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.

Acts 28:23-31 – Focused on Mission

Apostle Paul by Ivan Filichev

They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet:

“‘Go to this people and say,
“You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

“Therefore, I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance! (New International Version)

The Apostle Paul took quite a licking throughout his Christian life. Incredibly, Paul not only physically survived whippings, beatings, stoning, arrests, shipwreck, and imprisonment – he also came through it all with a robust spirit and a dogged determination to live his life with purpose and mission.

Acts 28 is the final chapter in the book. Paul is in Rome under house arrest. Even in this situation, he kept finding ways to engage others. Since he couldn’t go to them, he had others come to him – lots of them.

Paul described to the visitors his own experience of encountering the risen Christ. He reasoned with his fellow Jews and vigorously debated with them from the Scriptures. It was always the deep desire and hope of Paul that his own people come to faith in Christ, just as he had. Although some did, most didn’t.

Many decades ago, my grandfather was approached by one of his friends about investing in a new insurance company startup. For a lot of reasons, grandpa ended up not participating in his friend’s venture. So, the friend asked others. Eventually, the startup happened and steadily grew. Today, Nationwide Insurance has over 250 billion dollars of assets. Good old gramps just didn’t know what he was rejecting.

The good news of Jesus Christ, I believe, is worth infinitely more than an insurance company. Christian mission, I believe, is worth investing my life into. I’m glad the gospel was proclaimed to Gentiles because I am a recipient of such grace. And I’m grateful that Paul tenaciously kept interacting with people for the last two years of his life under arrest.

Despite, and even because of, Paul’s sufferings and his house arrest, the message of faith and forgiveness in Christ was confidently and consistently presented to a steady flow of people, including the highest heads of state. Difficulties are no problem for God. The Lord bends all circumstances to divine and good purposes, creating new avenues of faith, hope, and love that wouldn’t be possible under “normal” times.

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Jim Eliot

In fact, Paul endured five years of imprisonment: two in a Caesarea jail; two under house arrest in Rome; and nearly a year in transport between the two cities. For a personality like Paul, we might imagine this would drive him nuts. Yet, several letters to the churches, now contained in the New Testament, were written during that time.

Whether we like it, or not, nothing proves, affirms, and grows our faith quite like our willingness to endure suffering for the gospel. Witness, suffering, and martyrdom are inextricably bundled together in God’s economy. When suffering is viewed as a necessary means to an altruistic and noble end, then, although the pain is no less real, there is the opportunity for both willing endurance and genuine joy.

Paul was willing to labor on behalf of people who were very different from himself. His concern was for all people everywhere – both his own people, the Jews, as well as Gentiles. Paul never gave in and never gave up. He had a magnanimous spirit and even greater spiritual gifts. He willingly and gladly used that spirit and gifts for the benefit of humanity.

In 64 C.E. Paul was condemned and executed. Before his death, he wrote that he had fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. Now, the next generations of new believers must follow in his footsteps and continue the work

This is precisely why the book of Acts ends so abruptly, with no resolution, no tidy conclusion – because the work is still being done and will carry on until Christ returns.

Gracious and loving God, you work everywhere reconciling, loving, and healing your people and your creation. In your Son Jesus, and through the power of your Holy Spirit, you invite each of us to join you in your work. We ask you to form us more and more in your image and likeness, through our prayer and worship of you and through the study of Holy Scripture so that our eyes will be fully opened to your mission in the world. Then, God, into our communities, our nation, and the world, send us to serve with Christ, taking risks to give life and hope to all people and all of your creation, through Jesus Christ our Lord.. Amen.

Philippians 1:18-26 – Do What’s Most Important

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul, Ravenna, Italy, 5th century C.E.

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. (New International Version)

So, what do you think leads to disunity in any group, whether in a church or elsewhere?….

Yes, unfortunately, there are many things which can divide a group of people. Chances are that discord comes from a lack of listening and love. And behind that lack is a spirit that desires attention and accolades. In other words, there cannot be unity whenever everyone wants to take credit for what’s good and blame others for what’s bad.

The Apostle Paul, writer of the letter to the Philippian Church, had a humble self-effacing approach to ministry. Paul knew exactly what was important to him and the advancement of the Church, namely, that Jesus Christ is proclaimed, that the good news of grace and forgiveness in Christ is given to people.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Mark Twain

And so, for Paul, his purpose was crystal clear. Although he really didn’t like bad attitudes and impure motives, if the message of Christ was preached, that was of upmost significance. It didn’t matter to him if people took credit for his work, or not. Not a lot of people can say that.

The Apostle focused on himself. Ultimately, we cannot control anyone; we can only practice self-control. And that is exactly what Paul did. Notice that in today’s New Testament lesson, Paul expressed his own desire to live a life of hope, courage, and selfless ministry. He understood that all the troubles he had experienced up to this point, would likely keep happening in this earthly life.

Paul could have started a new apostles’ retirement community, stepped out of the fray, and simply studied Torah all day. It’s probably what he really wanted to do. But Paul knew better. He knew it was better for all the churches he planted that he keep laboring on their behalf.

Even though Paul was ready to die and be with his Savior forever, he wasn’t going to grab control that wasn’t his. Someday he would die, or Christ will return before that time. Until then, he was going to do his darndest to ensure the gospel of Jesus is spread far and wide.

