evangelism

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.

What About the Jews?

Romans 9:1-13 (NLT)

With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it. My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them. They are the people of Israel, chosen to be God’s adopted children. God revealed his glory to them. He made covenants with them and gave them his law. He gave them the privilege of worshiping him and receiving his wonderful promises. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are their ancestors, and Christ himself was an Israelite as far as his human nature is concerned. And he is God, the one who rules over everything and is worthy of eternal praise! Amen.

Well then, has God failed to fulfill his promise to Israel? No, for not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people! Being descendants of Abraham doesn’t make them truly Abraham’s children. For the Scriptures say, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted,” though Abraham had other children, too. This means that Abraham’s physical descendants are not necessarily children of God. Only the children of the promise are considered to be Abraham’s children. For God had promised, “I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

This son was our ancestor Isaac. When he married Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. But before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works.) She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.”


No one likes to think about losing someone he or she loves. Paul is concerned about losing the vast majority of his people, the Jews, for all eternity.

It is a disturbing idea for any loving person even today, one that can still puzzle us if we have Jewish friends, or for that matter, friends of any faiths other than Christianity. What about the Jews, specifically those Jews who do not see Christ as the Messiah? What about the other people around us who have never accepted Christ or even flatly reject the idea of Jesus as savior?

Paul clearly is in pain as he raises the topic in his letter to the Romans. This is not some vague theological exercise for him. As he rhetorically explores the issue, he surely is thinking of specific people: family; mentors, perhaps like his respected teacher Gamaliel; sincere fellow students who had rigorously studied Judaism alongside him; the faithful Jewish vendor who sold him lunch in the marketplace.

We have to be careful not to read too much into his angst, however. While he is in pain for his people, the Jews, he does not speak as a man wrestling with a question. In that way, he is very different from some of us. Paul knows the answer because he has directly experienced the risen Christ. He understands and accepts the exclusive claims Christ made regarding his ministry and his sacrifice on the cross.

When we struggle with the question, “What about the others,” we actually are debating an idea that has been clearly defined for us in Scripture. A lot of us simply don’t like the answer. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life; there is no other way for sinful beings to reconnect to a holy God except through Jesus. (I’m referencing the Gospel of John, chapter 14, verses 1 through 11, here.)

Sometimes, it doesn’t seem fair. Paul says as much in next week’s text, although he quickly discounts this notion of unfairness. In this week’s text, he notes the Jews were “adopted” by God as the People of Israel, using the same familial language we heard last week when we considered our own status as adopted children. He recounts the history of revealed glory and covenants entered, and the giving of the law. Worship has been happening among the Jews, and promises were made.

It just seems like they’ve been trying so hard! The same can be said for our religious non-Christian friends, and Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama, and all those other good people we have seen.

If you take Scripture seriously at all, though, some truths about the nature of Jesus are undeniable. Jesus came as the result of those promises to the Jews. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the promises, a fulfillment so great that from Jesus’ day on, we live in a time described to Abraham thousands of years ago.

Through Abraham’s Jewish descendants, God has blessed “all the families on earth” (Genesis 12:3). He has gone to great lengths to ensure any human being can be saved from sin simply by believing. If the Jews reject Jesus, they reject a promise first made to them. If others reject Jesus, they reject a promise extended to all of humanity.

Perhaps our problem with the exclusive claims of Christianity lies not in how God works, but in how we respond to God’s work. We sit back and say, “How can God be working this way,” and never for a moment consider what we are called to do in response to Christ’s sacrifice and the resultant gift being offered.

If you’re concerned about someone’s relationship with God, you are called to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To do so, you need to understand the message so well that you can relate it to nonbelievers in a winsome, non-threatening, non-judgmental way.

The non-judgmental part is very important, by the way. Only God can ultimately determine who is aligned with him and who is not. We are called to bear his loving invitation to others, not his judgment.

There is an art to such witnessing, and all of us as Christians need to develop this art form as best we can.

