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Monday, January 21, 2013

The Crowd Beside the Sea (Mark 2:13-17)

            Among us are people who have had heart surgery.  I am pretty sure there are also people here who have run marathons.  We have people who write books.  And people who develop computer programs.  We have people who get season tickets and others who hate basketball and football.  There are here, people over 6 feet tall and there are those less than 3 feet tall.  Some of us are over 75 years of age and some are less than a year old. 

            Throw us all together, and we make up “the crowd.”  ‘Ochlos’ in the Greek.  It can mean a throng of people.  Or a writer uses ‘ocholos’ to designate “the public” as opposed to single individuals in private settings.  The crowd is humanity in the marketplace, on the road, in the public square.  It is us – humans performing the daily realities of life with other humans watching.

            In the Bible, the crowd represented humanity after the fall, post-Eden humanity, individual persons who each were cut off from God by sin: their own sin and the sins of those around them.  The Bible paints a picture of God grieving because He loves humans whom he has created in his image and has created for the purpose of relationship with Him.  Sin has ruptured that relationship. 

Enter Jesus.  Jesus steps into the crowd.  Jesus steps into humanity, lost and fallen in sin, cut off from God as we are.  Jesus steps in to make things right.  This is the Gospel.  Jesus has come for us.  Evangelism is helping people who don’t know the gospel see their need for God.  As that need is understood, we help them find their way to Jesus. 

“Jesus went out … beside the sea,” Mark writes (v.13).  “The whole crowd gathered around and he taught them.”  Imagine two environments in which people come together.  This first one is a teaching environment.  The people know that Jesus is a traveling teacher.  He had a role that was extremely important in Jewish culture.  He was a considered a rabbi.  People would expect him to instruct them on Torah – the law, which we find in the first five books of the Old Testament.  Everything else rabbis did – even instruction from other parts of the Old Testament – stood on the Torah. 

When we read that a crowd stopped what they were doing and flocked around Jesus as he walked along the sea shore and listened intently as he taught, we can be sure he was instructing them on the Torah.  Knowing Jesus as we know him from the Gospels, I think it fair to assume he was teaching similarly to the lessons he gave in the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  This was Jesus’ radical new understanding of the ways of God, of Torah.  He certainly didn’t lay this all out in just one sermon.  In fact the Sermon on the Mount itself, as presented in Matthew, is probably a compilation of messages Jesus gave in various settings.

Here at the sea, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus teaches and the crowd is amazed.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Love your enemies.  You are the light of the world, so let your light shine. 

The teaching environment is one environment in which evangelism happens.  I have mentioned several ways we are equipped to do evangelism, to share Jesus with people we meet.  I have suggested we should listen first.  As we listen, we must know our Bible and know God and know our faith.  So, a lifelong commitment to growing in knowledge of what it is to be a disciple is a second way we have talked about being equipped.  Compassionate listening; growing in faith knowledge; a third way we are equipped is we develop the deep, even irrational love that God has for people who are far from Him, who have not given their hearts to Jesus.

In this, I have been asked a very good question.  When does all this become “evangelism?”  Non-Christians can listen compassionately without sharing Jesus.  People can devote themselves to knowledge of Christianity.  Many of the greatest theologians are not even sure there is a God.  They are brilliant in describing what people believe about God.  They have the knowledge.  But they don’t believe in their hearts.  And many atheists have moments in their lives where they love deeply.  When does our listening and loving lead to us proclaiming the gospel?  When do we say, “Jesus is Lord and you need Him in your life,” to other people? 

I think we say it throughout the process.  The listening helps us know when the moment is right.  The growth in faith knowledge helps us know what to say.  Again the listening helps us know which aspects of Christianity should be the entry point into a faith conversation.  The love drives us to reach out to people far from Jesus.  The love of the shepherd for the lost sheep and the love we have for people who are not Christ followers – that love refuses to let us give up on people.

As Jesus was in the crowd, walking along the shore, he taught.  The content of his speech is, I am sure, the same material we read in the Sermon on the Mount, in the parables found throughout Matthew and Luke, and the “I Am” statements of John’s gospel.  When we read in Mark 2:13 that crowds – humanity – surrounded Jesus and he taught them, we can be sure of what he was teaching.  He spoke the gospel as it fit the context.

But there is in the story a second environment of engagement.  “As he was walking along, he saw Levi … sitting as the tax booth.  He said to him, ‘Follow me.’  Levi got up and followed him.  And Jesus sat at dinner in Levi’s house.  Many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples.”  The social environment was just as important in the society in which Jesus lived as the teaching environment.  To be a dinner in someone’s home was a big deal.  Who you ate with was a big deal.  Who you hosted and who hosted you – this all mattered. 