A spiritually healthy believer in Jesus both longs for heaven and Christ, and also puts their head down and faithfully plugs away with listening to others and loving them to Jesus with gracious words of forgiveness and merciful acts of kindness.

I imagine when Paul wrote this letter, he was downright tired. I can relate. Laboring day after day as a hospital chaplain and a church pastor often leaves me with little rest and carrying the emotional burdens of both places. There are so many people who need basic human kindness, common decency, and focused encouragement. And they don’t get it because there are far too many people far too absorbed in maintaining mastery of their very small worlds.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates

There are days I’d like nothing more than retreat to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, read and write in a small cabin, and catch fresh walleye for my supper. Maybe that will happen someday, but not today. Today is all we have. Today is the day of salvation. There will not always be Today. Christ is coming. Then it will be tomorrow. And tomorrow is too late for too many people.

So, I continue, working with all the energy (or lack thereof) which the good Lord gives me. After all, we are not God. Everyone on this planet has only a finite amount of energy and life. The question then becomes, How will you spend your energy and your finite resources?

I suggest we take our cues from good old Apostle Paul and not bad old Jacob Marley, who didn’t get the picture until it was too late. I’d rather live right, die well, and enjoy eternity – instead of living like a peacock, dying kicking and screaming, and having a miserable eternity.

In this Advent season, we have the opportunity to focus on what’s most important, then live with those priorities in the next year.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

John 4:31-38 – Real Food

Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus, the saying ‘One sows, and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (New International Version)

Today’s Gospel narrative reads something like the stereotypical mother concerned for her son saying, “Sit down and eat some of Mama’s pasta. You need some food!” As if preparing and serving a meal will make everything better.

Food has both the power to bring us together, as well as separate us. A meal can create the conditions for fellowship, acceptance, and enjoyment. Eating can bond people together through hospitable love. On the other hand, sitting down to eat can also be a way to avoid painful emotions. In this manner, eating becomes an obstacle to giving and receiving love.

It seems Christ’s disciples were doing the latter. They were uncomfortable and perhaps a bit stressed. Looking to fill up with food instead of with God, the disciples’ sense of unfulfillment was coming out sideways by opening the refrigerator, poking through the meager leftovers, and putting the emphasis on feeling better.

I know we can be hard on the disciples in the Gospels. Their ups and downs from faith to fear and back to faith again can be weird. Yet, through it all, I believe their hearts (excepting Judas Iscariot) were in the right place.

Jesus could see through the entire scenario and put the focus off eating. He addressed the disciples’ soul hunger through putting the spotlight on doing the will of God. Deep within they were hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

Paying attention to our vocation and discovering our humble work in the service of God, rather than a vacation to the pantry to cover our unwanted feelings, is the essence of Christ’s interaction with his disciples.

People are much more ready for the gospel of Jesus than we think. There are times we can become so insular, and lost within our own heads, that we are then unable to see the world as ripe for a harvest of people who are actually eager to be gathered into the community of the redeemed.

Jesus just had a significant interaction with the Samaritan woman. Back in that day, you just didn’t have dialogues with half-breed Samaritans – an unholy mix of Jewish and hated ancient Assyrian Gentile blood – let alone a man talking with a woman of disrepute who experienced several failed marriages.

Christ had a way of doing the will of God, despite conventional thinking of the time. And a lot of people got their undies in a bundle from it. The disciples, having a front seat to most of Christ’s shenanigans, did a few too many palms to the forehead, believing their Rabbi’s un-orthopraxis was going to make him unpopular. They feared no one would follow him.

Looks like the disciples didn’t quite get that one right.

The Samaritan woman received Jesus as Living Water, having her ultimate needs met by the penultimate Lord of all. The disciples hadn’t quite caught up to this, so fell back on their old ways of physical food and drink to assuage the weirdness happening inside them.

The woman was gushing over with Living Water, becoming a wellspring of good news to her community. Whereas the disciples (eventually becoming an incredible fountain of the gospel after Christ’s death and resurrection) are here nothing but an annoying drip from the kitchen faucet.

A non-descript ethnically suspect woman of dubious character coming to faith was meant by Jesus to open the disciples’ eyes to a new reality: The good news of Christ is meant for the world, not just Jewish men.

The disciples were given the opportunity to participate in the world’s takeover – a mission of bringing the love of God where love wasn’t present, of helping all kinds of people awaken to the deep spirituality within them, of lifting their downcast faces of guilt and shame to see the Living God wanting to bless the world with the body and blood of Jesus.

For this is real food and real drink.

Many believers in Jesus today think they are working hard for the Lord by seeking people for their churches. Yet, the real work is being done by the triune God – the heavenly Father who scans the world and seeks spiritual misfits to bless; the gracious and truthful Son who put hands and feet to that blessing; and the wild Holy Spirit who moves in unpredictable ways – are working infinitely harder for our churches, our families, our neighborhoods, and our world.

All of our work, no matter how big or small, is made possible by the pre-work of the Holy Trinity. The great Three-in-One has done all the preparations of chopping the onions, mincing the garlic, slicing the carrots, and peeling the potatoes so that we, his followers, can make a savory stew of diverse people sharing a common pot of God’s love and hospitality.

This is the food we know nothing about, and that God knows intimately.

O God, you made us in your own image, and you have redeemed us through your Son Jesus Christ: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*Above painting: Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of the Last Supper