Tag Archives: evangelism

Heading for Deep Water – Sermon on Luke 5:1-10

March 12, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

If you’re a guest today, you have come into a church that is on an exciting adventure with God! We’re spending the 6 weeks of Lent together inviting God to change us in any way that God wants to. The Spirit of God is moving in our church. Some of you have told me stories of the Spirit working as you talk about what’s happening with your small groups, your prayer exercises, and reading the book Unbinding Your Heart.

Would you like to join us? There’s still time to join a small group this week. In fact, one group meets right after coffee time in the pastor’s study today. There’s one early on Tuesday morning, and a couple of groups meet on Wednesday night as part of Family Night. Thursday options include an afternoon study and an evening group. Whichever group you join, we’ll bring you up to speed!

Here’s what we know so far: mainline Christian churches are rapidly declining in membership and influence in our country. We’ve grown reluctant to bring new people into Christian faith, and that reluctance prevents us from sharing our faith with others.

Last week, we explored why it makes a difference in our lives that we are Christians. We considered what our motivations might be for sharing the Christian faith with people who don’t have a faith. We considered that some of us don’t have a dramatic faith story to share, like Paul on the road to Damascus. Some of us are more like Ananias. Our personal stories might not be very dramatic, but God can use us as the domino that tips someone else into following Jesus.

In fact, there’s someone here today who has had just that kind of experience. I’d like to invite her to come share her story with you. Kris?

Continue reading

The Great Invitation: Shine! Sermon on Matthew 17:1-8

February 26, 2017
Transfiguration A
View a video of this sermon here

We are skipping ahead in today’s gospel reading. For the past few weeks we have been listening to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has finished his teaching on the slopes above the Sea of Galilee. He has gone on from there to heal and teach, to spread the good news that the Kingdom of heaven is near. He has fed the 5000, and another 4000. Peter has confessed that Jesus is indeed, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus has told his dearest friends that he will soon be betrayed and killed, but will rise again on the third day. They have a hard time accepting this news. But Jesus knows his mission. He won’t be stopped.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. – Matthew 17:1-8

 

Three disciples follow Jesus up a mountain. Peter, James, and John are the same ones who will go with him to the garden of Gethsemane on the night he is betrayed. Luke’s account (Luke 9) of this story says that they went up to pray, and that the disciples became sleepy, and this gives us another parallel to the Gethsemane story, where these same three disciples fall asleep while Jesus goes a little further into the garden to pray.

But in this story, the disciples do not fall asleep. What they see cannot be brushed off as a dream. This is real. Jesus is transformed right before their eyes. Continue reading

Beautiful Feet – Sermon on Romans 10:5-15 

August 10, 2014

5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” 6 But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or “Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”  – Romans 10:5-15

 

How do people come to know Jesus is Lord? Paul has been struggling with this question throughout his letter to the Romans. He has explained how the Law was established to unite us with God, but the Law can’t save, because no one can obey it completely. The purpose of the Law, Paul tells us, is not to tell us what to do. The purpose of the Law is to refer us to Christ, who has arrived and is present with us now. Jesus completes the work of the Law, by making us right with God.

Paul has carefully explained how Gentiles have been included in the promise God made to Abraham, allowing them to become children of God. And Paul has lamented that his own people, the nation of Israel, have failed to see that Jesus is the very Messiah they had been waiting for. It isn’t the Law that saves, but faith in Jesus the Christ.

Now Paul draws on his extensive knowledge of the very Law Christ fulfills to remind his readers that God’s good news is very near – it is in their hearts and on their lips. Paul loosely interprets several verses from Deuteronomy 30:

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the depths, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” …. 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it…. 19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.

Paul is saying that this promise from Moses, given at the end of his life, to the Israelites just before they were to enter the promised land, is for all, and what Moses is promising is Christ. The Word that is in your mouth and heart is the good news that Jesus is Lord, and God raised him from the dead. We are saved through faith in this good news.

“Jesus is Lord” was one of the earliest confessions of faith in the Christian church. It not only negated Caesar as “Lord” but affirmed that Jesus was God incarnate. It’s a radical confession for us today, as well. Asking Christ to rule over us goes against every cultural norm to take charge of our own lives, to focus our energy on satisfying our own desires.

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” Paul writes. There is no distinction between Gentile and Jew – all must believe and confess to be saved. The Law has been completed, and all who have faith are welcome in the Kingdom. God has done the work, and brought the good news near to us.

