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.

Matthew 20:20-28 – Leadership as Service to Others

Statue of Jesus washing Peter’s feet, in Pittsburgh, Texas. Photo by Carol Highsmith

The mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

“What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (New International Version)

Jesus and his disciples were not on the same page. That’s because they each had differing agendas.

Jesus was clear with the disciples about how things were going to shake out with him: torture, insults, crucifixion, and death was ahead. It seems the disciples and the mother of James and John missed the memo on this. Christ’s words went way over their heads.

It could be the disciples simply did not hear what Jesus was saying to them (repeatedly!). It’s more likely that the message of Jesus got filtered through an existing agenda of how they believed things ought to go.

The disciples, along with a lot of other Jewish folk in the first century, were looking for a Messiah in the mold of King David – a strong leader who would come and beat up the Romans, exert all kinds of power and influence, and establish an earthly rule over all the people they don’t like.

Submission to torture, humility before the very people they detested, and being killed by them were not factors into the disciples understanding of leadership and government.

Much like the powerful Aslan who had a thorough understanding of the world’s deep magic and submitted himself to the White Witch and death in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – Jesus knew what he was doing, while everyone else seemed clueless about the true power which exists in the universe.

Let’s be clear about what that true power really is: grace. Yes, grace. Powerful, resplendent, subversive, scandalous, and radical grace.

Mercy was the missing factor in the disciples’ agenda. Jesus is not like other rulers. He does not operate by throwing his weight around to forcefully impose a crushing my-way-or-the-highway kind of rule (even though, ironically, he is The Way).

No, Jesus freely and unabashedly uses grace with its merciful tools of humility, gentleness, kindness, goodness, and love to introduce and establish a new kind of rule which is not posturing for self-serving authority.

Power, authority, and the positions which go with them are to be used for the common good of all persons. To be in any sort of leadership position is to be a servant of grace for the benefit of humanity and the world.

If Christ’s disciples had looked a bit closer into the Scriptures, they might have noticed, for all his power and authority, that King David trafficked in grace.

David, at the pinnacle of power, looked over the kingdom to see who from the family of his enemy, the former King Saul (who was into the power thing for himself) was around so he could show grace (2 Samuel 9). It was typical of ancient kings to secure their rule and power through killing-off rivals and family members of previous kings. Not so with David. And not so with Jesus.

Wherever there is posturing for position, preening for power, and a pestering for privilege – there you will find everything grace is not:

  • Reliance on making and calling-in favors
  • Arrogant and overinflated egos
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Hatred and suspicion of others
  • Judgment and condemnation
  • An insistence on recognition
  • Compulsive manipulation and control over everything and everyone
  • Unilateral decision-making
  • Shaming of others
  • Hoarding resources
  • Coups and in-fighting
  • A demand of rights

We in the western world may not be in the habit of offing leaders and killing others to consolidate power, yet we still too often rely on violent speech and language, partisan policies, and good-old-boy systems which are foreign to the way of Christ.

In contrast to this, grace exists. It is the deep magic which resides within. Wherever grace operates, there you will find the heart of a servant:

Attending to the needs of all persons, especially the least, the last, and the lost

  • Freely consulting and collaborating with others
  • Focusing on responsibility
  • Loving discipline
  • Embracing accountability
  • Pursuing truth and integrity
  • Sharing power and resources
  • Encouraging feedback
  • Giving generously
  • Looking for ways to show mercy

This old world desperately needs leaders with a dutiful sense of public service which is compassionate and kind. Wielding authority is not about a show of strength; it is in the understanding that when I am weak, then I am strong.

Yes, this approach to leadership may bring some short-term suffering. Grace, however, results in longevity of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. True service is being a servant of grace.

May it be so, to the glory of God, and for the blessing of the world. Amen.

Luke 22:24-30 – Just Shadow Jesus

Digital painting of Jesus and the disciples by John Mathews

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (NIV)

Jesus is a different sort of leader.

While the kings of his day were concerned with power and using their authority to ensure even more power and privilege, Jesus went about things differently. In a world of patronage where it was necessary for the lower classes to connect with and suck-up to the higher classes, Jesus operated by a different system.

Jesus, Lord of the universe, King of creation, absolute Leader of the Church, and Ruler over God’s realm was and is a servant of the people.

