A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
November 17, 2013
The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
It hadn’t occurred to me when I named this two-part sermon series that some of you might think I was resigning. I was only thinking that we had been “on the road with Jesus” since late June and now the road had come to an end—Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem, and he did it two weeks sooner than I expected. So, I thought I would use that time just to talk to you, just to let you know what’s on my mind, but I made the mistake of calling my talk “The End of the Road” and starting it like this: “Let me begin by saying thank you. Thank you for letting me be your pastor these past five-and-a-half years…” Looking back I can see how some of you may have thought that the next words out of my mouth might be an announcement of my resignation. Sorry about that. And just in case you’re wondering my plan is to be here until I retire. Where else would I go? But for today let me continue the talk I started last week, and since I called last week’s talk was called “the End of the Road, Part I,” I feel obliged to call this one “the End of the Road, Part II.”
Please don’t misunderstand.
Last week I confessed to you that my greatest fear is the fear of failure. I told you I had good reason for that fear because the American church is in decline; every major denomination is reporting losses in membership, attendance, and giving. I could hope that this church would be the exception—that even when every other church was dying this one would be thriving—but I could also picture myself, twenty years from now, preaching to a handful of people in a room that used to be full. I woke up one night recently with that picture in my head and I didn’t like it at all. It looked like failure to me, my worst fear. I tossed and turned for more than an hour, but finally got up and wrote down these words: “There is more than one way to fail. I could sell out, for the sake of numbers and dollars. I could do whatever it takes to get people into the building and their money into the plate. I could be so afraid of failure that I would be willing to do whatever it took to succeed, and I might be successful. But one day I would stand before the Lord Jesus and he would say, “What was that all about?”
And I’m more afraid of that than I am of failure.
At the end of last week’s talk I mentioned that when I was a youth minister I wanted to have the biggest youth group in town, and did everything I could to build up attendance. But I also told you about the day I realized those kids had all the entertainment they needed and a whole lot more. There was no way I could compete. The only thing I could give them that they weren’t getting everywhere else…was Jesus. I said, “On that day I made up my mind to do that—to give them Jesus—and in one way or another that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.” When I gave my state-of-the-church address to the deacons recently I talked to them about the decline of the American church; I showed them the charts and graphs; they need to know. I told them the younger generations, especially, were leaving the church in droves. But then I quoted from an article by a young woman named Rachel Held Evans who wrote, “We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the ‘cool factor’ there. We’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.”[i] And so I said to the deacons, “What are we going to do when the church in America is in decline, when the younger generations are leaving the church in droves? We’re going to give them Jesus.” And that’s what I want to talk to you about this morning, because “giving them Jesus” can mean more than one thing.
I was reminded of this when I was at the BGAV meeting in Fredericksburg last week. There we were—a thousand Baptists from Virginia all gathered together in a single room. You would think that we all held the same views, wouldn’t you? But as one speaker after another talked about Jesus I could tell that we thought about him in different ways, and maybe that shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. After all, there are four Gospels in the New Testament, which means that we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. And then there are Paul’s letters, which are more about the risen Christ than the earthly Jesus, and about what his death and resurrection mean for us. And then there are the other writers, like Peter, James, and the author of Hebrews, who each have their own perspective. And finally the Book of Revelation, in which the risen Christ appears with “hair as white as wool and eyes like flames of fire” (1:14). So if I’m going to “give them Jesus” I have to ask: which Jesus am I going to give them?
