A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on August 26, 2012.
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Last week I tried to answer the question of why we are here, and I didn’t mean why are we here in worship; I meant why is First Baptist Church here in the city of Richmond? What is our mission? What is our purpose? We looked at the statement that’s printed right there on the flap of your bulletin, the one that says, “First Baptist Church exists to make disciples of Jesus Christ through joyful worship, caring fellowship, spiritual nurture, faithful service, and compassionate outreach in the Richmond area and throughout the world,” and then we spent some time talking about what that means, because often, when we think about making disciples, we think about it in only one way. I have this feeling that if I asked you to go out and make at least one disciple before we gathered for worship next week, and if you accepted my challenge, you would start thinking about someone you know who is not a Christian and then begin thinking about what you could do or say to convert that person to Christianity.
It’s that kind of thing that gets people looking through their Bibles for the most persuasive verses they can find, the ones that will convince skeptics to become believers. They underline verses like John 3:16, that says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.” Verses like John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me. Verses like Romans 10:9, where Paul says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Verses like Acts 4:12, where Peter says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” I underlined those verses in the Bible I took with me when I went off to college. In fact, in the Book of Romans, I had written “Start here” in the margin, and then given myself directions for how to lead someone down the “Roman Road” to salvation.
I don’t know how many people I actually tried to lead down that road while I was in college but it wasn’t very many. The very idea of approaching people and asking them if they were “saved” made my knees knock together and my mouth go dry. I was afraid I didn’t know enough Scripture to be effective, afraid they would ask some question I didn’t know how to answer. But mostly I was afraid that they would think I was some kind of religious fanatic, and that they wouldn’t like me very much. My brother Ed, on the other hand, was fearless. He was at that same college with me, and he would walk up to almost anybody and tell them they were going to hell—in Christian love, of course. He was so matter of fact about it, not at all afraid to confront people with the truth that God loved them but they were sinners, and if they didn’t accept Jesus as Lord and savior they were doomed for eternity. My way was different. I mostly just tried to be a good Christian, tried to radiate peace and joy, in the hope that someone would ask me how they could get some of what I had.
It wasn’t very effective.
And maybe that’s why Paul says, in Ephesians 4, that while all of God’s people have been given gifts, some—like my brother Ed—may have the gift of evangelism, while others—like me—may not. And that’s comforting, isn’t it? If you’re not very good at that sort of thing you can just shrug your shoulders and say, “It’s not my gift.” And you may decide that instead of trying to get up the nerve to talk to ask somebody if they’re saved you can support those people who have the gift. My brother Ed, for example. These days he is a missionary in Mexico. He’s trying to lead 10,000 people to Christ. It’s not hard for me to write a check once a month, send it to him, and say, “Keep up the good work, brother!” It’s the same thing that motivates our mission giving here at church, and probably why such a large part of our budget goes to staff salaries: we recognize that there are some people who have these kinds of gifts and others who don’t. We reason that if we can’t do it ourselves we can support someone who can.
Which, tragically, takes most of us out of the action.
Let me put it this way: do you think it was ever part of Jesus’ plan that most of his disciples would come to church and sit in the pews, sing some hymns, say some prayers, give an offering, hear a sermon, and then go home until the next Sunday when they would come back and do it all over again? Do you think it was ever part of his plan that most of us would be spectators, rather than participants, in God’s mission to love, and save, and redeem all of creation? I don’t think that it was. And I don’t think that when Jesus said to his followers, “Go, make disciples of every nation,” he was only talking to people who had the gift of evangelism, because I don’t think he meant primarily that they should go out and try to convert people to Christianity. This is the problem with the Bible; you have to read it carefully. You have to look at each word. When Jesus asks his followers to make disciples he uses a word that means “learners,” or, as I suggested last week, “apprentices.” And the way you make an apprentice is almost completely different than the way you make a convert.
Look at the way Jesus did it.
In the fourth chapter of Matthew Jesus is walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee when he sees Peter and his brother Andrew casting their nets, hoping to catch some fish. And he says, “Come with me and I will teach you to fish for people.” And—just like that—they dropped their nets and followed. A little later he saw James and John in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. And he called them and they followed. In chapter nine he sees a man called Matthew sitting at his tax booth and says, “Follow me,” and again—just like that—he got up and followed. As I often tell people Jesus didn’t begin by asking his disciples to believe that he was the one and only Son of God; he didn’t ask them to say the sinner’s prayer; he simply asked them to follow, and as they did they began to see more and more clearly who he was and what he was up to. They listened to his preaching and teaching. They watched him help and heal. They heard his parables of the Kingdom. It’s only in the middle of the Gospel that he asks, “Now, who do you say that I am?” and Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
So, I wonder: what would happen if Warren and Julie Pierce, who have been helping refugees get resettled here in Richmond, were trying to move a couch into an empty apartment and somebody was just standing there watching? (let’s call him Lester). What if they said, “Hey, could you give us a hand?” and he did. And then what if he asked them why they were doing what they were doing and they said, “Well, these people are coming to this country from refugee camps in Nepal, and they don’t know anybody, they don’t speak the language, I mean, can you imagine? And so we thought this was the kind of thing Jesus would do: help them get settled in a new place. You know how he said, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?’ Well, this is it. This is what we would want someone to do for us if we had to start a new life in Nepal.” And Lester hears all that and gets it, and even though he doesn’t have much use for Jesus—at least, not yet—he thinks maybe he’d like to help. He remembers how it was when he was just starting out.