Someone among this congregation recently put it this way in reference to evangelism: How much do you have to hate a person to not tell that person about Jesus? Those of us who call ourselves Christians know the source of eternal life; we have found the path to God.

It is as if you are crawling through the scorching desert with others, dying of thirst, and you stumble across a cool, flowing spring rising up out of the sand.

How dare you not call out, “The water is here! It’s here!” You would have to really hate those other people to leave them to their deaths, crawling around in the sand.

If there seems to be a gap in God’s plan for salvation, it’s very possible our reluctance to share the Good News contributes greatly to the gap.

Paul concludes what we hear today by starting a deeper examination of why some seem to be favored by God while others are not. He reminds his audience of a very Jewish story, the story of the twins Jacob and Esau. Even before birth, one is clearly favored by God, while the other is not.

It will take us a few weeks to unpack the idea he is offering us here. Prepare to go deep.


The featured image is Giovanni Maria Bottala’s “Meeting between Esau & Jacob,” circa 1638.

 

A Deep Longing

Romans 1:8-17 (NLT)

Let me say first that I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith in him is being talked about all over the world. God knows how often I pray for you. Day and night I bring you and your needs in prayer to God, whom I serve with all my heart by spreading the Good News about his Son.

One of the things I always pray for is the opportunity, God willing, to come at last to see you. For I long to visit you so I can bring you some spiritual gift that will help you grow strong in the Lord. When we get together, I want to encourage you in your faith, but I also want to be encouraged by yours.

I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to visit you, but I was prevented until now. I want to work among you and see spiritual fruit, just as I have seen among other Gentiles. For I have a great sense of obligation to people in both the civilized world and the rest of the world, to the educated and uneducated alike. So I am eager to come to you in Rome, too, to preach the Good News.

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”


From personal experience, I would say that until you have really studied Paul’s letters, it’s easy to stereotype him as cold and disconnected, a logical and doctrinaire man. He did, after all, spend a lot of time defining the nature of sin and exhorting holiness.

There was a burning passion in the man, however, an inner fire driving his lifetime of ministry. We might say he had a mission. Not coincidentally, it is our same mission today. Oh, for us to exhibit the same fire, the same longing!

Paul initially said he longed to visit the Roman Christians, a longing indicative of a greater desire. They constituted a church he had never seen gathered in one place. During his travels, he likely had crossed paths with some of its members, but he wanted the full experience of being with them.

He was specific regarding why he wanted to be among them. First, he said, he believed he could help them grow in their faith. They knew Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but Paul believed he could contribute in a particular way with his spiritual gifts, and that their giftedness would encourage and lift him up, too.

When I was in public relations, I grew to hate the word “synergy.” Everyone wanted to use it to describe every business transaction under the sun, hoping to convince investors that the sum of two business interests joining together would be greater than the parts. It didn’t hurt that the word rhymed with “energy,” and I worked for an energy company.

Paul was talking about synergy in its truest sense, though. When Christians bring their unique gifts together as a church, they do accomplish much more than what was possible separately. Among the group, the Holy Spirit is more fully expressed as new people and new gifts enter the mix.

Newness and change can be frightening for a group, but as long as the newness is rooted in God’s will, there is nothing to fear. That’s why a healthy church’s members always look to new Christians in their midst and excitedly wonder, “What possibilities do you bring?”

Paul revealed what he thought his primary contribution might be once in Rome. He was eager, he said, to preach the Good News. We’ve already identified “Good News” as meaning word of Christ’s death on the cross, a work that makes salvation possible for even the worst of sinners.

Perhaps the church in Rome did not yet have anyone gifted in preaching the Good News. Perhaps they did have capable preachers, but Paul thought he could contribute to the effort in a new way. Regardless, Paul wanted to help the church live into its mandate to bring people to an understanding of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

I can call it a mandate because Jesus gave his followers clear, indisputable instruction regarding what they were (and are) to do. This instruction came from Jesus after his resurrection from the dead, and is recorded at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew: “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.”

