What Will It Take to Reach Others? (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it! (The Message)

What will it take? 

What will it take to impact the world with the gospel of grace? 

What will it take to reach your neighbor with the love of God in Christ? 

What will it take to positively influence your relative, co-worker, or friend in grace and truth? 

The answer? It will take becoming a servant to them all. 

Reaching others with the glorious and incredible good news of forgiveness and new life in Jesus requires us to relinquish our rights and freedoms in order to have a ministry of presence. 

Somehow, far too many Churches and Christians have adopted the wrongheaded notion that they can reach people without interacting with them. They wing-it with a few tepid prayers, wishing that people will magically show up their church or event in order to experience their friendliness.

But it takes going to where people are and engaging in real human relationship to reach another person. It ought to be obvious, yet it isn’t for a lot of folks:

We have to be around other people in order to reach them. 

That’s why reaching the party-crowd takes going to the bar. 

It’s why reaching young moms takes sitting with them at the park while the kids play. 

It’s why reaching kids requires getting on the floor with them and playing what they want to play.

This is why it takes being present among the various people, businesses, and institutions in the community in order to reach them.

The goal is not to get other people to show up on our turf and become just like us. The goal is not for us to remain in comfortable surroundings while we expect others to get over their uncomfortableness to be with us.

Rather, the goal is to show up on their turf and relate to them, to become like them.

If it weren’t in the Bible we might think it blasphemous to say such a thing. But there it is, and we must wrestle with its implications for our lives. So, what needs to change?

My wife and I have a lot of experience working with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients – which means we also end up working a lot with their adult children and grandchildren. It’s difficult watching a person who raised you becoming a different person, living in a different world.

Many relatives try their darndest to get mom or dad back into “reality,” to return to their original selves and their surroundings. So, they correct, cajole, and criticize, in order to reach them and pull them back from their supposed mental abyss.

And it doesn’t work. More than that, it’s not only unhelpful, but it’s also often hurtful.

Instead of expecting a dementia patient to come into my world, I must go into their world.

Just the other day, my wife was talking with a self-described “Ninja Priestess.” And this dear woman was refusing to wear her socks on a hospital floor – which cannot happen in a healthcare setting. She didn’t want to wear them because “it diminishes my power and my connection to the ground.”

If we insist on remaining in our world, this immediately becomes a fight. Ultimatums are issued. Policies are pronounced. Security is called because everything escalates out of control.

Yet, if we enter the dear woman’s world, we choose to see things from her perspective and not ours.

My wife’s response? “It’s okay. The socks are cotton. All natural. They won’t hinder your power, at all.” And off they went together down the hall without incident and the patient feeling cared for and empowered.

When it comes to reaching people – anyone, no matter who they are – we must be willing to enter their world and be a part of it, seeing things as they see it, understanding where they’re coming from, without judgment and with plenty of empathy and compassion.

But if we insist on colonizing others in order to harvest their souls for our own spiritual benefit, then we have failed to understand the spirit and intent of the Apostle Paul’s teaching to us.

Being a servant means exactly that – serving others by listening, washing their feet, giving them time, and making compassionate connections.

God has cut us into the action of divine purposes in this world. This is privileged work. So, let’s do it with all the care and concern given us by the Spirit.

Merciful God, help us, your people, to live wisely among those who don’t yet know you, so that they can see the light of Christ in us, hear the words of Christ from us, and experience the salvation of Christ which is in us. Amen.

Get Along with Each Other (Romans 3:1-8)

So, what difference does it make who’s a Jew and who isn’t, who has been trained in God’s ways and who hasn’t? As it turns out, it makes a lot of difference—but not the difference so many have assumed.

First, there’s the matter of being put in charge of writing down and caring for God’s revelation, these Holy Scriptures. So, what if, in the course of doing that, some of those Jews abandoned their post? God didn’t abandon them. Do you think their faithlessness cancels out his faithfulness? Not on your life! Depend on it: God keeps his word even when the whole world is lying through its teeth. Scripture says the same:

Your words stand fast and true;
Rejection doesn’t faze you.

But if our wrongdoing only underlines and confirms God’s right-doing, shouldn’t we be commended for helping out? Since our lies don’t even make a dent in his truth, isn’t it wrong of God to back us to the wall and hold us to our word? These questions come up. The answer to such questions is no, a most emphatic No! How else would things ever get straightened out if God didn’t do the straightening?

It’s simply perverse to say, “If my lies serve to show off God’s truth all the more gloriously, why blame me? I’m doing God a favor.” Some people are actually trying to put such words in our mouths, claiming that we go around saying, “The more evil we do, the more good God does, so let’s just do it!” That’s pure slander, as I’m sure you’ll agree. (The Message)

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman Church is a hefty sixteen chapters of dense material and extended arguments of intense reasoning. Likely,

Likely, Paul felt compelled to be so verbose because of the church’s situation.