What does it mean that it’s near to us? It’s right under our noses! On the tip of our tongues! It’s the word we share when we tell others about what God has done in our lives to change us. It’s that “E” word that most mainline Christians don’t like to use: evangelism.

Maybe evangelism makes us uncomfortable because we take too much responsibility for the salvation of others. But it is not up to us to save the world. God has already done that. It is up to us to believe that this is true and live as though we believe it. So, if God has already done the heavy lifting through the work of Jesus Christ, what is our part? What does it mean to ‘confess with our lips’ and ‘believe in our hearts’?” Our part is certainly more than private holiness, and delivering soap box sermons on the street corner isn’t what Paul has in mind here, either. What the apostle is urging is a life of inward and outward integrity, a life based on faith.

Kyle Fedler writes, “The Christian faith creates an entirely new geometry. The circle of believers that was once defined by its boundaries, the law, is now defined by its center, Christ. The attention to who is in and who is out is no longer the focus. Rather, the focus is on the One who calls and claims, redeems and loves. We are called to start in the center and live as though the circle is infinite – which of course, it is.”[1]

Yesterday, a couple of us attended a training workshop for leading an Alpha course here at First. Alpha has often been described as “Christianity 101” or a way to invite others into conversations about faith. It’s an evangelism tool that has changed hundreds of thousands of lives around the world, and it starts with the question, “If you could ask God anything at all, what would you ask?” As we listened to the story of Alpha unfold, I was reminded that evangelism is about introducing others to Jesus. We are not responsible for the outcome of the introductions; that work belongs to God.

So, how do people come to know Jesus is Lord? It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You can’t call on the name of the Lord unless you believe Jesus is Lord. You can’t believe unless you’ve heard the good news that Jesus is Lord. You can’t hear the good news unless someone tells you how Jesus is Lord. You can’t tell someone how Jesus is Lord unless you go to them. In other words, evangelism is discipleship, and discipleship is evangelism. Sharing Jesus is following Jesus, and following Jesus is sharing him.

In her early book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lemott confessed to a prayer life that consisted mainly of “Help! Help! Help!” and “Thanks! Thanks! Thanks!” Several years later, another book showed how her faith had grown. The title offered a third prayer that Anne had added to her repertoire. That book was called Help Thanks Wow. This week, Anne Lamott posted a story on her Facebook page that reflects an even deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. She calls it her “fourth great prayer” and again, it’s a single word: Okay.

Following Jesus means saying Okay, Lord, I will make you be the center of my life. Okay, Lord, I will go where you send me. Okay, Lord, I will look for ways to tell others about the ways you have changed me into a new person by loving me beyond my comprehension. Okay, Lord. I’m yours. And when we say “Okay,” we open the door for God to use us to bring in his Kingdom.

If you believe in your heart … the early Methodists would always begin their “classes” or small group sessions with this important question: “How is it with your soul?” Early Pietists, who met in similar groups called conventicles, asked a similar question, “How goes your walk with the Lord?” Believing in your heart describes a personal and deep relationship with God that only comes through consistent prayer and Bible study. But it is not something we do in isolation. “How is it with your soul?” and “How goes your walk with the Lord?” can only be asked by others in the community of faith, who walk with us as faith develops in the very core of our being.

If you confess with your lips … we tell others how God has changed our lives, and invite them to consider how God might change their lives. Do you think that’s too hard? Let me tell you how you are already doing it.

This week at the Brown County Fair, more than 70 families took advantage of our Diaper Depot and Feeding Station. We showed those families that God loves them by providing something they needed.

This week, the task force formed to establish an emergency shelter for displaced single mothers and their children gave the project a name. It will be called NUMAS Haus. Community partners have joined the task force, including the superintendent of New Ulm Public Schools, and the director of Brown County Family Services. If funding comes through, we could begin renovation on our vacant house in January, with services beginning as early as March. You made this possible by stepping forward in faith. Can you even imagine the message this sends to our community? By our very presence and participation in this project, we are telling New Ulm that we care about the needs of homeless families, that we love them as Christ loves them.

Next week, children will gather for two evenings of learning about Jesus in Vacation Bible School. In a couple of weeks, we will once again serve a meal through Food for Friends. Our youth recently served as the hands and feet of Christ in Sioux Falls. All of these activities are ways we tell the people around us that we belong to Christ, that we have said, “Okay, Lord.”