It’s a mandate we still own as a church today. Here at Luminary, all you have to do is look on the front of a worship bulletin to see that we own it, at least on paper. We say that our mission is “to draw people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.”

The question for us is whether we have Paul’s passion for the task. I think it is still the key question for every church today: Are we passionately trying to bring people into that relationship with Christ?

The last thing we want to be is Laodicea. Remember Laodicea, one of the churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation? The risen Christ said this about Laodicea: “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!” (Rev. 3:15-16)

To be a church passionate about our primary mission, some of us have to preach the scriptural truth, from a pulpit and in other places in our community. The word does have to be spoken.

It is a given, however, that not all of us are gifted in ways where we can comfortably preach in the traditional sense. I’m sure all of us have seen the old study showing many people fear public speaking more than death. Such anxiety does not relieve us of our responsibility to play a part in the mission, though—we are all called to play a role in declaring the Good News.

It is not as hard as it sounds. All of us are capable of establishing loving relationships. Showing love toward others is the first step toward helping people understand how much God loves them.

People are needlessly afraid of the word “evangelism.” If that word bothers you, just remember to love others. As your loving relationships grow, opportunities will arise for you to explain the source of all that love. God is love; the cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love. At that moment, you’ll be evangelizing and you may not even realize at first what you’re doing.

Out of genuine love for the people we engage, I think we do have to get to the point. We do eventually have to offer them Christ.

Sometimes I hear people say, “Well, I try to be a good person and let my life be the witness.” Sorry, but that’s a bit of a cop-out.

Jesus didn’t say, “Show everyone you’re a good person.” Your behavior may draw people to you, but Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” He was pretty specific.

As individual Christians, we need to be sure we’re getting to the point with those who need a deeper relationship with Christ. As a church, we need to be sure all of our programs and ministries ultimately help people discover the point, too.

And remember, a little passion for who we are and what we do always helps. If you lack passion, it may be time to hear the Good News for yourself again. God loves you—God has given you eternal life!—and that truth should excite anyone.

And So We Begin

Romans 1:1-7 (NLT)

This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News. God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. The Good News is about his Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David’s family line, and he was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord. Through Christ, God has given us the privilege and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him, bringing glory to his name.

And you are included among those Gentiles who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ. I am writing to all of you in Rome who are loved by God and are called to be his own holy people.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.


Today we begin what will be a relatively long sermonic journey through Romans, but I’m praying it also will be a joyous, productive trip. By the time we finish in November, God willing, I hope we know our redeemer and ourselves a little better, thanks to Paul’s insights during the early life of the church.

Our verses today are an introduction, and we should begin this journey by being sure we fully understand the man, the place, and the plan. By the man, I mean the Apostle Paul, the author. By the place, I mean Rome, home of his Christian audience. The plan is a reference to God’s work through Jesus Christ, a theme that will be at the heart of everything we hear from the Book of Romans these next nine months or so.

Paul was in his day and is unto today a controversial figure. People uncomfortable with Paul’s assertions about specific Christian behaviors sometimes go so far as to separate the faith into what could be called “Jesus Christianity” and “Pauline Christianity.” It is a false separation, and a dangerous one. Instead, it is correct to see Paul and his ministry as flowing directly from Jesus Christ, an extension of the work Christ did among us.

I can make such an assertion because Paul’s conversion to Christ, recorded in Acts in both third person and first person and alluded to in other parts of the New Testament, was a direct experience of the risen Savior. It was a 180-degree turn for Paul, who was a respected, scholarly Jew, a man who had studied under one of the finest Jewish rabbis to ever live. Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, was actually in the process of pursuing and persecuting Christians when the risen Jesus confronted him in a blinding flash and a voice from heaven.

The link between Jesus Christ and Paul is undeniable for anyone who takes the Holy Bible seriously. We therefore have to take the Apostle Paul seriously, even if he is a teacher who often challenges us through his writings in ways that make us uncomfortable. If you don’t know what I mean when I say he can make us uncomfortable, just keep showing up for these sermons.

