evangelism

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.

 

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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.

The Abundant Life

Matthew 14:13-21 (NRSV)

One of Jesus’ great, oft-cited miracles is the feeding of 5,000 men, plus however many women and children were present. There’s an additional miracle going on here we sometimes miss, however. Jesus’ gracious, divine Spirit overcomes what should be a crushing human burden.

Note how the story begins: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” This is a sign to readers that we need to back up a little in Matthew. Something important has just happened, something tragic, something painful.

That event was the senseless death of John the Baptist, a holy man slaughtered in the context of a courtly scene nearly pornographic in its intensity. King Herod, a puppet of the Roman Empire, had taken his brother’s wife for his own. John the Baptist had publicly condemned the marriage, leading to the prophet’s imprisonment.

On the occasion of Herod’s birthday, the wife’s daughter danced in a way pleasing to Herod, so pleasing that he promised to give her anything she wanted. After consulting with her mother, the daughter asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Cornered by his own offer, Herod reluctantly ordered the executioners to do their work, and the gruesome reward quickly arrived.

The nastiness of the world stains this scene mightily, even if some of the ugliness must be inferred. In addition to the callous murder of a prophet, there is layer upon layer of incestuous behavior, both in Herod taking his brother’s wife and Herod’s lust for her daughter, presumably his niece. There also is the wife, who apparently was quite happy trading up to a marriage that would put her in Herod’s court—she is, after all, the one who initiated the beheading, clearly unhappy with John the Baptist’s public critique.

An Intrusion?

Sin came crashing down, killing Jesus’ cousin, the one who had recognized the presence of the Christ while still in the womb, the one ordained by God to declare the messiah’s arrival. Jesus needed time to grieve. He also had to come to terms with another sign his own suffering and death were not far off.

Naturally, Jesus wanted some privacy. The human part of him needed to pray and grieve, perhaps even to cry. But when he arrived at the shore of the deserted place where he headed by boat, it was no longer deserted. The people had run on foot from the towns to be in his presence, in particular, to bring their sick.

How would we react to our much-needed respite being interrupted? Except for a few true saints among us, not the way Jesus reacted. At our best, maybe we would be polite; maybe we would send a spokesman to ask the people to go away, with a promise to appear at such-and-such town on a specific day and time.

It’s a normal reaction when we’re under the stress loss and anxiety can bring. We physically hurt, pain knotting in our heads, our chests or our stomachs. We tend to overreact to what others say or do, and that can make us fearful of being with people. We feel like we cannot be much good to anyone else.

But Jesus looked around—I imagine him taking a very deep breath—and, filled with compassion, began to heal, a process that at times seemed to drain him. Ultimately, he began to feed all those people, despite what seemed like a dire shortage of food.

In feeding these people, Jesus was sending one of those messages designed to turn the world upside down. Sin cannot win. Brokenness and scarcity will not triumph. The eternal, all-powerful God, the one who made all things, offers abundance in all things, even when his heart is broken by his own creation.

Bearers of Grace

Anxiety and fear do not represent the normal order of the universe as God made it to be. We are human, but as Christians we are to be like Jesus as much as humanly possible, allowing the Holy Spirit to strengthen us at times we think we can go no further, particularly if we’re called to show God’s grace in a particular moment. We cannot forget that while Jesus provided the miracles, he also told the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”

I’ve known a few people who seemed to be really good at taking that deep breath and doling out grace. One of my favorites was a man named Bob Loy. Bob had every reason to feel crushed by the world.

He had lived for decades with about 30 percent lung capacity after an accident that nearly killed him. By the time I knew him, he was elderly. His wife became very ill; while staying with her at the hospital, Bob slipped and fell, breaking his leg near the hip and putting himself in the hospital.

While Bob was laid up, unable to move, his wife died. He couldn’t even go to the funeral. His sister also died about the same time. Again, he couldn’t go to the funeral. This was a man who had every reason to give up.

But not Bob. Through his pain, he kept looking around what had become a very tiny world for him, a hospital room. He was certain every day somebody near him needed God’s grace, and he was going to be God’s vessel for that grace. I know for a fact that he brought at least one nurse to a belief in Jesus Christ while flat on his back in that hospital bed.

He also showed me a lot of grace. I was a new pastor, and he constantly was encouraging me, even as pneumonia took over those weak lungs and he had to keep pulling off his oxygen mask to speak.

A Near-Death Experience

Bob had a secret that explained his attitude, a secret he shared with me after we had known each other awhile. When he had that accident decades earlier, the one that scarred his lungs so badly, he had a vision of an entryway to heaven.

