Before I begin, I need to give a bit of background. One of the biggest needs that I see today in Christianity is for people outside the church to see people with reality with God. Even as I speak those words, I recognize that I hear that phrase, "reality with God," a fair bit, and it doesn’t always mean more than just mere words. For this reason, I want to explain what I mean. There are two groups of people inside the church as a whole. There are the model Christians, who have come to know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, and they pray about everything they do, and they serve others in church and outside the church, they read God's Word the Bible on a regular basis, and they are always longing for fellowship with those who are of like precious faith. Then there is the second group - and by their nature they are harder to identify. They do many of the same things, use the same terminology - but they have to doctrinize and formalize and rationalize and legalize everything, usually to the detriment of any influence that God has in the church, His body. These impose man-made structure on something that is meant to be more organic than they might like it. Of old, they were called Pharisees, the religious power players of the day. Sometimes we as believers can fall on both sides of that fence - I certainly can and do with great aplomb. Personally, I think it is part of our fallen nature and the reason we need Jesus in the first place. Let me give an example of what I mean.
Has anyone ever heard of Westboro Baptist Church? Not Westboro here in Ottawa, the one in Topeka, Kansas. This gathering is famous, or perhaps I should say infamous, for their gay-bashing, funeral picketing, anti-semitism, and generally not-nice views. No one has any problem figuring out what they are against. I certainly don't agree with a thing they have taken a public stand over, and I doubt anyone here does either. But they really illustrate my point - do you realize that many people lump all Christians into that group? The world at large thinks they know what we as “religious” or “fundamentalist” Christians are against - but no one knows, or perhaps even cares because of people like this, what it is we are FOR! A number of you may think - oh, but they're Americans - but that has nothing to do with it. I have heard Christians here in Canada repeat some of the really outrageous garbage that these folks believe and give mental assent to it at the same time. How can we as a congregation avoid being seen as these kinds of people?
We must be those who show Jesus, the friend of sinners, to the world around us. The Apostle Paul said it like this: It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. (1 Timothy 1:15 NASB) We all have stories of the Lord finding us in the depths of our despair and lifting us out of our sorry state, setting us on a path to follow Him. Sometimes that happens when you become a Christian. Sometimes it happens AS a Christian, but the Lord has lifted us from our despair and made a real difference in our lives. That is the message that the world needs to hear through us. This is what I mean when I say reality with God. Francis of Assisi had a wonderful way of saying this: "Share the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words." That is the inspiration, if you will, behind my topic today - Jesus, Friend of Sinners - Our Example for Life.
I have three main thoughts I will give you by way of an outline.
1) Jesus - our example
2) Jesus - our choice (willing or unwilling)
3) Jesus - friend of sinners
First, let us look at Jesus and the example he left for us to follow. Phil. 2:5 begins with the phrase "have this attitude in yourselves." See? He is our example in deed, certainly, but also in our motives and attitudes. Verse 6 talks about how although He knew He was God, he didn't feel like he had to take advantage of that status, or that it somehow made him better than the rest of us. Instead, in verse 7, it says that he emptied himself. He instead took the form of a willing slave - the servant of all - and allowed Himself to undergo the greatest humiliation possible - Roman execution on a cross. Some example, don't you think? Contrast this in your minds with the alternative attitude. Equality with God? Oh, You bet - let me at it. I'm better than you, I know more than you, and I deserve to be in charge of you and everything to do with you, and boy you had better watch it if you step out of line - I'll be the one doing the crucifying! And I won't stop until you're gone! Now I ask you humbly and honestly - what kind of attitude is that? I don't know either, but it certainly wasn't the one Jesus had. More often than not, though, it is the one I begin to recognize in myself. Normally, that would depress me - but that is the very reason that Jesus came - to transform you and I, by the renewing of our minds, to make us to be in character like Jesus. Does that happen automatically? No - it is a choice - an act of the will.