Last week, I received this letter:

“Dear Members of First United Methodist Church
I have been a member of a Methodist Church for 64 years – But have never experienced such a feeling of being welcomed as I did Sunday July 27th. My great granddaughter 4 years old, was given the children’s bag – right off – she really used it. Thank you. We were helped to a pew with plenty of room for the three of us – lots of space …. to move about and not distract anyone. At least 4 people came and greeted us before the service began. Then at least 4 people invited us to join them for fellowship time – Bill insisted. Thank you so much, and God bless you all.”

That’s a powerful affirmation that God is moving among us, changing us, so that others lives might be changed through us.

You will hear much more about a new initiative in September, but you should be aware that the Minnesota Conference of the UMC is refocusing its efforts to start new churches and revitalize existing congregations through the Reach, Renew, Rejoice campaign. We can be part of this movement. We already are part of this movement.

As we confess our faith in Christ Jesus as Lord, by telling our own stories of God at work, and living out lives of faithfulness, we are changed. And as we are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ calls us to share that good news. It’s part of being a follower of Jesus. Evangelism is discipleship and discipleship is evangelism. Whether we share that good news by telling others what God has done for and in us, or by showing God’s love in action, we are the messengers Christ sends to a hurting world.

“How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?
And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?
As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Amen.

[1] Kyle D. Fedler, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 328.

Children of the Promise – Sermon on Romans 9:1-8

Bruce and I traveled to Boone, Iowa this week, to ride the scenic railway. We splurged an extra five bucks to ride in the two-level, air-conditioned first class car, and it was worth five dollars to sit above the trees we passed, as we looked out over the Des Moines River valley. The Iowa Railroad Historical Society only owns about 12 miles of track, so we had a 10-minute layover at the end of the line, while the engine disengaged from one end of the train, passed us on a siding, and re-engaged at the other end of the train to take us back to the station. During this break, we were encouraged to change sides and reposition the seats so we could see what we’d missed during the first half of the ride. As we headed back over the Des Moines River, I was suddenly reminded of this passage from Romans we are about to read. One side of the train faced a beautiful river valley, with lush cornfields tucked between high hills covered in dark green forests. The other side of the train faced piles of dead trees that had been uprooted during the spring floods, and other evidence of the devastation those floods had caused. One side of the train looked out on a fruitful valley teeming with life. The other looked out on destruction and death. What you saw depended, in large part, on which side of the train you found yourself.

Last week, we heard one of the most beautiful and uplifting passages in all of scripture, Paul’s declaration that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Today, we look out the other side of the train. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter nine, the first eight verses.

am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For  could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.

This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

The letter to the Romans has often been used to promote the erroneous idea that Paul thought God had rejected the Jews, because they had rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Nothing could have been further from Paul’s intention. Paul’s lament here in chapter nine opens a new train of thought that will continue through chapter 11, and Paul’s focus turns from the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God to the more troubling question, “What will God do with the Jews, his chosen people, who have rejected his promised Messiah, Jesus?” These three chapters really serve to clarify that the promises of God to all God’s people will be kept. God is faithful. One commentator[1] says the key to this passage is in verse six: God’s word has not failed.

This isn’t about tearing the promise away from one ethnic group and handing it over to another. It isn’t about paying the Jews back for killing Jesus – remember that in every single gospel account of Christ’s crucifixion, it is the Romans, not the Jews, who killed Jesus. “Just because you have been included in God’s family as children of the promise,” Paul tells his Gentile readers in Rome, “don’t look down on your Jewish cousins.” God will be faithful to honor his promises to the people he set apart. God’s Word is sure, even for those who don’t want to hear it. But the fact that his own people have chosen not to hear the good news is very troubling to Paul.

Paul expresses his deep anguish by repeating himself in stronger and stronger language. Since Paul was well trained in scripture, it’s not surprising that his lament follows the poetic structure of many psalms crying out to the Lord. That Hebrew poetic structure, called parallelism, repeats an idea to give it emphasis. Just look at the first two verses: “I am telling the truth, I am not lying, my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit.” Paul isn’t defending his own integrity by affirming his honesty three times; he’s “swearing on a stack of Bibles” to make a point. Piling “great sorrow” on top of “unceasing anguish” adds to the poetic despair Paul feels for the people of Israel, his own flesh and blood.

Anglican theologian N. T. Wright explains Paul’s grief like this: “He was like someone driving in convoy who takes a particular turn in the road and then watches in horror as most of the other cars take the other fork. They think he’s wrong; he thinks they’re wrong. What is worse, he really does believe that the road he has taken is the only road to the fulfillment of God’s great promises. What will happen to them? Why did they go that way, ignoring the signs that made him take the other fork?”[2]

To put it another way, Paul has been desperately trying to get his own people, the descendants of Abraham, to stop looking at the dead debris left behind on the riverbank after the floods have receded, and turn to see the broad vista of a fruitful valley that beckons from the window on the other side of the train. But they won’t stop looking at the dead trees piled in the dry mud. And it grieves Paul’s heart.