Social customs evolve over time and where we live and how we view people obviously is not identical to the days when Mark sat down in 65 AD and wrote the Gospel, his account of the life of Jesus and the salvation Jesus brings.  There are huge differences between then and now.  But, the idea of environments of engagements still holds true.  In one setting Jesus was expected to teach and he taught.  We have settings where we are expected to speak and in those places and times, we should say who Jesus is and what our goal is – to help people know him as Savior and follow him as his disciples.

We also have social settings where there are expectations.  Speaking the gospel of Jesus’ salvation in those contexts can also happen, but it requires finesse.  Jesus taught in social situations, but usually he did so when invited.  Someone, often a religious leader, would ask a provocative question and Jesus would answer with a parable. 

The religious leaders were not at Levi’s dinner party.  They knew about it.  They knew Jesus was there and they knew tax collectors and others involved in questionable and immoral work were there.  They knew Jesus was with a collection of disreputables.  But they did not attend. 

Mark writes that Jesus sat with the sinners at dinner.  With this and with the other Gospel accounts of similar dinners, it is clear Jesus liked these sinners.  He liked being with them.  He laughed with them.  He cared about them.  We cannot know the intricate details of Jesus’ time spent with those described as “sinners.”  We can only know that somehow, Jesus was very comfortable with them even though he never stopped being holy and sinless. 

In these two environments – teaching and social, Mark presents two approaches to sin.  First, the Pharisees saw sin as something to be prevented.  They memorized the law and hammered the law into people’s minds with their teaching.  When someone sinned – whether performed ritualistically unclean acts or committed sins of specific behavior (adultery, deceit, corrupt business practices, theft, illicit sexual encounters) - then that one was kicked out of the synagogue and for all intents and purposes, out of community life.  Sin was something to be prevented and sinners were people who were to be punished. 

Jesus’ approach was different.  Jesus knew sin could not be avoided.  It was inevitable and in fact, every person runs up a mountain-sized sin debt and that mountain stands between us and a relationship with God.  We’re all sinners whom the Pharisees would punish.  But Jesus saw sinners as people to be reclaimed, redeemed, and remade – from cut-off to disciple. 

How do we see people?  Is that person who cut you off in traffic a target of the darkest parts of your anger?  Or is that person someone to be loved because Jesus died for him?  Is your neighbor, you know, the gossiping liar who said terrible things about your child, someone you see as a potential Christ-follower?  Are you the one God is prepping to love that individual? 

Mark’s gospel shows Jesus operating in different environments, maximizing the expectations placed on him.  He didn’t try to meet the expectations of others, but he was aware of those expectations and he used them to create openings to preach his gospel of salvation.  Mark shows Pharisees punishing sinners with ostracism in both social and teaching environments.  Mark shows Jesus loving sinners and inviting them to come to him to socialize at dinner and grow through his teaching. 

We can, following our master’s model, recognize our environments.  We can love the people we meet in those environments.  I think of a retired school teacher I know, Russ.  He never married.  In the 1980’s, he sponsored a refugee family who had fled Vietnam.  They came to the United States with nothing, and he took them into his home.  He didn’t have much, but he shared all he had – food, space, and the Gospel. 

Now, thirty years later, he is very old and he still lives with this Chinese family.  He adopted them, and they adopted him as their grandpa.  When they came, it was a mom, a dad, a toddler, and a baby.  Today, that toddler is a pastor.  His younger sister and younger brother are both grown, both Christians.  I had the privilege of baptizing the three of them along with their cousins a few years ago. 

This man, Russ, invested his entire life into sharing the love of Jesus and the gospel of salvation and new life in Christ with this family.  When those five young adults got baptized, he was rewarded with joy.  The parents are still Buddhists, uninterested in Jesus.  They did not attend the baptism.  But Russ loves them just as much.  He lives with them.  His heart of love is not dependent upon how people respond.  He gives Jesus-love without thought of how it might benefit himself.

His story sounds extreme, but the principles which operated in his life and also in the life the Gospel writer Mark, are just as relevant in our experiences.  Russ saw people – people far from God; Chinese Buddhists fleeing oppression in Vietnam.  He had a couple of options.  He could ignore them as lost, and not his problem.  Or he could be with them, seeing them as people in need of love, people God desperately wanted to redeem and reclaim.  That’s what we all are – people God wants to reclaim as sons and daughters.  Like Jesus at the sea shore, Russ stepped into the crowd intent on helping. 