In addition to his role as apostle—the title for a person called to preach salvation through Jesus Christ and establish new churches—Paul in many ways functioned as Christianity’s first organized theologian. That is, he began the process of systematically describing what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

As I mentioned earlier, Paul was an educated Jew, having trained under a great rabbi named Gamaliel. Paul’s conversion did not cause him to surrender his education; instead, he began to apply his understanding of Judaism to his newfound faith in Jesus Christ.

You can see evidence of this in his introductory statements we’ve read today. For example, when Paul referred to the Christians in Rome as “loved by God” and “called to be his own holy people,” he was evoking Old Testament language previously applied to the Israelites. Paul was leading the Roman Christians to see themselves as the new beneficiaries of a very ancient promise.

Because Paul flew higher intellectually than most other early Christians, he can be a bit harder to study. That’s one of the reasons we will be using the New Living Translation throughout the year. We may lose some of the subtle nuances of his wording, but we will gain much in readability.

If it makes you feel any better, Peter, a man who walked with Jesus and served in the Messiah’s inner circle, even commented in one of his letters that “some of [Paul’s] comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture.”  (2 Peter 3:15-16.)

Note, however, that Peter’s words indicate he already considered Paul’s writings to have the same force as holy Scripture, which was just beginning to take shape. Other apostles also seem to have held Paul in high regard, once they overcame their initial fear of him as their former persecutor.

So, we’ve talked about the man. Let’s discuss the place a little. Paul was deeply interested in the church in Rome for a unique reason. Christians were already there; no church planting by this particular apostle was needed. But it is clear Paul saw this particular set of Christians as very important, and he wanted to be sure they had a proper understanding of Christianity.

Rome was, after all, at the heart of the known world. All roads ultimately led to Rome, and more importantly to an evangelism-minded apostle, all the roads in Rome led to the far reaches. If Christ’s mandate that the story of salvation be told everywhere were to be fulfilled, then the church in Rome had to be strong and sound.

If you’re a student of history at all, I don’t have to tell you what an incredible insight that was. We will talk more about Paul’s longing for Rome next week.

Paul also took God’s plan of salvation and rooted it in a couple of critically important words, “grace” and “peace.” As we begin this journey, we need to embed those words in our minds and hearts.

Grace, of course, is a particular word we use to describe unmerited love. God sent his Son to die on the cross not because of some sort of rule established for the functioning of the universe, but because God is, more than anything else, love. We will hear of the cross and its effects repeatedly as we explore Romans.

Let us never forget that God’s work through Jesus Christ is a tremendous expression of love. Knowing we are so loved should give us tremendous peace, regardless of what circumstances we may face. If we find ourselves troubled, it is only because we have forgotten the great truth of the cross—we are loved, despite our sins.

As we go through Romans, we will need to return to the words “grace” and “peace” on a regular basis. Understand what I am saying: Paul’s letter to the Romans is going to challenge us. This journey through Romans will at times be hard. Later in this first chapter, Paul makes some assertions about sin that go to the heart of major disputes in churches all over the globe today.

Studying Romans should cause us all to grow in our understanding of salvation, in our faith, and yes, even in old-fashioned concepts like holiness and radical forgiveness.

I, for one, am quite excited.

 

Bad People

1 Timothy 1:12-17
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.


Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of one of the most terrible days in our national history, what we simply have come to call 9/11. All of us who were old enough to know what was going on have powerful memories of that Tuesday.

I also have memories of that following Sunday in 2001. I was not yet a member of the clergy, but I was a certified lay speaker in Georgia, and I was scheduled to fill the pulpit for a preacher at a small church. Needless to say, getting into the pulpit that Sunday was a daunting task for any preacher, and particularly for me, being very inexperienced and not knowing the congregation.