It grieves Paul’s heart because he knows that they got it wrong. They thought God’s promise was for a people, a select ethnic group, but God’s promise was for the whole world, to be fulfilled through the nation of Israel in the person of Jesus Christ. Paul weeps over this mistake, and would go so far as to give up his own salvation, if it would make any difference at all.

The point is not that the Jews should be rejected because they rejected Jesus. The point is this: “Who means so much to you that you’d be willing to give up your own salvation so they could come to know Christ?” In other words, whose distance from God breaks our hearts, and what are we willing to do about it? Is your heart burdened for someone, maybe in your family or your circle of friends, who needs Jesus? Does it bother you enough that you would, like Paul, offer yourself in their place?

And if they are worth that kind of sacrifice, aren’t they at least worth telling about Jesus? If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking, “But I don’t know how to do that. I’m not comfortable talking about faith with people. I don’t want to offend them.” Would you rather see them spend eternity separated from the God who loved them enough to send his own Son to die for them?

To be a good witness, you don’t have to sit people down with a Four Spiritual Laws booklet and force them to pray the sinner’s prayer. You only need to invite them, just as you would invite them to dinner, to join you in following Christ with all the rest of us.

Remember a few weeks ago, when we heard the Great Commission? Jesus commands us, as his disciples, to make disciples. “Go, baptize, teach,” Jesus says. Making disciples is a process that involves reaching out to others, including them in the fellowship of believers we call the church, and then spending the rest of our lives on earth together, learning how to be more and more like Jesus. It isn’t the same thing as mentoring. You aren’t sharing your own wisdom and expertise with someone who knows less than you do about following Jesus. It’s walking together, encouraging one another as we seek to follow our Lord. It doesn’t take a theological degree or years of Bible study to make disciples – the original twelve had no theological training at all – it just takes the deep desire to follow and obey Jesus, and the willingness to help someone else do the same.

This week we will have an opportunity to share God’s love at the Brown County Fair, through our Diaper Depot and Feeding Station. If you haven’t already signed up to serve as a host, welcoming parents and making sure the station stays well stocked and inviting, there is room for you to put your name on the sign up sheet in the narthex. We particularly need hosts to help on Friday, since it’s “Kid’s Day” at the Fair. Or maybe you’d like to help with Vacation Bible School next week, introducing children to Bible stories, or helping them with craft projects or music. Chris B. would love to talk with you if you can be a disciple by making disciples. There are other ways you can follow Jesus by inviting others to follow Jesus. Pray for God to point you toward a person who needs to draw closer to Christ, and invite that person for coffee or a walk. Be present. Ask God to let your mundane conversations become holy ones, as you seek to share Christ’s love with others. Paul writes, “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise [who] are counted as descendants.” We are those children of the promise. Let’s help others turn from looking at death and destruction, so they can see what lies on the other side of the train, and become children of the promise, too. Amen.

[1] Kyle D. Fedler, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 306.

[2] NT Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 2, 3.

Without a Doubt – Sermon on John 20:19-31

It had been a crazy day. It started early in the morning, with all that confusion at the tomb, all that running back and forth. Now it was evening, and the disciples were huddled together again, just as they had been over the Sabbath. Only now, the room was filled with fear and confusion, instead of sadness and despair. Instead of asking “What shall we do now?” the disciples were asking, “Can it be true?” Somewhere in all the chaos, Hope tried to work its way into their minds, but most of the disciples were giving in to Fear. That’s why they had locked the door. They were afraid.

Some might have been afraid of Jesus himself. After all, if he was alive, as those undependable, weepy women kept insisting, he probably would have a thing or two to say about the way they had all abandoned him. Guilt and shame at their failure might have given some of the disciples a reason to fear rebuke from the teacher they had promised to follow, no matter what.