Once Russ saw this young family as God saw them, he took them in and recognized the environments of engagement.  The parents were unresponsive, so he did not spend unfruitful time trying to evangelize them when to do so would just ignite hostility.  He loved them and shared his home with them.

            Because of his generosity, the parents allowed him to take the children to an environment of teaching – Sunday school.  There, the Gospel we taught to those kids over and over, and when they became adults, they received Jesus and were baptized. 

            Likewise, Mark the Gospel writer, recognized his time and the needs of people in his time.  In churches where Mark worshipped in 65 AD, he dealt with confusion over this new thing, Christianity.  There were many questions.  His response was to write a gospel – the story of Jesus.  He wrote to show how Jesus loved those far from God.  In his descriptions he showed how Jesus’ followers could do as the Master had done and reach out in Jesus’ name both in Jewish and Gentile communities.  Mark’s Gospel, when first written, would be read aloud in assemblies of Christians.  The entire account would be read in one sitting, with questions to follow.  Great discussions would ensue.  In these times, Mark and other leaders could stress that followers of Jesus go to the world, to the crowd to be with people.

            Adopting refugee families.  Writing Gospels.  What call is God sending into your life and mine?  Don’t overanalyze the question.  Consider the everyday places of your life, the skills you already possess, your natural personality style, and the people you already know.  We are called to the crowd, to share Jesus in a way that we will be heard.  We are called to be with people, especially those who don’t know Him.

            Today the crowd is not lingering beside the sea, looking for a good rabbi.  The crowd is all over the world.  In blog chats, on Facebook, Twitter.  The crowd is gathering in your neighborhood, or at the coffee pot in your office. 

            When conversation strikes up, we listen so intently and compassionately, others feel safe talking to us.  We know the Gospel.  We know we are sinners, so we see all other sinners with love, as people God wants to reclaim as sons and daughters.  We recognize when the time is right and the environment is appropriate.  And then we openly share the good news of Jesus. 


Monday, January 14, 2013

Broken Hearted Evangelism

Sunday, January 13, 2013

            How does Jesus identify about people who are (A) outside the religious establishment and (B) who are far from God?  In Luke chapter 5 we find the story of Jesus calling Levi the tax collector.  “Follow me,” Jesus says.  Tax collectors and sinners is a formula Luke uses to indicate he is describing disreputable people; bad guys.  These are those who do not go to worship; those who are widely known to live out immoral behaviors.  The ones popular society identified as righteous, the Pharisees and scribes, complain.  They are grumbling in the story in Luke 5.  They say to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”  To and eat and drink, to share the table – that was intimacy; that act gave legitimacy to the humanity of the other.  Why are you, Jesus, who would be a rabbi, eating with such lowlifes and riffraff?

            Jesus responded, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Luke 5:31).

            A similar scenario arises in Luke 15.  Again, Luke tells us that the corrupt and the immoral – the degenerates of society – are gathering.  “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]” (v.1).  The dutiful religious leaders had to have their say.  Grumbling, the Pharisees and scribes muttered through red faces and clenched teeth, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Jesus responds with three parables, one about a lost sheep, a second about a lost coin, and the third, his most famous, about a lost son.

            We have our metaphors.  I began asking, how does Jesus identify those who are outside the religious establishment and how does he identify those who are far from God.  He compares them to those who are sick and in need of a doctor.  And he compares them to those who are lost.  There are different ways one is lost.  The lost sheep mindlessly wandered off.  The lost coin did nothing to be lost.  The woman lost it.  The prodigal son chose his hedonistic way.  He would not have said he intentionally got himself lost, but his state of being lost resulted from his own choices. 

In modern evangelical language, often the world is divided up into categories, the saved and the lost.  But we say that without thinking.  Jesus used different metaphors to describe those cut off from God by sin.  And when he did say lost, the word contained more than one meaning.  What is clear is that there was in the Gospel and there are today people who are not walking in faith.  They do not have relationship with God and do not worship Him.  In the Gospel, those inside the religious establishment despised those they called sinners.  Other texts from Luke show these same Pharisees were blind to their own sins.