In my sermon, I chose to focus on God’s plan for bad people. Fifteen years later, I still choose to focus on God’s plan for bad people. Bad people don’t seem to be going away; in fact, in the case of Islamic terrorists, we now experience their impact in ways we could not fully imagine in 2001. Who would have thought the particular form of terrorism that brought down those planes would evolve into an organization capable of streaming its horrors via professionally produced video?

Of course, terrorists are not the only bad people among us. “Bad” simply represents a state of being out-of-sync with God’s will. We all find ourselves being bad from time to time, in need of forgiveness and God’s grace. I’m focusing on the people who are “bad to the bone,” the people who commit the kinds of atrocities the vast majority of us could never think of doing—the murderers, the child molesters, anyone who does deliberate, significant damage to another’s life.

These people are not a new problem, of course. Violence has been among us since prehistoric times. Archaeologists have found plenty of skeletal evidence. As readers of the Bible, we also have Cain’s murder of Abel to give us what is, at a minimum, a powerful allegory of the origins of emotionally driven, quick and senseless killing.

The Old Testament has some straightforward punishments for the very bad. There is the famous “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” repeated in various contexts with “limb for limb,” “fracture for fracture,” “hand for hand” and “foot for foot” added.

And of course, death sentences were common. In Leviticus 24, shortly after these laws of equitable response are stated, the Israelites take a man out and stone him to death for blaspheming God.

It’s not unusual to hear people go all “Old Testament” when discussing how justice should be doled out today. This is particularly true when the topic of the death penalty is being discussed, or any time people do something so horrifying they trigger in the rest of us a very visceral reaction.

We as Christians have to be careful in such conversations, however. Why? Well, the coming of the Christ seems to have modified the approach God wants us to take.

In our 1 Timothy text today, Paul describes himself as having been among the bad to the bone, calling himself a “blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” As a good Jew trained in the Law of Moses, he is citing aspects of his former life that made him deserving of death in God’s eyes.

As he dictated these words, he most certainly was remembering how he stood by and encouraged the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He had to have been thinking of all those religious warrants he executed, harassing and capturing early Christians until the fledgling community lived in terror of him.

He is grateful, he writes, because through Christ he has experienced mercy, not getting the punishment he deserves for his evil acts, and salvation, receiving the gift of eternal life he does not deserve.

And here we find our Christian conundrum. If a very bad person like Paul can be saved through a relationship with Christ, should we not treat very bad people first of all as potential Christians, as people who could receive mercy and salvation?

We do need to take precautions against evil. Christians serve as police officers and soldiers with good reason, to stand between the rest of us and the particularly violent forms of evil in the world. We need to be smart enough to take precautions in our homes, places of work, and churches, too, remembering the Cains of the world can strike hard and fast.

But at the same time, we have to maintain the attitude there is hope for even those we consider the worst kind of people. There is a story going around on Christian websites and cable channels about how serial killer (and pedophile and cannibal) Jeffrey Dahmer had what seemed to be a genuine conversion to Christ before he was murdered in prison in 1994. If it’s true, then our Christian understanding of the power of grace tells us Dahmer is in the eternal presence of God—Christians will share the afterlife with him.

Of course, there’s no way for us to know for sure what went on in Dahmer’s heart, just as there is no way for any human to know with certainty what is happening spiritually in another person. But the very possibility of such remarkable turnarounds lets us imagine all sorts of possibilities.

Consider this: What if God raises up dynamic followers of Christ among the Muslims, sending them evangelists who are able to speak to their own people in their own Muslim context? What if Christian martyrs in that culture accomplish what martyrs have historically tended to do, leaving a positive impression on the witnesses? What if more and more of the Muslim world were to begin to see the truth of Jesus Christ as peacemaker and reconciler in this world?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Our faith has repeatedly managed to penetrate what looked like impenetrable cultures, bringing millions to Christ at a time. Roman, Celtic, Germanic and African polytheists have all found the message of Christ attractive at some point in history.