Some were afraid of the religious leaders, certainly. If Jesus’ body was gone, the high priest’s henchmen would be scrambling to find it. The first place they’d look would be here, among the Lord’s closest friends and followers. A few remembered Jesus telling them that he would be killed, but that he would rise on the third day. Didn’t it make sense that the religious leaders would figure one of them had taken the body, to make it look like Jesus had arisen? But, if that were true, who would have done such a thing? Probably someone who was not in the room when they’d locked the doors. A quick glance around the room found the disciples in their usual little groups … but … where was Thomas? Hmm…

Suddenly, all the whispers and the talking stopped. Someone gasped. A familiar voice was coming from the center of the room. Hear the Word of the Lord, from the 20th chapter of John’s gospel, beginning in verse 19, right where we left off last week…

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I think Thomas gets a bum rap. He’s been nicknamed “Doubting Thomas” because he demanded to see the evidence with his own eyes, before he would believe that Jesus was really alive. We could joke about Thomas being from Missouri, the Show Me State, where seeing is believing and the proof is in the pudding. But in reality, Thomas is no more skeptical than the other disciples, whose hopes had been dashed by the crucifixion. He just happened to be late for dinner on that first night.

Earlier that morning, Mary Magdalene had repeatedly complained, “They’ve taken him away, and I don’t know where they’ve laid him.” She thought that Jesus was still dead, right up to the moment he said her name in the garden. And when Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb, to see for themselves, they walked away scratching their heads. None of the eleven really believed that Jesus was alive, as far as scripture tells us. All of them were filled with doubt, even after Mary had come back to say, “I have seen the Lord.” So Jesus has to put in a personal appearance, to convince them all that he really is alive.

If you compare the two appearances in today’s passage, they are nearly the same. The door is locked. Jesus suddenly stands in the middle of the room and says, “Peace be with you.” Then he shows his hands and side to prove he is the same Jesus they saw die on the cross, but who now is very much alive. After the disciples respond to this good news, Jesus says a few more words. The stories are almost identical.

But not quite.

For one thing, at the first appearance, Jesus commissions his disciples to go out and share the good news, and he breathes on them as he says, “receive the Holy Spirit.” In Matthew’s gospel, the Great Commission happens moments before Jesus ascends into heaven, and in Luke’s version of the story, the disciples don’t receive the Holy Spirit until Pentecost, but John never was much for chronology. His story is less concerned with making the dates match up, and more concerned with getting the word out: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Believe the Good News! And keep in mind that for John, believing is always a verb, never the noun “belief.” Believing is what John is very eager for us to do. And once we believe, it is a short leap to receive the Holy Spirit and be sent out to help others see, so they, too, may believe.

Jesus tells his disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:23). John isn’t talking about sin as moral failure so much as refusing to believe in Jesus.

Theologian Elisabeth Johnson writes, “Jesus is not giving his disciples some special power to decide whose sins will be forgiven and whose will not. Rather, he is further specifying what it means to be sent, to make known the love of God that Jesus himself has made known. As people come to know and abide in Jesus, they will be “released” (aphiemi) from their sins. If, however, those sent by Jesus fail to bear witness, people will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be “retained” or “held onto” (kratéo). The stakes of this mission are very high indeed.”

And because the stakes are high, Jesus has to make sure each disciple is convinced of the truth. All the disciples must see for themselves that Jesus has been raised from death to new life.

Seeing is believing throughout John’s gospel. “Come and see” weaves its way throughout the story John presents. We find it in the first chapter, when Jesus meets the first disciples who have been following John the Baptist, and they ask where he is staying. “Come and see,” he says (Jn 1:39). A few verses later, when Philip invites Nathaniel to meet Jesus, Nate asks, “Can any thing good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip says, “Come and see” (1:46). Then the Samaritan woman at the well runs to tell her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (4:29) and when Jesus arrives four days too late in Bethany, he asks Mary and Martha where they’ve buried Lazarus. “Come and see,” they tell him (11:34). In fact, we find some form of the word “see” more than twenty times throughout John’s gospel, and “seeing” means everything from physical sight to full understanding[1].

But Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to his friends. Thomas did not see Jesus. The disciples tell him later, just as Mary told them last week, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas is skeptical, just as they had been, only moments before Jesus showed up.

So, a week later, Jesus goes through the whole appearing routine again, only this time, it’s for Thomas’ benefit. While the other disciples simply rejoiced when they recognized the risen Savior, Thomas offers a confession that is profound and personal: “MY Lord and MY God,” he cries out. Not just “the” Lord. Not just “Son of the Living God,” but MY Lord and MY God. In an instant, he moves from skepticism to trust. Thomas “sees.” All the disciples see.

Because Jesus keeps showing up. He repeatedly appears to those who need some visual proof he has risen. He doesn’t judge or criticize, he just keeps showing up until they get it. He offers shalom – not the familiar “fear not,” even though they are obviously afraid – but “peace be with you” three times, twice in the first visit and then again, just for Tom.