That brings me to the second main thought I would like to share. Following Jesus, being His disciple, having your mind renewed in that transformative way spoken of by Paul in his letter to the Romans, being changed into the image of Jesus so that we can be the representatives of God Himself in any situation He brings our way - all of that is a choice. And as with all choices, I would be remiss in my duty if I did not inform you of the consequences of the choice. Philippians 2:10 says that at the name of Jesus, EVERY KNEE WILL BOW. Those in heaven, those on earth, those under the earth - every knee will bow. Verse 11 tells us that every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. It WILL happen. My only question isn't even when, but HOW it will happen in my own life. Will I willingly take my knee and exclaim to the universe that owe Him everything I am and everything I have? Or will I be forced down to my knees and spit out those words through clenched teeth? Sobering thought, isn't it? The good news is that we are able to choose to willingly bend that knee and speak the words as praise rather than the alternative. Verse 13 tells us that God is even working this out in us because He wants this for us, and it pleases Him to do it.
Here is the point. We are quick to tell people that God loves them and that Jesus died to prove it. And it is good that we do. However, our lives must also reflect what we say. If our life does not reflect what we say we believe, then we are hypocrites. I know I too often fit into that category myself. Think of that passage in 1 Corinthians 13 on love we all like. You know, love is patient, love is kind, all that. Really I think I contradict that passage more than you may know or I would like to admit. I am not patient, I am not kind, I do not always love the truth or want the best for people, especially those that cross my will. And if I don't get my way, I will try to gain converts to my point of view. Or I will try to engineer circumstances so I can end up on top. Or I rail against my perceived adversary. And if all else fails, like a child on a playground that doesn’t like what his peers have told him, I will take my ball and go home and withdraw from the people around me. And I ask you - humbly and seriously again - where is the grace in all that? I'll share a personal example. I was leading a discussion group, and a person in that group attempted to "hijack" the discussion in a direction I didn't want to go. I rebuffed the individual, and they became argumentative. I was a split second away from literally spitting out a retort at them - when something very strange and very odd happened. God spoke to my heart. He actually asked me a question in that still, small voice we read about. "What would My Son do here?" I knew the answer - he would be gracious and extend that grace as He has done countess times to ME. "That is how I want you to be, Gerry. Bring GRACE here. Be MY servant. Be like MY Son. Blessed are the peacemakers - for THEY shall be called the mature children of God. LOVE them like My Son did. Lay down your thing. Let them continue." Friends, that AFFECTED me. You can ask my wife. I was more quiet, more introspective. God really spoke to my heart and showed me the way Jesus is. And folks, that should be what we try to share with people.
After all, we have a problem - we are separated naturally from God by our wrong thoughts, our wrong words, and our wrong deeds. That separation isn't something God wants, it is something our forefathers chose for us and we inherited, and we are unable to pay the repair bill, so to speak. The consequences of that choice spill over into every area of life. Death, disease, poverty, inequality, injustice, unfairness - and worries, doubts, and fears in case I missed anything else - and every other wrong imaginable came into the world because of humankind's choice to be in charge instead of God. These are the very things that Jesus died to fix for us because we were unable to do so. He came to bring us peace in our hearts and joy in our lives regardless of our circumstance. He came to heal us all. Now - who could turn away from that kind of message?
That is the good news I have found here, and share it with anyone else who realizes that they are there with me. The reason Jesus came and died was so that we could choose change! We can choose hope! We can choose life. And then we can share it in a real way with others that may need it. But what does that mean for our Christian behaviour? It is worth considering.
My last main thought is how we may emulate Jesus, Friend of Sinners, and how we can learn to be followers of him. In fact, the Greek word for "disciple" is "mathaytes" and literally means "learner" or we would say "pupil" or “student.” We learn Him by knowing how he treated people, and we treat people the same way. We must learn what he said. We must learn how he behaved. We must learn his values. We must be disciplined (a form of the word disciple) about it. And then we must go and reflect that to the world we find around us, in relevant, practical ways. Otherwise what good is our Christianity? If it makes no difference for us or for those around us, then it has "lost its salt," as the scriptures say, and is good for nothing. So I have some thoughts on that exercise I want to share with you in brief this morning. Let me read a passage to you from the book of Acts.