How did Jesus feel about sinners?  He wanted to be with them, to eat with them and spend time with them.  He loved them.  The ultimate example he gives is the Father, representing God, in the Prodigal story.  The Father ran to meet the son who had walked out and all but declared the father dead.  This son brought shame on the family and ruin on himself, but this father ran to him, embraced him, and loved him.  Throughout Luke 15, Jesus demonstrates that in God there is overwhelming joy when someone is saved from sin, saved from death, saved from Hell, and most importantly, saved from life apart from God.  In fact, scholar Fred Craddock says this joy that bursts out from God when a lost person is saved, when a sick person is healed of the worst of diseases, godlessness; this joy is at the heart of the Gospel.[i]

How did Jesus feel about sinners?  He repeatedly butted heads with the Pharisees because he felt the Pharisees were merciless and actually did things to grind hurting people into the ground.  In 18 Jesus tells a parable in which a self-righteous Pharisee is condemned but a repentant tax collector is forgiven.  In Matthew 23, Jesus unleashes a furious sermon of condemnation against Pharisees.  What did they do to draw such ire from Jesus?  They failed to love and help sinners.  In Luke 19, riding into Jerusalem, knowing his crucifixion is coming, Jesus weeps openly.  He’s crying because the state of spiritual brokenness fills him with deep sadness. 

If someone displayed this open anger and emotion over another’s pain and if he did it publically, today someone might derisively call him a bleeding-heart liberal.  I have, in conversations, expressed concern and even sadness over issues like hunger and poverty and lack of clean drinking water.  Conversation partners who thought of themselves as devout, conservative Christians suggested I was aligning myself with bleeding heart liberals.  Their tone implied an accusation. 

Because this is so-weighed and terms like liberal raise tempers and needless red flags, I decided against suggesting we should approach evangelism as bleeding heart evangelicals.  But there is no denying that people who are not Christ-followers, people we might call “lost,” bring sadness to God’s heart.  He loves them so much, he sent his only begotten son that whichever of those outside his family would believe in Jesus would not experience eternal death, but being born again would have everlasting life with God in God’s loving presence.  Did you note my wordy paraphrase of John 3:16?  The popular song that is out now gets it right.  We absolutely need to pray that what breaks God’s heart would break our hearts. 

One of the things that breaks God’s heart is when the sick, the sinners of the world, come looking for salvation or wander aimlessly in need of salvation, and God’s church ignores them or even worse scorns them and judges them.  We’ve talked about equipping ourselves to do evangelism, to share Jesus with the world.  In this series, I have proposed that we listen before we speak.  We listen to unbelievers so that they know we will not judge them.  Secondly, I have said we need to know ourselves.  We need to know what a Christian is and we need to spend our entire lives growing that knowledge.  We need to be able to speak fluently and seamlessly about our faith and about who Jesus is. 

A third way we are equipped is by loving those outside the church and outside the faith with the irrational mad love of Jesus that we see in Luke 15.  We have to have a posture of love and that love has to come from deep within us.  It can’t be faked.  But it can be developed.  And when we develop within us a real love for people far from Jesus, the lost sheep of the world, it will have a dramatic evangelistic affect because Christianity has not done such a great job of projecting love in the age of mass media.  As I mentioned in the last couple of weeks, Christianity has shown the watching a world a lot of things other than love: judgment; exclusion; prejudice; elitism. 

To get a sense of this, I want to share a snippet from a book that was wildly popular a few years ago, Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.

In this section, he’s on campus at his college, Reid College in Oregon.  He has already established that Reid is a party school without much of a Christian presence.  But, he and his friend are in fact Christ-followers at Reid.  Here’s what he writes about representing Christ in this secular and possibly even hostile environment.

Each year at Reid they have a festival called Ren Fayre.  They shut down the campus so students can party.  Security keeps the authorities away and everyone gets drunk and high, and some people get naked.  … The school brings in White Bird, a medical unit that specializes in treating bad drug trips.  The students create special lounges with black lights and television screens to enhance kids’ mushroom trips.


Some of the Christians in our little group decided this was a pretty good place to come out of the closet, letting everybody know there were a few Christians on campus.  Tony the Beat Poet and I were sitting around in my room one afternoon talking about what to do, how to explain who we were to a group of students who, in the past had expressed hostility toward Christians.  Like our friends, we felt like Ren Fayre was the time to do this.  I said we should build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said, “Confess your sins.”  I said this because I knew a lot of people would be sinning, and Christian spirituality begins by confessing your sins and repenting.  I also said it as a joke.  But Tony thought it was brilliant.  He sat there on my couch with his mind in the clouds, and he was [scaring me senseless] because there for a second, then for a minute, I actually believed he wanted to do it. 