And so for the next few months Lester helps Warren and Julie with refugee resettlement. He gets good at it. He learns how to pick up donations of furniture and household items and store them until they’re needed. He learns how to set up an apartment so that it’s ready for a new family to move in. He even learns how to give driving lessons to people who don’t speak English very well and it scares him to death. But he also learns something else from Warren and Julie: he learns how to share the love of Christ with people who desperately need it, and at some point he realizes he’s one of those people. And the next time they invite him to come to church he does, and the sermon sounds like it’s just for him, and when the invitation is given, he comes down the aisle saying he’d like to follow Jesus, and get baptized, and belong to a church like this one, where the love of God is not just something people talk about, but something they put into action every day.
Do you see how that changes things? Warren and Julie might never have gotten up the nerve to ask Lester if he’d been saved, but they could certainly ask him to pick up one end of a couch. It’s a different way of making disciples than the one we usually think of, but it’s almost exactly the way Jesus did it. He asked some fishermen to come help him do the work of the Kingdom. He picked up one end of that “couch” and asked them to pick up the other. It was a huge job. He needed help. But after they had spent some time with him they began to understand and appreciate what he was up to. When they said, “Teach us to pray,” he told them to pray that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven. And when he sent them out on their own a little later he sent them to do the work of the Kingdom—to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons—and every time they did it to remind people that the Kingdom was near and getting nearer. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “Now, go, and make apprentices who can help you with this work. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and then teach them everything I’ve taught you. Teach them, that is, how to do the work of the Kingdom.”
That’s the kind of thing Warren and Julie might teach Lester. They might simply invite him to join them in the work they were doing, to become their apprentice, until he got good at it. And then he could teach other people to do it, and when they asked him why he did it at all he might say, “Because this is the sort of thing I think Jesus would do; it’s a way to bring heaven to earth.” It is a way, and those refugees would certainly say so, but it’s not the only way, is it? There must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth. There are people in this church who are cooking meals for the homeless, others who are tutoring children at the local elementary schools. There are some who are visiting our homebound members and praying with them, others who are wondering how they can help prevent teenage pregnancy. There are some who are singing in the church choir, others who are teaching Sunday school, and others who are trying to stop human trafficking. And yes, there are some like my brother Ed who have the gift of evangelism, who are really good at telling people about Jesus. As I said there must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth, and perhaps the most important question I can ask today is: What is your way? How do you put God’s love into action?
I’ve included a quote from Frederick Buechner on the front of today’s bulletin, one that says, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I love that quote, and refer to it often when I’m talking to young people about what they might do with their lives. Sometimes I say, “Go ahead and tape two big pieces of butcher paper to your wall. On one write down all the things that give you joy, whatever they are. On the other write down the things the world is truly hungry for. It’s like Buechner says: maybe you’re a creative type who would find “deep gladness” in writing advertising copy, but if what you’re advertising is cigarettes, well, that’s not one of the world’s deep hungers. But if what the world is hungry for is someone who is willing to work in a leper colony, and you try it and hate it, well, then that’s not where your deep gladness comes from. But when you can find that perfect match between the thing that gives you the greatest joy and for which the world has the greatest need? Well, that’s a match made in heaven.
Let me remind you that on September 9, just two weeks from today, the whole church is going to go on a year-long mission trip called KOH2RVA. I’ve asked you to picture it like one of those vanity license plates. It stands for “Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. We’re going to gather in this room at 11:00 on that Sunday morning as if we were getting onto a big bus with that license plate on the back, and when worship is over the doors are going to swing open and we’re going to step off the bus onto the mission field. And don’t worry: even if you can’t join us on that day you can join us on that trip, even if you’re in a hospital or a nursing home. But here’s the question: what will you do? How will you bring heaven to earth? Maybe in the next two weeks you could look for the answer to that question. Maybe you could put two big strips of butcher paper up on your wall and ask, “What gives me the greatest joy? And what is the world’s greatest need?” And then maybe you could look for a connection between one list and the other, for that place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. If you find that connection then on September 9 I won’t have to ask you to get off the bus, and roll up your sleeves, and go to work. I will only have to say, “Please, please!
“Could you wait till the service is over?”
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.