus continue to do, and how does that change the world? It is here we really see Jesus as our stumbling stone. When we talk in past tense about what Jesus did, we make him into a nice little history lesson. Jesus engages us directly, though, in the lives we live now.

Yes, Jesus ascended into heaven. It’s true we no longer see him directly. But he said he would send another, and as we’ve already been reminded in Romans by Paul, the Holy Spirit, that third aspect or experience of God, is among us now.

The same Spirit involved in the creation of all things and the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb continues to work in us today. I hope most of us who call ourselves Christians have experienced the Spirit at work in our lives in some way. When we sense his presence, we are reminded that the world is changing and the idea of a stable, predictable pattern to life is fiction.

For the world is not the way God wants it to be. It is not to be a place of sickness and dying; it is not to be a place where evil exists. Christ’s redeeming work moves us toward real stability, the kind of comfort and predictability we crave—eternal life with God.

Yes, Paul keeps going back to core Christian beliefs. It’s because we need to keep hearing them. The truth of who Jesus Christ is and what he is doing now, through the Holy Spirit, should inform and modify every decision we make in our lives.

I am too often disappointed in myself when it comes to decision making. Oh , how easy it is to make decisions without keeping core Christian truths before me, letting them shape my every move.

Frankly, I also am often disappointed in our church, both locally and on a larger scale, when I see how we fail to keep these core, scripturally defined truths before us in everything we do. A time will come when we look back and be deeply saddened as we consider how we missed opportunities to live into the truth of who Christ is and what he is doing.

In short, we are failing to turn the world upside down. If you’ll look in Acts 17, you’ll see that is the accusation made against the early Christians—turning the world upside down with the message of who Jesus Christ is and what he is doing. And I don’t think we should be satisfied until we are accused by the world of doing the same.

During the next couple of weeks, Paul is going to help us understand more clearly why it is so important that we carry this stumbling stone called Jesus into the world to interrupt the lives of others.