Because I think we tend to “cut and paste” when it comes to Jesus. We take what we like about him from the Bible, and from the hymn book, and from the pictures that hang in our Sunday school classrooms, and the songs we learned as children, and we put them all together to make this composite picture we carry around in our heads, and that’s “our” Jesus. Sometimes the confused looks I see on your faces when I’m preaching are not because you don’t understand what I’m saying, but because “my” Jesus doesn’t look like “your” Jesus. My Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom, and urging people to join him in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. Your Jesus may be saying, “Go, make disciples of every nation,” or, “Come to me, all you who are weary,” or, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I was thinking about that on the way home from Fredericksburg when it occurred to me that if even if you put all these cut-and-paste images together you still get the picture that God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us. I said it out loud: “God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us.” And something about that rang so true I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Let me explain:
In John 3:16 we learn that God loved the world so much he gave his only son. I’ve pointed out to you before that the word world is often used in a negative way in the New Testament, as in, “Love not the world, nor the things of the world” (1 John 2:15). We are led to believe that the world is a sinful, dirty, and unrepentant place, and yet God loves it anyway; he loves it so much he gave his only son for it. And if you read the Gospels even casually you can see that the son he gave loves the world just as much as he does. Jesus is always spending time with the sinners and the tax collectors, always hanging out with the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. God sent him to love the world and he loved it, he loved it enough to die for it, which makes me think that as the body of Christ we should love it, too. What if we believed that our first responsibility, as Christians, was simply to love people? Not to judge them, or condemn them, or convert them, but to love them? Is this the way Jesus approached his ministry? Did he think, “I’ve got to begin by loving the world, because that’s what my father sent me to do”? Hold on to that thought for a minute and let’s call it “Stage One.”
Because Stage Two is all about saving.
Jesus himself says that he didn’t only come to love the world, but “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). I’ve told you before that the word save in the Gospels is a bigger word than we sometimes imagine. It doesn’t usually mean to save someone from hell; it usually means “to help,” “to heal,” “to make well,” or “to make whole.” More often than not, this is how Jesus used it. He said to the woman with the flow of blood, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to that one leper who came back, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to Blind Bartimaeus, “Your faith has saved you.” In other words it has helped you, healed you, made you well, and made you whole. What if we believed the second responsibility of Christians was to do that? To help people, to heal them, to make them well, and to make them whole? One of the most important ways we can do that is to let people know that their sins can be forgiven—those things that fill them with guilt and shame, that cripple them and keep them from becoming all God made them to be. They need to know that all those things can be forgiven, forgotten, washed away, so they can move on to Stage Three.
And Stage Three is all about change.
Marcus Borg says that every major religion is about transformation,[ii] and Christianity would be at the top of that list. Jesus didn’t think it was enough to save us: he wanted to change us, to help us become what we have it in us at our best to be. And Paul, perhaps more than any other writer in the New Testament, takes up that charge. In dozens of different ways in his letters he describes what a Christian life might look like. In Galatians 5, for example, he talks about giving up the works of the flesh in favor of a life full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—the fruit of the Spirit. Those of you who have tried it know what a constant struggle that can be: the flesh keeps doing its work. And yet, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called to keep on trying, keep on changing, until we grow up at last into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph. 4:15). And well before we get there we may be ready for Stage Four, which is all about being sent.
After Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to his disciples and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). As I’ve said before, this is the moment when the disciples became apostles: when they were no longer “learners,” but “sent ones.” And you’ve also heard me say that I think Jesus intends for us to do the same: to graduate from Sunday school and go out into the streets, to be sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we need to give up gathering for Sunday morning Bible study, but when we stand before Jesus I don’t think he is going to ask us where Paul went on his second missionary trip; I think he’s going to ask us where we went on ours. That’s what KOH2RVA was all about, and that’s what we hope to accomplish with KOHx2 as we look for partners who will work with us to bring heaven to earth, in Richmond and around the world. We believe that we too have been sent, that we are on a mission, and that we can’t give up until it is completed.
But here’s something I’m learning.