In a more modern context, scholars familiar with China estimate there are between 70 million and 100 million Christians in that very closed Communist nation. Because of the risks they are taking, we would have to classify them as very serious Christians. For comparison, the United States has about 223 million people calling themselves Christian.

We spend a lot of time talking about how it is going to take bombs and bullets to end the threat posed by the particular set of bad people we have faced the last 15 years. Perhaps God will provide another way, though, one we should be seeking through prayer. Here’s mine: Lord, open our enemies’ eyes. Let them hear your voice; let them experience your light. And in turning to you, may they astonish us as Paul astonished the early Christians.


The featured image is “Orfeus or Paradise Lost,” inspired by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. By MarikeStokker, 2013. Used under Wikimedia Commons’ Creative Commons License.

The Returning Fire

Acts 2:1-21

Fire dancing on the heads of the first Christians—that’s the primary image I get from Pentecost. It was not a burning fire, however. It was a spiritual fire entering them. Jesus sent them fire for their bellies.

And did it ever work. A people who had moved from cowering in fear to quietly praying and waiting suddenly ran into the streets declaring Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Crowds gathered; Peter preached. Three thousand new believers came to Christ that day.

Would you like to see something like that happen today? Would you like to see a returning fire in the bellies of American Christians? Would you like to have to figure out how to handle dozens, hundreds or even thousands of new Christians in our community all at once? (Yes, there are ways to organize for such events.)

Lord knows, we need such an awakening. I suspect the Lord simply waits on us to let it happen once again.

What led to that astonishing moment remains instructive for us today. In the events of Pentecost, I see how we can open ourselves to a new, fiery experience of the Holy Spirit.

As followers of Christ today, we know Christ told us to tell others that salvation is available. We also believe the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Logically, we should speak, knowing God’s work will be done in those who hear us.

Practically, however, most Christians seldom witness to others about their faith. I believe it is largely our fears that prevent the Holy Spirit from going to work through us—fear of not knowing what to say, fear of looking foolish, fear of making someone angry, fear of seeming different.

Stop cowering in fear. Like Jesus’ earliest followers, you’ve had some experience of the resurrection. Yeah, you didn’t see the risen Christ or see him ascend into heaven, but something brings you here. Some experience of Christ in your life, some sense of connection via the Holy Spirit, draws you.

As I said before, Jesus’ followers trusted their experiences, let fear go and began praying. What would happen to us if we went to praying, alone and in groups? I don’t just mean on Sunday, with congregants lifting up names and situations and the pastor saying words. I mean praying in our homes, in our workplaces, morning, noon and night, until we find ourselves living in a continuous state of prayer.

Something will happen. Something will happen. Of that, I have no doubt. New convictions and new gifts from the Spirit will come. At that point, we would be truly different from the world and even from most of the churches around us.

From there, the model is kindergarten simple, as simple as show and tell. You remember how show and tell works. You find something that excites you, you take it to class, and you show it off. Your friends are intrigued. They want to know more. You tell them more.

With the returning fire visibly working among us, Christian show and tell should become easy. We naturally will show more love, grace and forgiveness. There should be a core of joy that remains with us regardless of our circumstances. People should sit up and say, “I want what that person has.”

Get the show right, and the tell becomes easy. People probably won’t be converted by simply seeing actions, but many in this searching, jaded world at least will want to hear what we have to say. Peter began his sermon in answer to a question: “What does this mean?”

Yes, some sneered at what they saw in the believers; some will always sneer. Peter used their sneering as an opening to further capture the attention of the intrigued.

The sermon was straightforward. Peter was, after all, a simple man. He connected the Jewish audience to prophecy being fulfilled that day and in recent days prior. He declared Jesus to be their Messiah. He confronted them with the sin of not recognizing their Savior, of killing him. The 3,000 were “cut to the heart,” repented, and were baptized.

The tell is always the story of Jesus. God among us, Jesus taught love and forgiveness. He died on the cross to break the power of sin. He is risen. Each piece may need explaining, but the story is simple.

