Isaiah 59:15-21

            The “bystander effect,” or “bystander apathy,” is a social psychology term that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. In other words, in experiment after experiment over the past fifty years social psychologists have found that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.  For example, researchers Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin staged an experiment in 1969 around a woman in distress. Seventy-percent of the people who were alone called out or went to help the woman after they believed she had fallen and was hurt, but when there were other people in the room only forty-percent offered help.
 
            It’s far too easy to stand with our hands our pockets when there are other people around to serve and to do what is just.  “When the LORD noticed that justice had disappeared, he became very displeased.  It disgusted him even more to learn that no one would do a thing about it.”  Our rationalizations for not becoming involved are legion:  “Someone else better qualified than me will do it.”  “But what if I screw up?”  And the ever-present “I’m just too busy” are all ways to justify ourselves into not doing the work of justice in the world.
 
            If we are apathetic to the needs of others less privileged than ourselves, then we must come back to the Old Testament prophets and give them a very serious hearing.  The prophet Isaiah lets us know that none of us are anonymous; we have all been given gifts as the people of God in order to serve the greater good.  The Lord dispenses his grace and glory primarily through active people who eschew being bystanders in the world.  God inevitably gets noticed in the public square when his people are attentive to his justice.
 

 

            Just God, you care about the people of this world receiving the things they need to live and flourish well in life.  Inspire and empower all of your people, including me, to spread a spirit of service in our local communities and churches, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Example of Christ

 
 
John 13:15 – “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
 
            When I am thinking about a particular Scripture passage and reflecting upon it, one of the things I often do is write out my own translation of the verses with some explanatory comments.  I also often place them in a more contemporary context.  I do this because I want to feel the original force and even scandal of the message.  As we think about the ministry of the church, we are to follow the example of our Lord Jesus.  So, here is the Gospel of John 13:1-17….
 
It was just before the biggest and most important feast of the year, Passover.  Jesus knew that it was finally the time for him to face the cross and die for the world’s sins.  Having spent the past three years loving his followers, he now wanted to leave them with a clear demonstration of his love that they would never forget.
 
The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already gotten a hold of Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus to those who wanted him dead and gone.  But it was all according to plan.  Jesus knew that his heavenly Father had given him all authority because he was his Son, and he was ready to do what needed to be done to secure salvation and return to his rightful place at his Father’s right hand.  So, Jesus got up from the meal, rolled up his sleeves, put an apron on, and ran a sink full of hot water.  Jesus told the servants to take the night off, and He began taking the dishes from the dinner table and started washing them, taking care to do all that waiters and dishwashers would do.
 
When Jesus came to take care of Simon Peter’s dishes and serve him dessert and coffee, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to serve me?”  Jesus replied, “I know you do not understand why I am doing this since it seems like something that is beneath me to do, but later you will look back on this night and understand completely what I am doing.”
 
“No,” said Peter, “this is not right – you are the Master and this is not what well-respected Rabbis do – you are only disrespecting yourself and making us all look foolish. You are not going to take my dishes and wash them.”
 
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash these dishes and serve you, you are not going to be able to follow me anymore and you will have no part of what I am doing in this world.”
 
“Well, then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “if that is the way it really is, then don’t just wash the dishes – come on over to my place and clean out the fridge and scrub the kitchen floor!”
 
Jesus answered, “A person who has had a decent meal needs only to wash the dishes so that he can enjoy the freedom of hospitable relationships with me and those around him.  And all of you here have had a decent meal, though not every one of you.”  For Jesus knew that Judas was only picking at his food in anticipation of betraying him.
 

 

When Jesus was all done washing the dishes and serving his disciples, he took his apron off, rolled his sleeves back down, and returned to the table.  He looked them all squarely in the eye and said, “Do you understand what I just did for you?  You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so, for that is exactly what I am.  So, now that I, your Master and your Teacher have washed your dishes, you also should wash one another’s dishes.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  I am telling you the plain truth that no follower is greater than the one he follows, nor is a preacher greater than the one he preaches about.  Now that you know that it is your task in this life to provide humble loving service, you will have God’s stamp of approval on your life if you quit thinking about how to have and use power for your own purposes, and start thinking about how to use the power and authority I am giving you to love other people into the kingdom of God.

Free to Serve

 
 
I am not into arm-twisting when it comes to recruiting volunteers for service in the church.  And whenever someone thinks I am being “soft” on people by not making them feel guilty, I respond with conviction:  “That kind of approach is not consistent with the gospel of grace.”
 
Yet, that does not mean we ignore guilt because only true guilt can lead us to grace.  We all have times when we feel guilty.  Guilt in and of itself is not a bad thing.  Guilt is the response of the conscience to things we have done or left undone.  Guilt is the conscience telling us that we have done something wrong or have not done the good we know we ought to have done.  It is what we do with the guilt that determines the trajectory of our Christian lives. 
 