“Tony,” I said very gently.  “We are not going to do this.”  He moved his gaze down the wall and directly into my eyes.  A smile came across his face.


“Oh, we are, Don.  We certainly are.  We are going to build a confession booth.


We met in the commons – Penny, Nadine, Mitch, Iven, Tony and I.  Tony said I had an idea.  They looked at me.  I told them Tony was lying and that I didn’t have an idea at all.  They looked at Tony.  Tony gave me a dirty look and told me to tell them the idea.  I told them I had a stupid idea that we couldn’t do without getting attacked.  They leaned in.  I told them we should build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said, “Confess your sins.”  Penny put her hands over her mouth.  Nadine smiled.  Iven laughed.  Mitch started drawing designs for the booth on a napkin.  Tony nodded his head.  I wet my pants. 


“They may well burn it down,” Nadine said.


“I will build a trapdoor,” Mitch said with his finger in the air. 


“I like it, Don,” Iven patted me on the back.


“I don’t want anything to do with it,” Penny said. 


“Neither do I,” I told her. 


“OK you guys,” Tony gathered everyone’s attention.  “Here’s the catch.  We are not actually going to accept confession.”  We looked at him confusion.  “We are going to confess to them.  We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry.  We will apologize for the crusades.  We will apologize for televangelists.  We will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely.  We will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus.  We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”[ii]



            Silly idea, right?  Don Miller thought so too.  Of his friends, he was elected to sit in the booth first.  He sat there in the dark waiting, thinking there was no way the intoxicated, high revelers would stop their insane partying to step into a confession booth.  But they built it and set it in the middle of campus, in the middle of the craziness.  At one point during the construction of their booth, 100 people wearing nothing – and I do mean nothing – but body paint streaked by waving.  They waved back.  Then he sat there thinking of the ridiculous stupidity of it all.  He was about to quit when someone came in. 

            I am sure that visitor half-intended to make a mockery of it all.  But when Don told the young student, “No, you don’t confess to me, I, the Christian, have to apologize on behalf of Jesus for the crusades and the trail of tears and slavery in the south other things Christians have done,” when he said that, something changed.  This agnostic ended up talking to him for a long time.  He shared the gospel with this kid.  Over the course of many hours, Don Miller and his friends “confessed” to over 30 people.  They did it because they were convicted.  They believed Christians had failed to show love and they wanted to, in some small way, in their little corner of the world, right that wrong.

            I don’t think their method would work if it was repeated elsewhere, at least not in our context.  But I do wonder. Are we are worried about loving those outside the family of God, those who have not given themselves to Jesus?  Do our hearts break for the son who has wandered off to a far country?  Do we, with the shepherd’s desperation, leave 99 to go find one lost sheep?  Do the things that brought tears to Jesus’ eyes make us cry?  Are we brokenhearted evangelicals?

              One of the best ideas to come out of the book Evangelism without Additives is the author Jim Henderson’s designation of non-Christians.  He refuses to call them “lost.”  Rather, he calls them the people “Jesus misses most.”[iii]  I don’t know about you, but I think differently about someone when I think of them that way.  To say someone is “lost,” the way I think the term is understood by Christians today is to categorize that person in a negative and judgmental way.  I don’t feel positively about a person who is defined as lost or nonbeliever or unbeliever. 

            But to identify a person as someone Jesus misses most is another thing altogether.  Henderson writes, “I want Christians to want to be with the people Jesus misses most, not out of a sense of duty, but of adventure and partnership with God.  I want Christians to love people who don’t know Jesus, not be mad at them for not believing the right things” (p. 20).  It is fine that Henderson says he wants Christians to be with non-Christians out of love and not out of duty.  More importantly Luke 15 clearly shows, and this is seen in all four gospels, that Jesus expects his followers to have a heart love for people who are not his followers. 

            So, do we?  Do we love the lost, the people He misses most?  For me this take works.  My inclination is to stick with church folks.  I am not proud of that and I am working on it.  I have friends who as far as I know don’t attend church.  I am making space in my life to spend time with them and get to know them more.  I would love it if they would meet Jesus and give their lives to Him.  If they ask, I am ready to talk all about the salvation He gives.

            But it doesn’t come immediately.  The shepherd had to go out and search.  The Father had to wait for his lost son.  For now, I am setting aside time for my unchurched friends.  I plan to listen to them attentively and compassionately.  I am asking God to fill me with love because I know, from the stories Jesus told, that Heaven will be filled with joy when these friends of mine turn to Jesus.  And it will happen when you friends, those Jesus misses, come to Him.