Prayer. Show and tell. Let’s try it. We will see the fire return again and again.

Clinging to the Gunwales

Matthew 14:22-33

We should read the story of Jesus walking on the water as a real miracle, of course, but this story also has long served Christians as allegory. The sea stands for the world; the boat is Christ’s church.

Having accomplished his miracle of feeding the multitudes, Jesus told his disciples to take a boat across the Sea of Galilee to Gennesaret. He stayed behind to send the crowds home. Scottish theologian William Barclay notes that a parallel story in John 6:1-15 indicates the crowd wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king. Barclay speculates Jesus sent the disciples away because they were not yet spiritually mature enough to handle the tense situation.

Whatever the reason, once the disciples had departed and the crowds were gone, Jesus finally was able to go up the mountain and find the solitude he had sought since learning of John the Baptist’s brutal, senseless execution.

Try to see the ensuing hours like contrasting scenes swapping back and forth in a movie. Jesus was in prayer, presumably at peace. At the same time, the disciples were tossed to and fro in one of those violent windstorms known to arise on the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus sank deeper into an understanding of his father’s will, the boat sank lower in the water, leaving the disciples clinging to the gunwales, the highest planks of the boat.

In the early hours before sunrise, the scenes began to merge. Jesus made his way across the sea on foot toward his frightened followers. When he drew near, there must have been at least some dim beginnings of morning twilight. The disciples made out a shape approaching and assumed, “It is a ghost!”

Jesus assured them with, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In the Greek manuscripts, Jesus literally says, “I am,” echoing the name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14.

This is where Peter—bold, rash Peter, the one who would soon be called the foundational rock of the church—wanted to walk on the water with Jesus, if Jesus would command him to do so. Jesus did, and Peter let go of the gunwales, stepped out and walked on the water, briefly, until the turmoil of the sea caused him to take his eyes off Jesus.

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asked, plucking the sinking future leader of the church from the water and putting him into the boat. At this point, the disciples worshiped Jesus on the suddenly calm sea, acknowledging their master as the great I Am.

In Luminary UMC’s sanctuary, we have a particular stained-glass window depicting the disciples’ plight. One is bailing, trying to keep everyone afloat. I’m glad the image is there. Every church should have a depiction of this story hanging somewhere.

In particular, we need it so we have something on which we can meditate in difficult times, either individually or as a church. Remembering again that the sea stands for the world and the boat stands for the church, the story raises some questions we need to ask ourselves.

Do you believe, really believe, that Jesus as the Son of God is in full control? Do you believe he’s resurrected, in heaven as part of the Trinity, at peace with all things as he was on the mountain, despite the turmoil below? Basically, I’m asking you if you’ve fully absorbed what it means to call yourself “Christian.”

Do you believe he knows and cares when the turmoil of the world tosses his church about? And that he’ll come for us when we need him, even when we may not see him clearly at first?

What’s the solution when our boat is flooding? Does clinging to the gunwales really help? When times are tough, I suppose it’s important not to fall out of the boat completely, but does your clinging improve the long-term situation?

I think Peter gets too much criticism from preachers for his role in this story. Hey, he saw Jesus, and he got out of the boat. If only briefly, the turmoil suddenly wasn’t a problem, for as long as he kept his eyes on Christ.

What does it mean to get out of the boat? Ah, that puts you out in the world, out in the turmoil, doesn’t it. Now see if you can keep your eyes on Jesus!

Why does the boat even exist? It is important to pause together in worship, particularly when we see evidence of Christ’s presence in our lives. We are strengthened as disciples when that perfect peace of Christ settles on us for awhile. But ultimately, the boat should take us other places in the world as we go where Christ sends us. Jesus and the disciples finally disembarked in Gennesaret, where a mighty healing was needed.

As we go about doing Jesus’ work, storms will come, I promise you. Keep your eyes on the horizon, searching for Christ; keep your eyes on Christ when you see him.