A sermon preached on September 19th, 2010 and based upon 2Corinthians 5:16-20.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view;* even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,* we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
Garret’s mother Ruth sent me a little story by email entitled *Picking the Right Church,” and perhaps I should have read this to those of you before you signed on the dotted line this morning. Anyway, better late than never.
One Sunday morning, an old cowboy entered a church just before services were to begin. He wore old jeans and a denim shirt, stained from long hours of work, ragged and worn boots and hat.
The church he entered was in a very upscale and exclusive part of the city. It was the largest and most beautiful church the old cowboy had ever seen. The people of the congregation were all dressed with expensive clothes and fine jewelry. As the cowboy took a seat, the others moved away from him. No one greeted, spoke to, or welcomed him. They were all appalled by his appearance and did not attempt to hide it.
As the old cowboy was leaving the church, the preacher approached him and asked the cowboy to do him a favor. “Before you come back in here again, have a talk with God and ask him what he thinks would be appropriate attire for worship in church.” The old cowboy assured the preacher he would.
The next Sunday, he showed back up for the services wearing the same ragged jeans, shirt, boots, and hat. Once again he was completely shunned and ignored.
The preacher approached the cowboy and said, “I thought I asked you to speak to God before you came back to our church.”
“I did,” replied the old cowboy.
“And what was his reply?” asked the preacher.
“Well, sir, God told me that he didn’t have any clue what I should wear insofar as He’d never actually been in this church.”
Of course, God is everywhere, but the issue before us is whether God is actively present in particular church; and so the question before us this morning is, how do we tell if a particular group of people are allowing God to have God’s way with them?
Paul gives us some clues this morning. He talks about there being two distinctly different ways of viewing people. One he refers to as the human point of view by which you size somebody up by outward things like the clothes they wear, and the various labels by which society categorizes people and bestows value.
Paul said that this was the way he himself used to view Jesus, seeing him as a heretical preacher who hung out with all the wrong people – the losers and the misfits, and ended up the poster boy for failure when he got nailed to a cross.
But then, through the amazing grace of God, Paul had his heart warmed, and he saw Jesus as the savior come to bring us all safely home.
“From now on,” writes Paul, “we regard no one from a human point of view…”
This past week I went to a monthly gathering of Methodist pastors from this part of the state that was held in the sanctuary of the Butler United Methodist Church. We listened to a speaker from the General Conference and I think he may have said some good things but what I will remember from that day is what happened when I went into the fellowship hall for lunch. Being by nature rather shy and at times like something of a misfit myself, I was feeling a little awkward about where and with whom I would sit when suddenly I heard my name called loudly and happily, “Jeff!” “Jeff!” I turned and there was Mark Gibson, beaming from ear to ear.
Now some of you may not know Mark – he was a member of our church who was here in worship every Sunday until he moved two years ago to live in a group home in Butler. Mark is what is referred to from a human point of view as “mentally retarded,” and he is a young black man, but when I look at Mark through the eyes of God I see neither his IQ or his race; I see a blazing saint of the Lord. There he was, in Christ-like fashion, helping out in the kitchen, serving up lunch to all the ordained ministered crowded into that place, and making me feel loved and welcomed.
When I met last week with those of you who professed your faith this morning, I told you that one of my favorite Gospel stories –and one that gives me a guiding image of what the church is about is the one in which Jesus was is described as having been his own house in the town of Capernaum. All these people have come crowding into the place to hear him teach, and when four friends try to carry their paralyzed friend to Jesus on a stretcher they can’t get in the door. So they lift him up onto the roof, tear a hole in Jesus’ house, and lower their friend down directly to where Jesus is teaching.
Rather than be upset about the hole they were making in his roof, Jesus seems pleased, because, as we know, there’s “always room in Jesus’ circle,” and he says straight out to the man, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”
Now if we pause here to ask the basic question, “Who is in Jesus’ church?” an answer we might come up with is, well, the church is made up of the people you find in Jesus’ house. But as the story proceeds to reveal, the people in Jesus’ house aren’t always on his side.
In Jesus’ house that day there were some people who might be referred to as “pillars of the church” – real religious folk who think they know their Bible inside and out – who are highly critical of what Jesus is declaring. They begin to bitch and moan.
They see things through the “human point of view.” They see this paralyzed man and they see a sinner who has failed to do what he’s supposed to do. They see the hole in the roof and all they see is the mess the man’s friends made. And they see Jesus and all they see is someone blaspheming God, audaciously declaring that God has forgiven this man his sins.
Now, at the core of the “human point of view” is the belief that we “earn” our place before God. For the teachers of the law sitting in Jesus’ house that day, there was a complex protocol by which one earned the right to be in God’s presence, involving following the great list of laws, and when you failed, going to the Temple way off in Jerusalem to make the sacrifices necessary to earn your way back into God’s good graces.
In their eyes they have earned the right to be in God’s presence by all their hard work; this paralyzed man hasn’t.
You know what happened next. Jesus, aware of all their bitching and moaning says to them, “Let me show you that I have the authority to forgive sins.” At which point he turns to the man lying there on his stretcher and says, “Take up your stretcher and walk!” which is exactly what he does.