            I close by asking God to come and break our hearts.  O God, help us see the world around.  Help us notice the people in our lives who are not following after Jesus, who do not worship, those who do not know you.  Help us see them and notice them.  And Lord God, our Master and Savior and Friend, fill us with love for these you miss.  Fill us with Love and send us to them.


[i] Interpretation Commentary: Luke, p.186.
[ii] Blue Like Jazz, p.116-127.
[iii] Evangelism without Additives, ch. 2.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Samaritan Leper

Luke 17 (Holman Standard Christian Bible)

11 While traveling to Jerusalem, He passed between[h] Samaria and Galilee. 12 As He entered a village, 10 men with serious skin diseases met Him. They stood at a distance 13 and raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

14 When He saw them, He told them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And while they were going, they were healed.[i]

15 But one of them, seeing that he was healed, returned and, with a loud voice, gave glory to God. 16 He fell facedown at His feet, thanking Him. And he was a Samaritan.

17 Then Jesus said, “Were not 10 cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Didn’t any return[j] to give glory to God except this foreigner?” 19 And He told him, “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.”[k]

 One of our church's ministries is to give financial assistance to people in emergency situations.  We have requirements.  You must live in our town.  And the only assistance we give is utility, rent, or mortgage.  Why are we so strict?

We get more calls for financial help than any other type of calls.  We get more calls from strangers asking if we can give them money than we get calls from our members regarding some aspect of church life.  We get around five calls a year from strangers asking for prayer.  We get almost that many calls a week from strangers asking for money.

I sometimes wonder if people walk into banks and say, "I was just searching for God and I wondered if you could give me any guidance?"  What makes people come to church to get money?  I suppose it is desperation.  In a few cases it might be laziness, but I think most who come work hard, but don't know how to climb out of the holes they find themselves in.

We probably give help to 20% of the people who need it.  Why don't we help more than that?  We run out of money.  Every month, we run out of funds in the account we use for benevolent help.  But we do help some who come.  The money is distributed by a team of volunteers who interview those who come to assess need.  The volunteers always pray with those who come.  And they always invite them to worship and to be part of the life of our church.  A small percentage actually take us up on that invitation and come. 

This morning, a call came in that surprised me.  Someone called (and talked to our ministry assistant Dina).  We had helped her recently.  She was just calling to say thanks.  I have been a pastor in churches that do this type of benevolent ministry for almost 16 years.  I cannot remember someone calling to say thanks.  I don't know this person, but today, I pray God would do something in her life, something incredible.  I don't mean a financial boon.  I mean I pray God would meet her and she would meet God in a fresh way and her life would be forever changed. 

She called to say "thank you." 

Why is that so rare?


Monday, January 7, 2013

What is a Christian

Sunday, January 6, 2013

            I am asking for trouble with the title this morning, a question, what is a Christian?  There are a lot of ready answers.  I do not know which one is yours, but I am pretty sure yours is different than the person behind you.  And his is going to be slightly, or maybe extremely different than the person next you.  What is a Christian?  My answer will leave some people asking, “But why didn’t he say …?”

            I know before starting that I’ll miss the mark.  Therefore, I begin with that admission.  There is more to being a Christian than what I could possibly say in one Sunday morning sermon.  In a sense, we spend every single week playing with this challenge – the task of living the life of one who follows and worships Jesus Christ.  You see the question.  “What is a Christian?”  I happily invite you to answer.  I ask you to accept up front that I know my answer is not going to be complete nor will it be identical to yours. 

            That said, I think what we find in the opening verses of Romans 5 provide crucial, foundational material for what it is to be Christian.  “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1).  Peace with God; a love relationship with God; this is Christianity – what we have and what we share. 

Before getting to the essentials of our Christians foundations, I want to briefly review from last week.  We are in the midst of a series of conversations, both in the Sunday morning sermons and more importantly in your small groups.  Our topic is evangelism – sharing the Christian faith which contains the good news that all people are offered salvation by God, given through Jesus Christ. 

As I discussed evangelism last week, I raised the idea of “listening evangelism.”  This does not mean we never speak.  Those who are not Christ-followers will not likely become disciples unless they are invited to consider who Jesus is and what He has done.  That invitation needs to be based in the teaching of the New Testament.  We need to speak the gospel.  But I don’t think effective evangelism in 21st century, a marketplace of ideas, will begin with assertive proclamation.  As I said last week, nonbelievers mostly expect evangelistic Christians to say that anyone outside the church is a hell-bound sinner.  We have to come up with a better way.  It begins with listening. 