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
(Acts 2:41-47 NASB)
These practices are those of the very first group of the pupils of Jesus. I want to focus in on verse 42 particularly here. The first thing is says is that "they were continually devoting themselves." This takes discipline to learn Jesus. You know, every time I read this verse, it convicts me terribly, because my commitment to these things waxes and wanes with my moods at times. I think that might be why there was a need to continually devote yourself to this - we are human, and I don't know about you, but I have a limited attention span for most things. When I realize that my attention has wandered, I devote myself again to these pursuits. I do this, well, continually!
Then it talks about four things that I quickly want to go through and define a little bit. First, it talks about "the Apostles' Teaching." Let me ask - have you read the Bible on your own? This is a Baptist church - and it is our doctrinal position that the Bible is the very Word of God. We should be learning what it says - and what that means in practical terms for us as we go through our lives day to day. Jesus, in John 1, is identified as the Word of God. So to be like Him, we must learn the book!
Second, it talks about "Fellowship." Fellowship in Greek here is the word Koinonia, meaning social discourse, partnership, communication, or communion. It speaks of how we relate to God - He wants us to be His partners, His companions, and then to share that with each other, then the world around us.
Third, it talks about "the breaking of bread," a specific ordinance of worship. In that sharing of the great symbols of the work that Jesus did on our behalf, we give praise and honour to God Himself and are a witness that we have participated in His great work at Calvary nearly 2000 years ago and continue to do so. Is this not the point of all worship? We give glory to God in what we say, what we sing, what we do.
Finally, it says "Prayer." A great deal could be said about prayer, but suffice it to say it is how God involves US in His work here on Earth. He promises that wherever two or three of His people gather in His name, He is right there in their midst. And He promises that if they will ask things according to His will, He will do, grant, or perform those things. I once heard it phrased this way - God isn't looking for political activists, He wants spiritual activists. This is how we become involved in the world around us.
Now I have to say something about all this. When you think about this, you can do all this without ever setting foot into a church building. In fact, there are some people that don't think they need to "go to church." But what does this text say? "THEY continually devoted themselves." "All those that believed were together." It is very clear that there is a collective aspect to this that must be practiced. Some of you have heard me say this before - going to church makes you a Christian about as much as going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger - yet, it is essential for a lot of reasons for us to fellowship with each other. We cannot come to maturity in Christ alone. And there is a very specific reason for us to practice these activities, and I want to mention it here.
Certainly God wants to bring us to maturity in our faith, but there is a larger concern in this. My focus thus far has been on our behaviour, our activity, and our maturity. I believe that God has a purpose in all this, and that purpose is found in Matthew 28:19-20. "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20 NASB)
We as a church, a local representation of the body of Christ, can become focused on what we want and need, and forget that we are commissioned to go out and share Jesus with the rest of the world. Not by just speaking words or "going to church," and not by political activism. Not by picketing funerals or spreading hate. Jesus only spoke strong words to people on specific occasions, and do you know who he spoke those words to? It was the religious people that often ignorantly hindered God's work and people with their legalism and religious pride and arrogance.
For the rest of the people He met, He was caring, tender, attentive, loving, kind, patient, and laying down His own life before He ever went to the cross for all of us. He calls us to follow Him, to be His pupils, His disciples. Because that is true, let us lay down our thing. Let us lay down our lives. Let us love the world like He did. Instead of putting ourselves and what we want first, remaining turned inward, let us reach out to a needy world around us in love, like He reached out for us when we were in need. It is the very least we can do.
Let us pray - Heavenly Father, we thank you for Jesus, who came to show us how to live, and how to love others in Your name. Help us to be those that lay down our lives as He laid down His life for us, and help us to love those around us like He did. Help us to make a difference in this world in grateful thanks for how Jesus made a difference in our own lives, for we pray in His name. Amen.
"You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
-John 8:32 (NASB)