The Roman Church, at the time of Paul’s writing, was made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus. Jews and Gentiles have a complicated history together, to say the least.

The Roman Empire was firmly in control of Palestine and did not always treat the Jewish people well. In addition, the religious backgrounds of Jew and Gentile were as different as you can get.

Whereas the Jewish Christians had a long and rich history with God and the Old Testament, the Gentile Christians were green believers, fresh from centuries of paganism and esoteric rituals. Now, the two of them were together in one place, worshiping Jesus together.

Jews and Gentiles together made for a potentially combustible situation.

Throughout the letter to the Romans, Paul goes back and forth addressing the two groups of Jews and Gentiles. The overarching problem was this:

  • The Jewish believers tended to look down on the Gentile Christians and thought they needed to become Jewish to really be the kind of Christians God was looking for.
  • The Gentile believers tended to dismiss their Jewish brothers and sisters as backward and stuck in tradition.

Each group thought the other must become like them. So, Paul, bless his apostolic heart, had a hot mess in the making with these believers.

In our New Testament lesson for today, Paul is directing his comments toward the Gentile Christians. He wanted them to gain some appreciation for the Jewish people. After all, they were chosen by God to become a nation of priests and prophets for the world. Discounting that history would be to neglect and even invalidate their shared salvation.

For Paul, to have two churches, one Jew and the other Gentile, would be a complete travesty of Christ’s redemption for humanity.

Jesus sought to bring disparate peoples together and not keep them divided. The cross freed us by eliminating the barriers which separate us. The Roman Church needed to work together at being one people under the lordship of Christ.

There was to be no ethnic, religious, or political one-upmanship on Paul’s watch.

Truth be told, both Jew and Gentile did not always do so well with their respective histories. So, there is no ground for boasting or trying to argue for their own way. In fact, the unfaithfulness of people simply shows the incredible faithfulness of God in greater relief. 

If there were no sin, grace would not be needed; no cross would have existed. Just because the foulness and degradation of sin brings out the gracious, faithful, and forgiving character of God in Christ, does not mean that sin is okay or that we can flippantly wave it off with uttering some mumbo-jumbo cheap grace which devalues the majesty of God.

For example, when antebellum southern slaveholders in nineteenth-century America argued for their peculiar institution by saying that snatching black Africans from their homes was a good thing so that they could get out of their religious animistic worldview and be exposed to Christianity, I am positively sure that the Apostle Paul rolled over in his grave and begged Jesus to resurrect him early and send him to tackle such an affront to the cross of Christ!

Sin is never to be excused through twisted human mental gymnastics.

Paul worked laboriously to unite the churches he established and bring differing people groups together under Christ.

  • This does not mean is that all cultural and personal distinctions are ignored or erased.
  • This does mean that we value one another’s differences and gather around the shared value of knowing Jesus Christ.

The Church was neither going to become Jewish nor Gentile but something altogether new – one new people out of the two. Paul framed the matter this way to the Ephesian Church:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11-18, NIV)

Solitary righteousness is an oxymoron. Righteousness can only be truly lived and expressed with other people.

Yes, there is freedom in Christ. Yet, that freedom must be continually applied through making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

So, get along with one another.

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace to seriously lay aside all unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and harmony: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so, may we be forever all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, faith and love, with one mind and one mouth, glorify Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke 15:1-10)

By Sieger Koder (1925-2015)

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.“

Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (New International Version)

Lost people matter to God… a lot. They matter so much to the Lord that one lost soul who is found is the grounds for a big celestial party. 

Note a simple observation of today’s Gospel lesson: If there is rejoicing in the presence of angels over one sinner who repents, then it is God who is doing the rejoicing. The Lord is absolutely giddy with joy over a lost person being found.

Jesus told two short stories, each teaching the same thing, so that we will be absolutely sure to get it: A loving God has unbounded joy over lost people being found. These parables of Jesus give us a glimpse of God’s own heart. The Lord would do anything to find a lost person, to restore and reconcile that person to right relationships. 

The Lost Sheep by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

God would go dumpster diving and wade through stinky nasty garbage to find just one lost valuable person.

Restoring lost people is such a high priority to God that the Father sent the Son to this earth. Jesus paid the ultimate price of a cruel death on a cross to reconcile a broken lost relationship between people and God.

I have not always been a devoted follower of Christ. I still remember what it felt like to be separated from God and estranged from the Church – it was lonely and awful, like being in a deep black hole with no way of getting out and no one around to help. 

But God mercifully sent people into my life to share good news with me and help me out of my prodigal way of life. I once was lost. But now I am found. When I turned from my path of destruction and embraced Jesus Christ, there was a big party in heaven.