This is our posture in evangelism.  And by evangelism, I don’t mean an isolated activity that is done once and is unrelated to the rest of the encounters we have in daily life.  Just the opposite!  I am proposing that we live evangelistically in all encounters with people – with our own kids and with strangers.  We listen to communicate to the other, our conversation partner, that we are welcoming, gentle, and nonjudgmental.  We will be good caretakers of whatever they choose to share with us.  If we come across as compassionate listeners, people will be inclined to share with us.  They might also be inclined to listen to what we have to say on topics of great importance.

However, there is a risk in this.  This listening approach to evangelism is an alternative to more arrogant, aggressive approaches that come across as confrontational.  Evangelistic Christians are not the only ones in the world trying to convince others of an ideology or a faith or of truth.  If we come as open listeners, ready to take in what others dish out, someone will come to us as aggressively as those Christians who want to know if you were to die tonight, where would you go.  Those sharing other ideas, ideas completely contrary to Biblical Christianity, might see a good listener as someone who can be filled with whatever philosophy they are peddling. 

We want to be good listeners, but not from a position of ignorance or weakness.  We need a rock-solid foundation.  We need to listen as people who know who we are and where we come from.  I am asserting listening as our evangelistic posture.  And I assert the gospel as our evangelistic foundation.

There are numerous passages we might turn to when trying to sum up the gospel and we don’t have time this morning to do a thorough New Testament synopsis of what is mean by “good news” or “gospel,” so I have chosen to devote our time to one passage, Romans 5:1-11.

We remember Romans 3:23 – “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  And also, 4:25 where we are reminded that Jesus was “handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”  From these verses (and many others) we know a basic Christian teaching is all people are sinners and sin cuts us off from God.  No matter what another person says as we attentively listen to them, we hold in our mind that all humans sin.  You. Me.  The people in our lives.  And when we are nearing the moment where we might share the Gospel with another, that person too is a sinner.

We dare not think less of someone once we have seen them in that light.  In fact, the basic assumption that all of us our sinners should make it easier for us to love, respect, and esteem other people.  It does not matter if someone is a Christian, is indifferent to religion, or is a hard-core Satanist.  It does not matter if someone is a tenured professor, a world-famous scientist, a high powered attorney, or a waitress or a mechanic or a homeless person.  The mark of a Christian is that we recognize that all people are sinners and are to be loved and listened to and welcomed. 

With that in mind, we wade into Romans 5:1-11 and we see immediately that we are “justified by faith” and because of Jesus, we have access to God.  This is not to be taken lightly.  Our sin rendered us cut off.  But because of Jesus’ death on the cross, all who put their trust in God through faith in Jesus are made right.  The sins are no longer a factor.  Not only are we seen as right in God’s eyes, but we are allowed to and even invited to come before God in prayer.  Because of Jesus, we have access to God. 

This passage from Romans speaks of God’s love.  Verse 5 says “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”  And verse 8: “God proves his loves for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Sin leads to death, but Jesus took the death on himself.  Even though we have sinned, we don’t have to deal with sin’s consequences.  Jesus has taken care of that. 

We are all sinners.  We are justified, made right, by Jesus.  We have access to God because of Jesus.  God loves us.  A final note on the basics of Christianity is that we have reconciliation because of Jesus.  Verse 10 notes this truth is due both to his death and the salvation we have that relies on the life Jesus lived.  Because of Jesus we are reconciled to God, moved from cut-off to reconnected in a relationship that stands on God’s love. 

What is a Christian?  A Christian is a sinner who has been made right by Jesus and who now has a relationship with God, a relationship of love and communication that happens through worship and prayer.  This is who you and I are when we go to the task of loving those outside the Christian family.  We listen and listen attentively and with great compassion to nonbelievers.  But all the while, we hold a tension in our minds, the tension of their thoughts with the truth of God. 

Without this Christian foundation, we are not ready to listen evangelistically.  I have summarized the gospel quite briefly.  Much more could be said.  That’s clear.  And that is why, at this point I stress how much effort every Christ follower must put in.  We have to work to know what we believe.  Refining our knowledge of faith and practice of faith is a constant task and a lifelong task.  It involves worship, participation in Church life, mission work, and Bible-reading and much prayer.  I wrote this week’s newsletter article about reading the Bible in a way that equips the reader to be knowledgeable and conversant in the faith.  I won’t go into the details here.  But I will say that this is not just for pastors or people who like to read a lot or people who want to specialize in evangelism.  What I wrote in that article and what I am saying here is true for all Christ followers of all ages.  It is a constant effort that involves growing in faith and knowing what we believe. 