“Follow my example: Even the Son of Man did not come for people to serve him. He came to serve others and to give his life to save many people.”

mark 10:45, erv

On the surface, striving to be the best might seem noble and good. Yes, working toward being the greatest might motivate us to do all things with excellence. It can solve a lot of problems and issues. On the other hand, it may also result in attitudes and behavior which fosters unhealthy competition and an inordinate focus on becoming the greatest.

Think about it. Not everyone can be the greatest. If everyone is, nobody is. This results in lower self-esteem for nearly everybody. And it creates ripe conditions for leadership paranoia in which the greatest is always looking over their shoulder worrying about being toppled from their lofty position. At the least, all this ballyhoo about greatness only takes away from caring for the people who most need our efforts – family members get the shaft from someone with an imbalanced life who is laser-focused on getting to the top and staying there.

It’s as if a person is living a one-dimensional existence in a three-dimensional world. It won’t work. Fortunately, we don’t have to live like that.

Jesus shows us a better way.

Jesus was present to his disciples. He is present to us in the person of the Holy Spirit. Christ encouraged relational connections and using one’s gifts, talents, and abilities for the common good of all people. For Jesus Christ, the dynamics of power and authority are not to be leveraged for personal greatness but for collective uplift. Authority is to be carefully applied for everyone’s benefit, including those we think don’t deserve it.

The disciples understood far too little about the community their leader was trying to build. Judas Iscariot is likely the one disciple who first realized what Jesus was truly up to. The greatest are the least and the least are the greatest. It wasn’t what Judas signed up for, so he cut his losses and betrayed Jesus.

True exaltation is a gift of grace. The kingdom of God turns on mercy and operates on the economy of grace. It is those who faithfully serve who will sit with Jesus, the ultimate Servant, at the table. Peacocks and pretenders will never realize their dream to be the center of attention.

In a great twist of irony, those who wish to compete and occupy a high standing will discover they have worked to obtain the lowest rung on the ladder leaning against the wall of Satan’s kingdom.

Jesus consistently, patiently, and carefully established the kingdom of God on earth. He went about his task in a manner none of us would even consider. He focused on character, not skills; willing hearts, not intelligent brains; new life, not reformed habits. On the job orientation involved following Jesus around everywhere.

Just shadow Jesus.

Here I am washing your feet. Do the same. Here I am being present to and serving the poor, the lonely, the outcast, the moral failure, and the lowest of society. Do the same. Here I am showing sacrificial self-emptying unconditional love. Do the same. Just shadow me. Do what I do, period.

An obsession with greatness will inevitably lead to petty kingdom building enterprises. Instead, we are to love the neighbor next to us. We make room at the committee table for somebody who looks, acts, and talks different than me. We freely let Jesus live through us, thus, giving the gift of him to those we encounter. We purposely look for ways to serve underprivileged communities rather than use the people living there in ways to make us look better.

Indeed, this following Jesus thing is subversive – even for many professing Christians.

What will you do?

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, in the name of Christ. Amen.

Matthew 12:15-21 – The Servant of the Lord

Jesus the Liberator
Jesus the Liberator by Argentine artist Adolfo Perez Esquivel

Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. He warned them not to tell others about him. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
    In his name the nations will put their hope.” (NIV)

It is important to say the words, “I love you.” It is also significant how we say it. If our tone of voice is monotone and our affect flat, then the incongruent words of love will go unrequited. If, however, our tone is soothing and excited and our face beaming as if starstruck, then the love expressed will likely be received and stick.

Christians have a message of love to the world; it is a message of Jesus Christ and his love for humanity. Both the content of our message and the way we communicate it are vitally significant. For if the words we speak are grotesquely mismatched with our tone of voice and affect, then love is not what we convey. Yet, if we have been profoundly and meaningfully touched by the love of God in Christ, then that love cannot be constrained and will find a way to express itself with appropriate mannerisms.

Both the message of Jesus, and the way he proclaimed it, testified that he was, indeed, the promised Savior and the rightful King for God’s world.

The message of Jesus was to proclaim justice to the nations. The disciple Matthew used a quote from the prophet Isaiah to explain the reason why Jesus withdrew, and told people not to make him known.  This was a curious act for a Messiah, to say the least.  After all, we might believe Jesus should loudly proclaim who he is and what he is doing. Human ingenuity might say he should be advancing, not retreating – getting his name out with some notoriety in a slick marketing message so people will come running into the kingdom of God!