God gathering wayward and lost persons is a gracious activity, seemingly free from criticism. But there was. The rightful Judge of the universe got judged by a group of spiritual simpletons. And because there were complaints leveled at Jesus for purposely going after the lost, it therefore needs to be asked: 

Where do we locate ourselves in these parables? 

The two stories were downright offensive to many of Christ’s original hearers. Those upset with Jesus were so inwardly focused that they believed ministry ought to revolve around them and their needs.

And, what’s more, the religious leaders were offended because they thought all the fuss about sinners would only highlight their sin. In other words, there ought to be no party and no rejoicing for people who have lived an ethically and morally dubious life.

Preaching grace is always offensive to people who work for their salvation. It is scandalous to such persons to hear that Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. 

If we hear Christ’s parables and the concern for lost sinners who don’t know Jesus and say, “Well, all this talk about outreach is well and good, but what about us?  What about me? After all, I never went down a path of immorality or hurt anyone. I’m a good person. Where’s my party?” Then, we must locate ourselves as the lost persons in need of being found by God’s grace.

Consider for a moment the worst sinner you can think of – a person for whom you would label as being akin to the devil…. Now picture that person being found by God and becoming a follower of Christ….

Would you attend the party to celebrate that person’s repentance, reconciliation, and recovery? 

If any of us feels justified in our hate, then we are the lost one in need of turning from our sin.

In leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the flock and going after the one sheep, God gave preferential attention to the lost….

Can you live with that? 

These parables of Jesus have significant meaning for church programs, budgets, and committees. By most estimations, only one-in-five lost people in America even knows one Christian. Statistics like that are what keep me up at night; it deeply saddens me. It drives me to prayer.

God’s unconditional mercy and amazing grace is what makes all the difference. 

If we lose the sense of awe and appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ, then there will be no outreach. Finding lost people is not dependent on completing a class on evangelism or getting training in how to answer every question.

Outreach is fueled by passion and desire. Healthy Christians reproduce themselves. I assume you didn’t take a class on how to procreate – you just had the desire and the willingness; and then, you celebrated nine-months later, the birth of new life.

New life always needs to be celebrated because that’s what God does. Yet, the party cannot commence until the lost are found….

O God – blessed Father, Son, and Spirit – sanctify all believers everywhere with your abiding presence. Enlighten the minds of your people more and more with the light of the Gospel. Bring lost people to the knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ; and those who are walking in the way of life, keep steadfast to the end. Guard those who are strong and prosperous from forgetting you and straying from the flock. Increase in us your grace and love so that we may participate with you in finding the lost. Amen.

Luke 13:10-17 – Healing on the Sabbath

Jesus Healing the Bent-Over Woman by Glenda Skinner-Noble

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (New International Version)

The way in which we interpret events says a lot about who we are and what we need. The story sounds different, depending upon which person(s) are viewing it….

The Crippled Woman

She had gotten used to looking at people out of the corner of her eye, by looking up and sideways.

After eighteen years, she could hardly remember any other way of seeing the world. On this particular Sabbath, there was a special excitement at the synagogue, where she regularly went to worship. A Galilean preacher and prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, had arrived in town and would be teaching there.

She and the others in town had heard reports about Jesus–how he talked about God’s reign arriving soon and how he healed sick people. She was not sure how many of the rumors to believe, but she was trying not to get her hopes up. Her life already had too many disappointments to count.

When she entered the synagogue, the place was abuzz. As Jesus began to teach, however, the room was hushed. Moments later, his words turned from teaching to invitation. He had caught her eye–no mean feat, given that he had to lean over and incline his head to do so. “Come here,” he said to her. She slowly made her way to the front of the assembly.

Jesus and the Bent-Over Woman by Marg Mowczko

What happened next amazed the whole congregation. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When this man, Jesus, spoke those words and put his hands on her broken, bent body, she felt power surge through her. Without hesitation, she straightened her once crooked back. She stood tall and praised her God . . .

The Synagogue Leader

He has come to the synagogue every Saturday. Each Sabbath day the synagogue leader stands and faithfully reads the Torah. On this particular Sabbath, a Galilean preacher is coming. Some say his is a prophet, even Messiah. The leader has seen his share of would-be messiahs come and go, claiming to speak for God. He doubts anything will come of this. Just another man.

But what is this? A synagogue full of people! And just as the leader thought this may just be good for the people, getting them to pay attention to the law and the prophets, this preacher calls a woman forward, and of all things, heals her!? This is not good. This is not how things are to be done!

In the Torah, the seventh day was set aside by God for Israel’s rest. Work is prohibited. Non-life-threatening illnesses and conditions can be treated on the other six days. The synagogue leader is not opposed to healing. In fact, he welcomes it. But at an appropriate time, on the right day. He says to himself, “This all must be done decently and in order. Who does Jesus think he is? We cannot have such insubordination amongst the people, and in the synagogue, of all places!”