If you’re passionate about football, you don’t need special training in how to talk about football.  You eat, sleep, and drink football and can talk about it day or night.  If you’re passionate about TV shows like American Idol, you don’t need a lecture to learn how to talk about why you like American Idol. It comes easily to you.  We Christ-followers need to give more of our attention to knowing our faith than to other passions and interests.  When we do, we find two things.  First, we are prepared to talk about what it means to be a Christian.  Second, we grow in the delight and joy we receive from life in Christ. 


I have offered listening as an evangelistic posture.  I have asserted that when we listen in conversations with anyone – believers or nonbelievers – we must know where we stand.  This means we must have a basic sense of the Gospel and we must devote our lives to growing in our knowledge of faith.

There’s a real rub here and it is important to acknowledge.  The world outside the church expects us to stand firm in what we believe, but does not expect us to extend respect to non-Christians.  In 2007, Gabe Lyons and Greg Kinnaman came out with the book UnChristian.  Through hundreds of interviews, they concluded that in six ways, evangelistically-minded Christians were turning nonbelievers away from the church.  These conclusions are based on research done over a 3-year period. 

Here are the six ways Christians, especially those who would identify as evangelicals, turn away nonbelievers.

(1)               Hypocritical: we are perceived to not practice what we preach; and, we are thought to do the very sins we condemn.

(2)             “Get saved!”: we are thought to worry about eternal salvation but to be completely indifferent to problems in the present.

(3)              Antihomosexual: we are thought to have identified one behavior as sinful, disproportionately, hatefully condemn that one sin, and ignore many other sins.

(4)             Sheltered: the perception is those inside the Christian bubble don’t have any sense about the real world.

(5)              Too political: translated this means the unchurched world sees extremely conservative politics and extremely conservative Christianity as being the same thing.  We present as being more concerned about abortion, gun-owning rights, and patriotism than we are concerned about the things Jesus actually said.

(6)             Judgmental: we think we’re right about everything and anyone who disagrees with us is going to Hell.


These accusations probably contain a grain of truth underneath the veneer of exaggeration.  However, no matter how inaccurate these thoughts are, research has shown that a lot of people think this is true of evangelistic churches.  We lose the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus before the conversation even starts because of these assumptions affixed to us.

What do we do?

We listen.  To the ardent feminist who insists that even late term abortions are a woman’s right, we listen.  To the one who practices Wicca, we listen.  To the Universalist who thinks all philosophies are OK, and all paths lead to God, we listen.  To the isolated man who hates all foreigners and has an arsenal in basement, we listen.  To the stressed out, chain-smoking neighbor whose language is laced with 4-letter words, we listen.

I did not say we agree.  I do not say we affirm everything we hear.  We maintain in our hearts and minds a firm conviction that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  We remember all the while that our conversation partner has this in common with us.  Both they and we are sinners who need Jesus desperately.  Because of that, we create space for the other to speak their piece.  They will know they are being heard by someone who is compassionate, and that compassionate one is a follower of Jesus Christ.  The only way we can change the negative perceptions of Christianity is by showing God’s love.

That’s at the heart of the teaching in Romans 5.  Sinners are friends of God because of God’s love, expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  We listen knowing all the while, we are Christians.  We know what a Christian is because our lives are dedicated to growing in the knowledge of Jesus and growing in the knowledge of what it means to be his disciples.  Work?  Yes, this is work that requires much from each of us.  But it brings immeasurable joy.

It also makes us ready.  When we know what a Christian is and our knowledge is fueled by passion for Jesus, then we can talk about our faith any time, any day, to anyone. 

If we commit to compassionate listening, that day and time will come.  We will find ourselves in conversations and people will discover we are Christians.  We’ll hear “Oh wow.  I didn’t know there were Christians like you.  I thought Christians were angry, judgmental haters who went around damning people all the time.  But you’re nice and I can talk to you.  Why are you different?” 

In that moment, you and I will be ready to say to that other person, “I love you because God loves me.  I, like you, and like all people, am a sinner.  By my deeds, I am condemned.  But God loved me enough to send Jesus and in dying, Jesus took my death on himself.  Because of Him, I have eternal life and a relationship with God.  And that’s why I love you.”

When we know what a Christian is we are ready to talk about it.  This is one way we are equipped to do evangelism.  Next week, we look into this some more.