When I came to First Baptist the church seemed so healthy and strong that I may have assumed you were all in Stage Four—that all of you were loved, and saved, and changed, and ready to charge out onto the mission field like a high school football team when the truth is you were all in different stages then, and we are all in different stages now. There may be some of you here today who are in Stage One: you just need to be loved. You don’t need to be judged or condemned. You don’t even feel the need to be converted, not yet anyway. You just need to be loved. And maybe you’ve come here because you’ve heard that this is a place of unconditional love and acceptance. May it be so. Or maybe you’re in Stage Two: you need to be saved and you know it. You’re dealing with sin, or sickness, illness, or addiction, and you need to be helped and healed, you need to be made well and made whole. You’ve come looking for some of that healing power that Jesus used to give away so freely, looking for someone who will pray with you until you begin to feel that healing power sink into your bones. Or maybe you’re in Stage Three: you’ve already been helped and healed. Your sins have been forgiven, you’ve been washed in the waters of baptism, and you have started off down the road of discipleship. But you know you’ve got a long way to go. There are lots of changes you need to make, and you need some help. You need some guidance, some coaching, some encouragement. You can’t walk this road alone. But finally, you may be in Stage Four: you may be eager to go out there and love the world God loves, pawing at the ground, waiting for permission. Well, I’m giving it—go! Do the kind of things Jesus did. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons, and wherever you go tell them the Kingdom has come near.
But here’s another thing I’m learning:
You may end up in Stage One again. You may get so beat up out there on the mission field that you come to church like an injured football player being carried to the sidelines on a stretcher. You may need the love and care of your fellow believers to build you up again, to make you healthy and strong. Or you could end up in Stage Two from time to time, where you were doing well but suddenly you come down with sickness of the body, mind, soul, or spirit. You need to be helped and healed. You need to be “saved” in the way Jesus used that word. You could end up in Stage Three again, and maybe you should. Maybe that’s what our Sunday morning Bible study is for—to be a place where you get replenished so you can go back out onto the mission field. Maybe you need someone to remind you why you’re doing all this, and someone to encourage you along the way, and someone to pray for you when you get weary, as you certainly will. Maybe these are not stages at all, where you progress from one to the other and never look back; maybe this is a cycle, and maybe we all go through it from time to time, maybe from day to day.
What I’m confessing to you in all this is that I have probably stood up here too many times like a high school football coach at halftime, giving you a rousing pep talk, and telling you to get back out there on the field when you may be thinking, “I can’t, Coach. I’m in no shape to play. I’m too beat up, too worn out, too dazed and confused. I just need a place where people will love me, and help me, until I can stand on my own two feet again. Maybe then I can hear you talk about the mission. Maybe then I’ll be ready to get back in the game.”
If that’s you then hear me say, “I’m sorry.” I don’t want you to feel like you’re letting me down. I don’t want you to feel like you’re letting Jesus down. He would want this to be the kind of place where all people are welcome: the ones who are ready to charge out onto the mission field and the ones who aren’t; the ones who have it all together and the ones who don’t; the ones who are looking for love and the ones who have enough to share; the ones who are rejoicing in their salvation and the ones who are yet to be saved. But in the end I believe that God sent Jesus to love us, and save us, and change us, and send us, and I believe that even though the church in America is in decline, if we give people a Jesus like that they will come. I believe they will come in droves. And if they won’t come to us,
We will go to them.
Let me end with a prayer I have been praying for six months now:
Gracious God, pour out your blessing on Richmond’s First Baptist Church.
Fill the pews to overflowing with people who love you and long to sing your praises,
Fill the plates to overflowing with the generous gifts of a grateful people,
Fill the classrooms to overflowing with disciples who lean over open Bibles, eager to hear and obey your Word,
Fill the hallways to overflowing with brothers and sisters who greet one another with hugs and laughter.
Fill their hearts with love,
Fill their souls with faith,
Fill their minds with truth,
And fill their lives with every good thing until it overflows
And spills out onto the streets of our city and into every surrounding suburb.
Generous God, pour yourself out through your people,
Until your kingdom comes, and your will is done,
In Richmond as it is in heaven. Amen.
[i] Rachel Held Evans, “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church,” CNN, July 27, 2013.
[ii] In The Heart of Christianity, p. 215, in which Borg describes religions as “communities of transformation.”
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.