His had been the classic case of dying on the table and being brought back. He said his experience was indescribably beautiful, a vision of a stream, a vast plain, and the most glorious mountain he had ever seen. He knew God was there, and if he crossed the stream, he could not go back. He also knew he had a choice. A young man at the time, he chose to return to his family, he told me.

But he did not forget the vision. He had seen what eternal victory in Christ looks like, if only briefly, and from then on that vision shaped his life. I knew Bob only late in his life; when it came time to preside at his funeral, I heard story after story of the lives he had changed through the years with his joyous version of the story of Christ, a story he both told and lived out every day.

I don’t think Christians have to have a near-death experience to understand what Bob understood. We have embraced the story of a Savior who shows us repeatedly that when it comes to the things that matter—love, hope, joy—there is eternal abundance. We simply need to learn to dwell in that abundance.

The Invitation

Romans 10:5-15 (NRSV)

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Amen to that. It doesn’t matter what your feet actually look like—when they arrive carrying you, the bearer of the message of Jesus Christ, they are going to seem beautiful to the person who finds eternal life through your words.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, some of what I write here today has been written on this site before. I want to get it down in a new way, however. In particular, I want the new congregation I serve to hear it.

In our Scripture reading today, Paul uses what now sounds like elaborate language to communicate some core points about Christianity. Salvation, he tells us, is a matter of believing Jesus is Lord and then confessing that belief openly. Salvation is for all; God doesn’t distinguish among types of sinners.

Someone has to make the declaration, however. Once-thirsty people have to tell the parched how to find the living water. Otherwise, the parched will die.

As church people, we have to get this concept, and then we have to live it. When we fail, we stop being the church. We instead become the equivalent of a Ruritan Club operating under a Christian name.

I’m going to give you a basic strategy for Luminary UMC, one rooted in Paul’s words. It’s a big-picture strategy, and it should drive every other decision we make.

Step 1: Stop inviting people to church. Never do that again. “Church” is perceived by the lost as a place, a building on a piece of ground. The people inside might even seem old or out of touch to many of the lost. It is just one of many places they may or may not choose to go.

Step 2: Start inviting people to a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, known through his radical teachings and his sacrifice, is attractive to all when properly understood.

Every other appeal I might make would be rooted in this change in attitude. Understand the difference in these two invitations, and everything else we do as a church will fall into place.

Now, like I said, this is big-picture stuff. I have no doubt that many of you just said to yourselves, “I can’t do that,” or maybe even, “There’s no way I’m doing that—I’m not going to look like a fool.”

I understand. I’ve been there. I don’t have time today to teach you in full how to share Christ with others, but let me promise you this: It’s easier than it sounds. I learned, and I’ve never once felt I was embarrassed or perceived as weird while helping people learn who Jesus Christ is.

You know how to make friends, right? First, you simply need to be relational, to be open enough to get to know people and let people get to know you. It also helps to pray for a heart open to people different from you.

The next part is learning to talk naturally with others about your relationship with Jesus Christ. This is mostly about trusting that the Holy Spirit has arrived ahead of you in the person’s life—you simply have to follow God’s lead.

As I learned to tell others about Christ, I was astonished at how I mostly was in the position of answering questions. I’ve never had to be pushy or calculating; I’ve never forced my beliefs on anyone. People are hungry for some word from God, for some assurance that life is about more than 80 or 90 years in pursuit of stuff. Tell God you’re willing to be open about your relationship with him, and people will actually invite you to answer their questions.

Sometimes in a particular church, a few people embrace these ideas and remarkable events begin to happen. I saw this happen at Salem UMC, a church in Kingsport, near my last appointment.

For reasons that will become obvious, I wanted to get to know Salem’s pastor, Will Shewey. Will has since moved on to participate in a new church start in the Kingsport area.

Over a period of about four years, Salem’s average church attendance grew from 90 to well over 200, and most of that growth was from first-time professions of faith. For example, in the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost in 2013, Will baptized 26 people. Similar numbers have continued into this year.

Will said that people he had never met before would walk into his office asking for baptism. They had encountered one of Salem’s parishioners in one setting or another and found their way to life with Jesus.

“So you’ve got your people trained to evangelize?” I asked.

Will laughed. “I’ve got five or six who take it seriously,” he said.

That’s the kind of impact just a handful of people can have. Imagine a church where a significant percentage of the church’s members agree to do what Jesus called all of us to do—tell others about Christ.