There is an insight here about human nature, and that is that the physical and the spiritual dimensions of life are all tied up together – it’s all connected. And if in the deepest regions of our heart we feel unworthy of life, unlovable, then it will likely show itself in our body. And Jesus discerns that this man’s deepest need is in the spiritual dimension – that his spirit is beaten down and deep in his bones he doesn’t believe he has any right or reason to be alive, and so his body is simply carrying out the sentence.
But Jesus came to deliver good news, wonderful news. He said in essence that we have it wrong with the human point of view. Here’s how Paul put it: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them.”
You can’t earn your way into God’s presence. That’s impossible. But thanks be to God that in Jesus God has opened the door and said come on in! You’re welcome here. We’ve got this great party going on and we want you to be a part of it!
And Paul sums up what we are all about as the Church of Jesus Christ: We are simply ambassadors for Christ, announcing the good news that all are forgiven and all are welcome.
Now the difficulty is that this misunderstanding about earning our place into God’s grace didn’t get corrected once and for all that day back in Capernaum. For the past two thousand years, Jesus’ house has often been inhabited by people who are criticizing what Jesus is doing. And hearing these people bitch and moan, folks inside and outside the church get real confused about what Jesus is about.
Clarence Jordan was a pastor back in the fifties who led a church in Georgia that was well ahead of its time in so far as it consisted of black and white folks at a time where the world kept the races shaped. He tells a story of being invited to preach at a revival meeting at a church out in the boonies. When he got there, he was amazed to find the church packed with black and white people all mixed together. After the revival meeting he asked the hillbilly preacher whose church it was how this came to be.
“How’d what come to be?”
“How’d you get where you got black and white folk together, and so many?”
“Oh,” he said. “We had a preacher and the preacher he died. So we didn’t have nobody to preach. So, I said, ‘I’ll preach.’ And since the deacons, they didn’t have nobody else to preach, they had to let me. So I got up there on my first Sunday and I opened up my Bible to where brother Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female, there is neither slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28-29) And so I preached that word of the Lord.
“Afterwards, the deacons, they took me into the back room and they said to me, ‘We don’t ever want to hear that kind of preachin again.”
“So, what’s you do?” asked Clarence.
“I fired them deacons! If the deacons ain’t going to deac, then fire them deacons.”
And that’s what he did. He said he preached that church down to a handful of people, at which point, with room for God to move, the church began to grow and grow and grow.
If you visit a church, and everybody inside that church pretty much looks and acts and thinks the same, well, you can be pretty sure that this particular congregation isn’t letting Jesus do his thing. The gathering of people isn’t the body of Christ but some form of club based upon the human way of seeing things.
So I want to say again: you don’t earn your place in God’s presence. The one thing I want to say to those of you who have joined yourself to our fellowship this morning is let yourself be loved. That can be pretty hard for many of us. But the good news of Jesus is about a love that God is offered freely to us, and the trick is letting this love in. Let God wrapped God’s arms around you in a tender embrace. And let yourselves be loved by the folks of this church who are Christ’s ambassadors.
There are some very loving people here. This doesn’t mean they’re perfect; hardly. But the folks I’m talking about here are people who have traveled a distance in this life and have become acquainted with their own frailty, and ini doing so have learned how to be loving on others in their frailty. Let yourselves be loved by them.
If someone were to ask me for advice regarding how to find a church in a particular community, I want encourage to visit the congregations and see whether it feels like Jesus is allowed to do his thing there. These days, I don’t think denominational labels mean all that much, which might be a heretical thing for me to say. Check out the United Methodist Church near by, but there is no guarantee that it would be any more open to Jesus than other congregations.
What we Methodists have is a good story; from which, at our best, we find inspiration. The story is of a young Anglican priest in England in the 18th century named John Wesley who was consumed with trying to lead a perfect Christian life. In his early thirties he went to the colony of Georgia to serve as the chaplain, and in the course of two years his determination to be perfect led him instead into an intimate encounter with his own sin and frailty, and he made a royal mess of tings. He returned to England a broken and humbled man, where, at a prayer meeting he went to “unwillingly” one evening he described himself as having his “heart strangely warmed”, suddenly getting it about the fact that he had been forgiven and welcomed into God’s presence because Jesus had done all the heavy lifting.
Soon after that, John Wesley accepted an invitation to go to the highways and byways to share the Gospel with the poor people who were being crushed by the wheels of the Industrial Revolution — folks who didn’t go to church, because the churches belonged to the the wealthier, well-scrubbed people.
Preaching about something he had first hand experience of, Wesley led thousands of people into a new birth in Christ, where the old no longer defined them, but rather the new creation of God’s grace. Wesley organized these new born children of God into small groups where they could be nurtured in their Christian walk, and the entire society was transformed.
Wesley believed that God wanted everybody to step into the circle of Jesus’ love. No one was to be excluded. It doesn’t much matter whether a particular congregation calls itself “Methodist” just as long as the people in that congregation don’t stand in the way of what Jesus is trying to do.