Nope, Jesus goes a different direction. Matthew quoted the prophet Isaiah to make it clear who Jesus is and what he is all about. Jesus is God’s servant. Jesus is God’s beloved Son with whom he is well-pleased. The Holy Spirit came on him in his baptism. Jesus became a teacher of justice to the nations, that is, to all kinds of people – even the ones we do not like.

I personally find it strange that there are folks who seem to think justice is something which is not part of the Gospel, as if it were nice, but optional.  However much they believe it is important to engage in some sort of social justice toward the downtrodden, some believers want to put it on a secondary shelf that bends to the primary initiative of speaking, as if we could or should separate the message from the messenger. However, we can no more divide the good news of forgiveness in Christ from social justice any more than can neatly separate the cross and resurrection. It is all redeeming work, and it all goes together.

Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus Christ emphasizes the kingdom of God. The Sovereign of the universe desires all things and all people to be redeemed and come under the Lordship of Christ with the practice of justice as central to making redemption a reality for humanity.

“And what does the LORD require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, NIV)

Mercy and justice go together like corn on the cob and butter, and like pork ribs with barbeque sauce (okay, so I’m from Iowa).  Mercy is God’s unconditional grace and compassion.  Justice is treating all people with equality without favoritism. Biblical justice is not primarily punishment for wrongdoing; it is to give people their rights – and this concept is overwhelmingly taught in the Scriptures, over 200 times in the Old Testament alone. Christ’s back to the Bible movement rightly emphasized justice.

God loves and defends the weak, the poor, and the powerless:

He gives justice to the oppressed
and food to the hungry.
The Lord frees the prisoners.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are weighed down.
The Lord loves the godly.
The Lord protects the foreigners among us.
He cares for the orphans and widows,
but he frustrates the plans of the wicked. (Psalm 146:7-9, NLT)

We, as God’s people, are to share his passion for justice:

Speak out on behalf of the voiceless,
and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. (Proverbs 31:8, CEB)

“Cursed is anyone who obstructs the legal rights of immigrants, orphans, or widows.”  All the people will reply: “We agree!” (Deuteronomy 27:19, CEB)

Since believers are justified by faith in Christ, we must in both word and deed bring justice to our communities by advocating for the least, the lost, the last, and anyone else without social or economic power in this world.

If we have a voice, we must use it both for ourselves and for those who have no voice.  The voice of justice is the voice of action.  To be concerned for the justice of God is to actively work for the kingdom of God to enter every inch of this world, and every nook and cranny of our homes, neighborhoods, and schools.

The Christian life is much more than avoiding sin; it is about actively pursuing God’s will through words and acts of justice on behalf of the needy.  Jesus came to this earth to proclaim justice, and, as his followers, he expects us to do it, too. For this to happen we must overcome our own prejudices toward anybody unlike us so that we will stand with the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the lowly, and the hurting among us.

The probing question for all of us is: Am I able to see the image of God in someone different from me?

Jesus did. The quote referencing that Jesus “will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice” is referring to the way of Christ – gentle, humble, and meek.  Jesus did not look for dramatic confrontations with others but instead went quietly about his Father’s business.  Jesus was not bullhorn guy, who loudly proclaimed his message on the street corner.  He interacted with and ministered to the lowliest people of society who had no power and nothing to give in return. Jesus did everything to connect with them and not avoid them.

Along the Jordan River in Israel, reeds grew by the millions in Jesus’ day.  They were of little value because there were so many.  Reeds were used to make baskets, pens, flutes, and a variety of other things.  A perfect reed is fragile, and a bruised one is useless.  When the text says that God’s servant will not break a bruised reed, it means that he will treat the weak with sensitivity.  A smoldering wick is also not worth much; if it is damaged, we would just get another one.  A contemporary example might be a paper clip; it is not worth much to us, and a damaged one we would just discard and get another.  The point is that Jesus handles hurting people with care. Society’s poor, disadvantaged, and struggling will not be callously overlooked and tossed aside by Jesus.

Jesus Christ discovered his own island of misfit toys and demonstrated to the world that they were a needed part of society. Small wonder, then, that droves of the lowliest people throughout history have come to Jesus, placing their hope in him.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16, NIV)

My hope is in the name of Lord who made heaven and earth. May you also find Christ as your anchor and hope in the world.

Holy Father, you have given all peoples one common origin. It is your will that they be gathered as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and the desire to ensure justice for all. Through sharing your goodness, may we secure equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be an end to division, hatred, and war. May there be a dawning of a truly human society built on love and peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.