I preach this message here at Luminary UMC expecting a very specific response. Will you be one of those people? Are you willing to learn? Will you let this new attitude become the basis for our decision making here?

If so, I’m willing to teach you, with full confidence that Christ will take care of a faithful church.

A Good Yield

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Sower_(Le_semeur)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

The Sower, by James Tissot

The start of today’s parable, commonly called “The Parable of the Sower,” is a bit puzzling. It seems like we should call it “The Parable of the Sloppy Sower,” as seed seems to be flying all over the place, with little consideration of its chance to land in a good place to grow.

But since the sower is God—in particular, Jesus walking among us as God in the flesh—I hesitate to use such a title. There must be something deeper going on.

Now, some would argue that parables are best left unexplained, so the hearers can meditate on them in their undiluted form, allowing the Spirit to instruct them in a deeper understanding of the story’s meaning. But Jesus explained this parable to his puzzled disciples, as well as one about weeds and wheat growing together, so I feel comfortable trying to break his lesson down for you.

The seed is humanity, but there seems to be something extra thrown in, an infusion of holy DNA made possible by the coming of Jesus Christ. What I hear in this parable is that we all have in us the potential to grow in holiness because of Christ. We are also supposed to bear fruit, spreading holiness to other people and growing the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Properly tended, holy fruit begets holy fruit.

What I also hear is that it helps to land in the right setting. Sadly, some people land on the path—that is, they find themselves in a place or time where it’s difficult for their understanding of what Christ means to the world to even begin to germinate. For example, imagine being a child born in one of these places:

  • A Muslim household in Taliban-controlled country.
  • A village in North Korea.
  • An atheist home in the United States.

These children may hear the name of Jesus at some point, but the devil will have a much easier time keeping them from developing their potential as followers of Christ.

For those of us who gather in church to worship Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, it’s probably more important that we focus on the other places where seed may land. We first need to understand where we’re trying to establish roots.

In the other three examples—rocky ground, thorny ground, and good soil—something does sprout and begin to grow. There is a point where all three types would call themselves “Christian.” The distinctions among the three depend on the end results. And among us in church today, it’s distinctly possible we’re a mix of the three growing together. Particularly in our part of the world, the developed, affluent part, it’s hard to distinguish the three.

Rocky ground types normally don’t last long when persecution comes because of their Christian beliefs, but persecution is not something we have to contend with in any serious way. Would our faith be strong enough to sustain us if we found ourselves unemployable because of our beliefs? Would it sustain us if we were tortured because of our beliefs? What if we were threatened with death because of our beliefs? Many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other countries know the answers to these questions we seldom face.

There’s a very good chance many of us are growing among the thorns. The United States of America is one of the thorniest plots of ground on earth. Thorns represent distractions, those things that draw us away from the light that sustains us. Those thorns eventually can grab us and entangle us in ways deadly to our faith, and the whole time, we’re acting like old Brer Rabbit, happy to be in the briar patch.

What has hold of you that keeps you from a deeper relationship with God? Sports? Suddenly, they’re everywhere, in your community and on TV, and Sunday morning is no exception. Other leisure activities? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying life, and everyone needs a vacation, but does leisure enhance or detract from your relationship with God?

Work? Hey, if you’re a workaholic, you can stay at it 12 hours a day, seven days a week. You’ll probably get rich, or at least find yourself moderately well-off. But is your understanding of those big questions of life any deeper? Will the money and possessions sustain you when those questions trouble you?

Good soil is where we want to be, of course. It is made up of all sorts of nutrients, a mix of God’s word, prayer, self-discipline, and religious practices like worship, study and the taking of communion. Whenever we root ourselves in these activities, the Holy Spirit enters us, changes us, and makes us more like what God intended us to be.

Now, if you’re finding yourself a little frustrated or concerned, here’s an important secret to reading parables. Like all metaphors, they break down if stretched too far. The plants in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower are stuck where they land. You are not stuck. You can move to better soil. You can reach down and improve the soil around you.

And fruit will come. You’ll see it in yourself. You’ll see it in your children and grandchildren, who eagerly look to you for guidance. And that fruit will continue to spread. Some of you may even find yourselves plowing ground where there once was only an infertile, hard-packed path, going to people who need to hear about Christ for the first time.

As for all that sloppy sowing by God—well, all we’re talking about is potential goodness finding its way into the world, right? Of course God puts that potential everywhere, even in the difficult places. His kingdom will one day be complete.