There are several ways we can respond to guilt.  We can rationalize our guilt and not accept the truth about what we have done.  When we use phrases like “it’s not my fault,” “it’s only wrong if I get caught,” “I didn’t hurt anybody,” “they deserved it,” and “it’s not that bad,” then our conscience can be seared like a hot iron so that we eventually do not feel guilty.  The result is of this is always hardness of heart.
 
            Another inappropriate way of dealing with guilt is the opposite of denying guilt; it is to hyper-focus on the guilt by feeling ashamed.  There is a difference between guilt and shame.  Guilt feels bad for actions done or not done.  Shame feels bad for who I am, as if I am incapable of being good.  Shame believes I do bad things because I am bad and deserve the consequences.  In other words, shame is really false guilt.
 
            The result of shame and false guilt is always one of two responses:  either we become inactive through feelings of discouragement and defeat; or, we become hyperactive by working like crazy to feel better and hope that the guilt and shame go away.  It is to impose a certain penance upon yourself in order to cope with the dirty feelings of guilt.
 
            But the good news is that every one of us can have freedom from guilt and a clear conscience because of Jesus Christ.  If we have been victimized in the past, we no longer have to feel ashamed as though we caused or deserved the violence done to us.  If we have said or done some truly egregious things that displease God and damage others, we no longer have to live with the regret and guilt on our consciences.  If we have failed others and God by not living up to who we ought to be, we no longer have to live day after day with our consciences bound with guilt.
 
            Here’s why we experience freedom and a clear conscience:  Christ has obtained eternal redemption for us by his blood (Hebrews 9:11-14).  Back in the Old Testament sacrificial system, the high priest would enter the temple/tabernacle to offer animal sacrifice.  Once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) he would enter the Most Holy Place.  The Ark of the Covenant was there.  The priest would slaughter the heifer and take some blood and sprinkle it on the altar. 
 
There were all kinds of rituals to perform in order to access God, and even then the sprinkling of blood only outwardly took care of cleansing the people.  But when Jesus offered himself once for all, the curtain that separated the Most Holy Place from the people was torn from top to bottom.  The way has been opened for not only an outward purification, but an inward cleansing of a guilty conscience so that we might now serve the living God with freedom and confidence.
 
All are now welcome at Christ’s Table.  There are no hoops to jump through.  There is only a radical hospitality that accepts everyone who comes to God by faith in Jesus.  We are holy because of the blood of Jesus Christ.  We can now serve God with joy and not serve him in order to gain spiritual brownie points and assuage our guilt. 
 

 

Service in the church needs to be motivated not by feelings of guilt but by a deep awareness of grace.  When we are overwhelmed with grace, to serve is to love God, which is the very thing we become eager to do.  So, when recruiting volunteers, take the route of inspiring grace in others, not guilt, for we are gloriously free in order to serve.

Real, or Fake?