Remember last week’s question, “What keeps us from recognizing Jesus, when he’s standing right in front of us?” Is it fear? What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of Jesus himself, convinced that he would judge us for our unbelief if he stood in our midst? Are we afraid of the people outside the door, the ones who threaten our sense of safety whenever we try to talk about our faith? Those disciples who huddled in that locked room were afraid for their very lives. Unlocking the door and going out into the world to offer forgiveness of sins would have put them at great risk. Are we willing to take such a risk as that, to put our lives on the line for the sake of the Gospel?

On Thursday, Dr. Jerry Umanos was one of three people who were shot as they walked out of the CURE International Hospital in Kabul. Jerry was a pediatrician who worked six months of every year at the Lawndale Christian Health Center in Chicago’s inner city, so he could spend the other six months of each year treating children and training local doctors in Afghanistan.

In a televised statement, Dr. Umanos’ wife said, “Jerry always wanted to serve underserved populations. Afghanistan was just one of them. He always had a desire to be the hands and feet of Christ. He was always a light for Christ, and he had a love and commitment that he expressed for the Afghan people because of that love for Christ.” Jerry Umanos put his own life on the line for the sake of the gospel. You probably know stories of others who have done the same thing, risking everything in order to share the good news of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. These are people who dared to unlock the door and step out when they heard Jesus say to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” We need to unlock the door and go out into the scary world with the peace of Christ, so that all may believe and have eternal life.

Not only do we need to see the resurrected Christ, we need to realize that the world is looking to us to see him. How are we showing resurrection to a desperate world? How are we offering shalom instead of fear? Jesus sends us out, just as surely as he sent those cowering disciples. And we don’t have to go to Afghanistan to find people who need to see Jesus. Some of them are right here in front of us, just as surely as Jesus stood right in front of Mary and Thomas, urging them to believe.

This week, a young man came here looking for help that I could not give him. He needed a place to live. The most I could offer him was a night in the New Ulm Motel, but he needed more than that. The best the county could offer him was a trip to the homeless shelter up in St. Cloud. And his situation is not unique. The school counselor at Jefferson Elementary School will tell you that there are currently about nine students who are officially classified as homeless. There are many more who do not meet the official criteria, but who are functionally without a permanent home.

How are we helping them to see the resurrected Christ? How are we helping them to know the love of Jesus, to believe in him, so that they might have eternal life?

Can we let go of our own fear long enough to unlock the doors that keep us from reaching out in Jesus’ name? Can we dispense with our own doubt long enough to see where Christ is sending us to share good news?

The final verses of today’s passage give the purpose statement for John’s entire Gospel:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

The disciples who had lived and walked with Jesus, the ones who had watched him die and be buried, they all needed some visible sign that he was really alive again. Jesus gave it to them, as often as they needed to see it, so that they might believe. But we should not feel left out, just because we weren’t in that room on Easter night.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas. That’s us. We are the ones for whom John wrote his book, so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name.

As we live that life in the name of Jesus, let us show others what we have come to see, that Jesus died for our sins, and he rose again to give us eternal life. Let us join Mary and the disciples in boldly saying, “We have seen the Lord,” as we proclaim “The Lord is risen, he is risen indeed!” Let us join with Thomas in naming Jesus as our Lord and our God, so that through our witness all may see him, all may know him, all may believe and have life in his name. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Richard Dietrich, Feasting on the Word,Year A Vol. 2,  397.

Come and See – Sermon on John 1:29-42

It’s easy to get John the Evangelist mixed up with John the Baptist, especially when we read a passage from John’s Gospel that describes John the Baptist as an evangelist!  But that is what we have in front of us today. Last week, we heard Matthew’s version of the Baptism of Jesus. This week, our story takes us to the day after Jesus is baptized. John the Baptist notices Jesus walking down the street, and points out the Lamb of God to a handful of his own disciples. John shares his own experiences of the day before, and his disciples take off after Jesus. What happens next reminds me of one of those spy shows, where a professional spy is being tailed by someone, and suddenly turns to confront the follower. In this story, there isn’t a car chase, and we don’t see any hand-to-hand combat. This confrontation turns into an invitation. Three simple actions, expressed in two questions and an answer, show us how to share our faith with others and point them toward Jesus. Hear the Word of the Lord, from the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 29-42:

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

There is a subtle pattern that runs through this passage. It gives us three simple actions that point people to Jesus. First, John the Baptist notices Jesus. Second, he shares his experience with his own disciples. Then, John invites his disciples to follow their new teacher. Andrew and the other disciple notice Jesus, they share time with him, and then Andrew shares his experience with his brother, Simon. Finally, Andrew invites his brother to follow Christ, and Simon is changed. He becomes Simon Peter.