And so, the synagogue leader is beside himself with both anger and fear that the Law will not be properly upheld, and that God will be displeased and take away their place of worship.

Coptic Church depiction of Jesus healing the crippled woman, 12th century

Jesus

Jesus comes, looking forward to being with the people in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He understands that since the Sabbath law commemorates and celebrates Israel’s liberation, it ought to be a day for enacting — not inhibiting — the present-day liberation of Israelites. Yes, it is a good day for a healing. Every day is a good day for healing.

As Jesus enters the synagogue, it is full of people, charged with the atmosphere of anticipation. During the service, Jesus sees a woman. Although he rightly discerns that the synagogue leader and some of the congregants will not be happy about this, he calls her forward, intent on freeing her from her satanic bondage. And also knowing that placing his hands upon this woman will appear scandalous, he does it anyway.

Sure enough, the synagogue leader is livid. The leader feels the need to correct Jesus. Yet, Jesus unmoved by this, calmly retorts, without budging an inch, that given the custom of providing water for thirsty livestock on the Sabbath, it is surely appropriate to heal a long-suffering Israelite on the Sabbath.

In none of this does Jesus abolish the Sabbath commandment. Rather he follows it faithfully. Jesus enters an ongoing Jewish debate about how to interpret the Sabbath law, locating himself at the less stringent end of the opinion spectrum.

Jesus is determined to uphold the spirit of the Law, to practice compassion, to do what leads to human betterment. He is doing God’s will. He is allowing the Sabbath to serve this old woman, rather than letting the woman serve the Sabbath as a bent over crippled person.

The People

They come, as they do each Sabbath, to gather and listen to Torah read, to pray to God, and to strengthen one another in their common faith. Yes, the synagogue leader can be a bit tedious. The synagogue service can be a bit boring. But he is a good man doing good work.

Today, however, is different. Jesus, the one they have heard so much about, is there. And what a synagogue service it is! Jesus teaches us, and with authority! But, to our astonishment, he calls one of our women forward. And he touches her! Then heals her! This is the woman who has been tortured with such crippling pain and bent over all the time!

Oh, my, the synagogue leader is upset! We are so full of joy for our healed sister, yet also confused. This is a good thing that Jesus did – God’s kingdom breaking into this world. Yet, here is the synagogue leader and Jesus debating Torah. Does freedom from Satan only come on six days, not seven? Surely, God is especially honored on such a holy day as the Sabbath to do such important work. But work, it is. And Jesus did it. Is this really a good thing, or not?

Syrian Church depiction of Jesus and the crippled woman, 6th century

Conclusion

This is a story about the role and function of our religious traditions, our claims about what could and should be practiced, when and where it ought to take place, and who is allowed within the walls of our faith communities. Special religious practices may become hindrances to including folks. We must be diligent to recognize what theological ideas we hold dear that disallow full participation from others.

Jesus was no Sabbath breaker. He operated well within Jewish tradition of the day. At the same time Christ is also not one to allow the tradition to exclude people from access to the community and the potential for their healing. Even though the synagogue leader and some others disagreed, many in the crowd agreed.

Today’s story is about the community and addresses questions such as, “What kind of community do we want to be?” “Do our religious traditions help us to become that kind of community or do they hinder it?” “If we want to be a healing community, how can we make that happen?”

O God the Father, whose will for us and for all your people is health and salvation, O God the Son, who came that we might have life and have it in abundance, O God the Holy Spirit, whose indwelling makes our bodies the temples of your presence, have mercy on us.

O Triune God, we pray you to hear us, and that you will grant your grace to all who stand in need of healing of both of body and spirit, and lead them to look with confidence in you;

That you will grant patience and perseverance to all who are disabled by injury or illness, and increase their courage;

That you will grant peace to all who are troubled by confusion or pain, and set their minds at rest;

That you will grant relief from suffering to all sick children, and give them a sure sense of your tender love and care;

That you will grant rest to all whose increasing years bring weariness, distress, or loneliness, and give them the abiding comfort of your presence;

That you will grant confidence to all about to undergo surgery or difficult procedures, and keep them free from fear;

That you will grant purpose to the church as it seeks to carry on Christ’s ministry of healing to suffering humanity, and keep it always true to the gospel of Christ;

That you will grant skill and compassion to doctors, nurses, technicians, aides, and all who are called to  practice medical arts, and make strong their dedication to help others;

That you will grant to all people the peace of quiet sleep and the joy of resting in your everlasting arms, that we may rejoice in your care while we are on earth, and in the world to come, have eternal life.

O God, who in Jesus Christ called us out of darkness into your marvelous light; enable us always to declare your wonderful deeds, thank you for your steadfast love, and praise your with heart, soul, mind, and strength, now and forever. Amen.