Some things are pretty unrealistic.  But for most things in life, you often cannot tell a fake by the external appearance.  When it comes to Christianity and the true worship of God a person might give a good outward performance, but actually not be the real deal because he or she is full of bitterness and death on the inside with a heart far from God.
What is sobering for devoted believers in God is the reality that the Church may have people who are religious on the outside but not really be a Christ follower on the inside.  Having all the outward signs of faith without an inward reality is like putting perfume in a vase – it might smell like flowers but the flowers aren’t really there.  
            At the heart of Jesus Christ’s teaching is to be humble and avoid pride by not comparing ourselves to others and wondering if we are getting our due attention; rather we are to compare ourselves only to Christ and the Word of God and, so, become truly meek and humbly serve others out of a genuine heart that loves God.  What we proclaim and profess cannot be separated from who we are.
Jesus condemned the religiously committed Pharisees because they put heavy burdens on people and were unwilling to help them carry those burdens.  Throughout Jesus’ ministry he approached the crowds with the understanding that they were following him for a variety of reasons, some noble and some not so noble.  Some of those people heard of Jesus and genuinely wanted to be healed.  Some followed him because their hearts burned within them when he spoke and they wanted to know God better.  Some desired a true way of living and saw in Jesus fresh hope for their lives.  Yet others followed Jesus around wanting to see the next cool miracle, to maybe get a free handout, or just to hear him so that they could tell all their friends that they heard him speak and saw him heal.  Jesus was always trying to press and challenge the vast crowds of people into a genuine, real righteousness from the heart that would submit to God’s kingdom.  But the Pharisees and teachers of the law kept undermining Jesus, talking behind his back, and tried to stir up resentment against him.  
            The Pharisees’ motives were not to help people know God better through service, but to just talk a good line.  Interestingly, Jesus did not chastise them for what they taught (Matthew 23:1-12), but leveled condemnation on them for not helping people live-out their obligations.  The Pharisees knew their bibles and had a high view of Scripture.  The problem was not so much their doctrine but that they did not practice what they preached.  It isn’t so much what the Pharisees taught as howthey taught it – it was neither gentle, nor had any grace.  People need one another in order to truly live for God, but if there is a double-standard that exists among folks in the church then there is only heavy loads that aren’t getting carried because some individuals think they are above helping others or think too little of themselves and believe God could not use them.  In both cases the person declares “someone should do something!”  Someone should give, someone should pray, someone should visit, someone should tell that person about Christ, someone should help.  To which Jesus would say that someone is you!
            Jesus also condemned the Pharisees because they loved to do things for a show, for the attention.  Everything the Pharisees and the teachers of the law did was for others to see.  They thought they deserved the accolades of others.  We can be hard on the Pharisees, yet whenever we plaster on fake smiles, only obey and serve when others are looking, and/or pretend like everything is just peachy keen when we are dying inside then we have fallen under the same condemnation and are in need of putting aside caring so much about how we look to others and grieve, mourn and wail asking the God of grace to have mercy on us.  We can be so obsessed about the right thing to say that we never say what is really on the inside because we think it isn’t spiritual enough and we fear looking bad.
The Pharisees also were men who sought status and prestige.  Respect and honor was everything to many Pharisees which is why they wanted the positions of prominence and insisted on being recognized for whatever they did in the synagogue.  In public they insisted that the people respect them in their greeting and acknowledgements.  They did not want to look bad, ever.
            But facades will not do for Jesus.  Pharisees are very predictable because they always act with the spectator in mind, and seek to elicit praise and respect everywhere they go.  To Pharisees, it does not matter what is on the inside as long as the outside looks good.  In his autobiography, Be Myself, Warren Wiersbe writes about his first church building project as a young pastor in Indiana. He and the church’s building committee were working with a church architect. At one of the committee meetings, Wiersbe asked the architect, “Why do we need such an expensive, high ceiling in the auditorium? We’re not building a cathedral. Why not just build an auditorium with a flat room and then put a church façade in the front of the building?” Wiersbe writes that in a very quiet voice, the architect replied, “Pastor, the building you construct reflects what a church is and what a church does. You don’t use façades on churches to fool people. That’s for carnival sideshows. The outside and the inside must agree.”
So, what do we do when we realize that the outside of our lives and the inside don’t match?  We become humble and meek just like Jesus.  We are to revere and honor God, not people.  Putting people on a pedestal is not good because they are just people.  Instead of the mentality “look how great I am!” we are to treat everyone as an equal because at the heart of thinking people owe me something is the idea that I am better than the other person.  The answer to that attitude is to adopt Christ’s meekness and humility.  The zeal to feel important and respected is to be transformed into the desire to serve others.
            The way up is down.  We are to descend, not ascend, into greatness.  So, what does humble meekness look like?  Taylor University is a Christian college in Indiana. Years ago, an African student, Sam, was going to be enrolling in their school. This was before it was commonplace for international students to come to the U.S. to study. He was a bright young man with great promise, and the school felt honored to have him. When he arrived on campus, the President of the University took him on a tour, showing him all the dorms. When the tour was over, the President asked Sam where he would like to live. The young man replied, “If there is a room that no one wants, give that room to me.” Over the years the president had welcomed thousands of Christian men and women to the campus, and none had ever made such a request.  “If there is a room that no one wants, give that room to me.” That’s the kind of meekness Jesus talks about in the Beatitudes.
If there is a job that no one wants to do, I’ll do that job.
If there’s a kid that no one wants to eat lunch with, I’ll eat with that kid.
If there’s a piece of toast that’s burnt, I’ll take that piece.
If there’s a parking space that’s far away from the church, I’ll park in that space.
If there’s a need is someone’s life, I’ll meet that need.
If there’s a hardship someone has to endure, I’ll take that hardship.
If there’s a sacrifice someone needs to make, I’ll make that sacrifice.
            The greatest among you will be your servant.  Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.  This applies not only to individuals but to groups of people and churches as well.  If we never get out of our comfortable little band of people, then we need to ask ourselves why not?  If we never look beyond the four walls of the church building in order to serve someone, we need to ask ourselves why not?  If we have a chronic critical spirit toward someone then we need to ask ourselves if the genuine article is within us?
            The kingdom of God is not a matter of outward eating and drinking and displays of spirituality but is a matter of inner righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.  May we all serve one another deeply from a heart of love and grace.