Notice, Share, Invite: Three simple actions. According to Luther Seminary professor David Lose, this is the essence of evangelism. He writes, “At its heart, evangelism is noticing what God is doing in our lives, sharing that with others, and inviting them to come and see for themselves.”[1]  So why do we find it so hard to think of ourselves as evangelists?  Why are we so afraid of spreading the Good News to others?

Maybe part of our fear comes from the fact that we just don’t notice God at work in our lives. Think about it for a moment: how have you experienced Christ?  How have you noticed God working in you, or in the life of the church?  How has your life changed since you met Jesus?  And if you don’t see God at work, why not?

John saw Jesus, and openly declared: “Here comes the Lamb of God, the One who takes away the sin of the entire world!”  That’s quite a proclamation!  But John had experienced something his disciples apparently had not, and he was eager to tell them about that experience. So, John told them what he had seen: the Spirit of God coming down from heaven like a dove, and resting on Jesus. John affirmed the identity of Jesus to these disciples. He said, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”  John noticed. He saw with his own eyes, and he recognized what he saw. This was the Son of God, the One he’d been waiting for, the One he’d been preparing for.

In order to notice God at work among us, we have to be looking for it. As John’s disciples went after Jesus, his first words to them were “What are you looking for?”  They had noticed Jesus, thanks to John, but his question must have brought them up short. What were they looking for?  What did they really want to find?  Jesus asks the same question later in his ministry, when John sends messengers to Jesus from his prison cell to ask, “Are you the One?  Or should we look for another?”  After Jesus sends the messengers back to John with the words, “Go tell John what you see and hear. The blind see, the lame walk, and the poor have good news preached to them,” Jesus goes on to ask the crowd, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?  A reed shaken by the wind?  A prophet?”  In other words, what are you looking for?  How do you see God working around you?

If we are to find God, to notice God working around and among us, we need to know what we are looking for. The direction of our gaze is important. We may be looking in all the wrong places, noticing all the wrong things, and miss the Kingdom of God if we do not keep our focus on Jesus himself. I used to tell music students, “Listening is paying attention to what you hear.”  There is sound all around us all the time, so we need to be careful how we filter that sound, how we decide what needs our attention. The same is true as we look for God at work: we need to pay attention to what we see.

Let me give you some examples.
During Advent, some of us went caroling one Sunday afternoon. It was really cold, so our group was small, but we represented people of every age from seven to eighty-seven. As we stopped to sing at several homes, we were met with hugs, tears, smiles, and gratitude. The people who heard us sing were deeply moved, and the people who did the singing saw some folks they hadn’t seen for years, or – in some cases – had never met. This is God at work.

Every third Wednesday, some of us meet up at Ridgeway on 23rd, to sing old familiar hymns with residents of the memory care unit. As we sing, people who can no longer read remember all the words to “Amazing Grace” and “The Old Rugged Cross.”  We say the Lord’s Prayer together, with one voice. This is God at work.

On Wednesday nights, people come here to eat a warm, tasty, nutritious meal together. Children learn Bible stories, Confirmation students dig into what it means to be a Christian, and teenagers talk about their concerns with trusted leaders, while adults meet to study God’s Word together. God is at work.

Once a month, I meet with other pastors over lunch, as we pray for one another and for our churches. Some of these pastors come from denominations that do not recognize the authority of women in the pulpit, yet these men welcome me, pray for me, and pray for you and our ministry together. This is God at work.

We need to notice it, and call attention to it, just as John called attention to the Lamb of God, walking toward him. Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” of us, just as surely as he asked it of those two disciples who left John and followed him down the road. So, what are you looking for? Take a moment, and write down one way you’ve seen God working in your life, or in the life of this congregation lately. Go ahead. I’ll wait…

God is at work now, just as he was at work when Jesus asked those two disciples, “What are you looking for?” Their answer points to that second action – sharing. “Where are you staying, Teacher?” they wanted to know. The day before, their allegiance had been to John the Baptist, but once he had shared what he had seen when Jesus was revealed to him as the Lamb of God, there was no going back. John told them everything he had experienced, everything he knew about Jesus. Their response was a desire to know where Jesus was staying, where he was living, where they could count on finding him again and again. They wanted to share in that “abiding” with Jesus. The scripture isn’t explicit, but we are given the detail that it was about four in the afternoon when these two disciples met Jesus face to face. This would have been late enough in the day that it’s quite possible the disciples stayed with Jesus overnight, talking, listening, sharing life with their new teacher. Then, Andrew found his brother, and shared the news with Simon that “we have found the Messiah.”  Andrew noticed, then he shared. He told Simon his story, just as John had told Andrew and the other disciple the story of recognizing Jesus as the Son of God.

What is your story? I’m not talking about your church history, but your personal experience of Christ changing you.  John talked about what he had seen with his own eyes, and he didn’t mind repeating himself. Andrew was eager to tell his brother Simon about Jesus.

What’s your ‘elevator speech,’ the one you could tell on the way up to the third floor if someone getting into the elevator with you asked, “Why are you a Christian?”  Maybe you aren’t ready to give an entire speech, but we often have opportunities to share how God is working in our lives. If we don’t practice telling those stories, the opportunities may fly past us. Maybe we’re nervous about sharing our faith stories because we’ve never done it. The only way to learn how to do something is to practice. So, let’s practice for a minute. Turn to someone next to you, and tell each other one reason why you like coming to church here. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

That wasn’t so hard, was it?  When John the Baptist shared his story, he only needed a few sentences. When Andrew shared with his brother, Simon, he only needed one: “We have found the Messiah.”  It doesn’t take very many words to tell someone else about the one thing that excites you, the one reason you like to come to church, or the one way you have noticed God working in your life. And when we share that good news, we want the person listening to us to come be part of it, too.

That brings us to the third simple action: invitation. John the Baptist invited his own disciples to follow their new teacher when he pointed Jesus out to them and said, “Look, here is the Lamb of God I was telling you about yesterday.”  When Jesus caught them following him and asked what they were looking for, Andrew and his friend asked, “Where are you staying?”  Jesus didn’t tell them. He didn’t bring up the map app on his phone and show them how to get there. He just said, “Come and see.”  It was a little invitation, but it changed everything.

Jesus invited them into his life, and they followed him home. Then Andrew invited his brother to come and see the Messiah, whom he had just met, and when Simon went with Andrew to meet Jesus, he was changed. He became “Peter.”  It was a little invitation, but it changed everything.

Christ invites us to invite others. It can be a little invitation. What is it about being part of this church that really gives you joy?  Who do you know that needs some of that?  If you don’t know anyone outside this church, how can you remedy that situation?

You may be surprised to learn this, but seven years ago, I was classified as an introvert. I did not spend time with anyone outside of church or the Christian school where I taught. I would much rather eat lunch at my desk than in a noisy restaurant with a table full of people, all talking at the same time.

And this bothered me. How could I share the Good News, how could I call myself a minister of the Gospel, if I insulated myself from the very people who needed to hear that Gospel?  So I prayed about it. And slowly, I started to notice how God was working on me, putting people in my path that I would have ignored before, but who needed to talk with someone about their questions and their doubts. As I shared this awareness of how God was working in me with others, I discovered that I was not alone. And I realized that, for me, being an evangelist is not buttonholing strangers on the street and asking them if they know where their souls will go when they die. It isn’t demanding that they make a decision on the spot and pray the Sinner’s Prayer after I have eloquently explained the plan of salvation. That isn’t the way Jesus worked, and it isn’t the way most of us are wired to work, though some may find those methods effective.

But I can do this: I can notice God at work in me and around me. I can share those experiences with others, and I can invite them to be part of what God is doing.

Notice, share, invite.

Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?”  Are you looking for grace and forgiveness?  Are you looking for eternal life?  Are you looking for an abiding and deep connection with the God who created you just so he could love you?

The disciples asked, “Where are you staying?”  Finding Jesus means finding the One we can depend on to remain with us, to stay with us, to share life and to change us through that experience.

And, together with Jesus, we can reach out to people who don’t know him yet, people who are looking for Jesus, even if they aren’t sure that God is the one they are seeking, and we can invite them to come and see Jesus at work among us, changing us, loving us, giving us life.

Or maybe that person is you. Maybe you are the one looking for Jesus. Maybe you are the one who needs assurance that he is with you, that your sins are forgiven, that God loves you and invites you to become his own beloved child. If that’s you, let me invite you to know the Word who became flesh. Let me invite you to ask forgiveness of your sins, and to rest assured that Jesus loves you so much, he died for you, so that you could have eternal life, rich and full, beginning now. Let me invite you to come and see Jesus. Amen.


[1] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3002